Determined to Spin

Susan Watkins

  • The Clear Stream: A Life of Winifred Holtby by Marion Shaw
    Virago, 335 pp, £18.99, August 1999, ISBN 1 86049 537 0

‘How I envied Winifred Holtby,’ wrote the novelist Phyllis Bentley. ‘Tall and fair and handsome ... that lovely speaking voice, that precision of English, that flat in London, that post on Time and Tide, those interesting wellcut clothes, that Oxford degree.’ And, she might have added, those six vivid, heartfelt novels, the last, South Riding (1936), achieving the status of a minor classic of the critical portrait-of-England genre. And that flatmate, pretty, political Vera Brittain. And that busy, unconventional household: the two women – radical liberals, feminists – writing, talking and organising as they brought up Vera’s two children; the sensitive American academic (the children’s father) arriving to stay for half the year, bringing news of political science circles in the USA.

And that glowing biography, Testament of Friendship, Vera’s tribute, published five years after Winifred’s death at the age of 37 and, like Brittain’s earlier volume of memoirs, Testament of Youth, never since out of print. And then in the 1970s, that celebration by the women’s movement of this shining example of sisterhood and of the struggles of our great foremothers (inspired, perhaps, by the cadences of Brittain’s prose: ‘From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women have ... been unsung’); and that triumphant reissue in the 1980s of all Holtby’s works as Virago Modern Classics. And now this biography, sharp, sensitive and shrewd, and in many respects a revisionist account aiming to free Holtby from Brittain’s embrace.

They met at Somerville in 1919. Holtby was a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter, born in 1898 and brought up among the broad hills and cold winds and chillingly conservative social relationships that form the setting for most of her novels. (As a child, she had thought marigolds vulgar, cornflowers refined: the local gentlefolk had sported blue cornflowers at the prewar elections, while the vulgar radicals were decked in orange marigolds.) Her mother, Alice Holtby, was large and loud, a powerful figure in the local community, first as a domineering farmer’s wife and then as an effective, pragmatic Conservative on the East Riding County Council (she is the model for Alderman Mrs Beddows in South Riding, whose subordinates dub her ‘Deputy God’). It was Alice who urged Winifred to write, Alice who encouraged her to sit the entrance exam for Oxford – after the ‘proper education’ that Alice had insisted on at a boarding school in Scarborough where Winifred was constantly ill, first with mumps and infected glands and then with the scarlet fever whose spores, lingering on in her blood, would return as the Bright’s Disease that killed her.

She had an engagingly uneven face, one eye bold, the other canny; a strong jaw, a sensitive mouth. She was full of esprit de corps, eager, clumsy, outgoing, with the energy of a natural leader, but never quite head girl material: she was too much given to peculiar statements and to asking odd questions. She was 16 when the First World War began. In 1916 she deferred her place at Somerville for a year to work in a London nursing home; then, after an anguished year at Oxford, she volunteered for the WAACs and was posted to a signals unit in Normandy.

She was still there when the wave of militancy among agricultural workers erupted into a harvest-time strike at Rudston Farm. David Holtby could afford the wage increases: it was the Saturday half-day that he couldn’t stomach. Baffled and defeated, he threw in his hand and sold the farm. Winifred came back from the war to find her parents living in wealthy suburban Cottingham, on the outskirts of Hull: a new landscape of clipped hedges, bridge parties and tea, and that ‘ugly, square bedroom overcrowded with mahogany furniture’ described in South Riding (‘solid comfort’, Mrs Beddows said). It was a world in which, as Muriel discovers in Holtby’s second novel, The Crowded Street, the only possible life for a woman was marriage, and if you wanted something different, you had to get out.

In October 1919, she went back to Somerville to finish her degree, taking part in everything, drama and journalism and the college debating society; and struggling through history tutorials with her supercilious tutorial partner, Vera Brittain, who seemed to take a malicious pleasure in watching Holtby stumble through overlong, half-digested essays.

Brittain, too, had abandoned a place at Somerville to spend the war years nursing ‘men without faces, without limbs, men almost disembowelled’, as she described them in Testament of Youth, in wards with ice-covered windows and frozen taps. Her charismatic fiancé (whose passion for Olive Schreiner had helped kindle Vera’s schoolgirl feminism) was killed at the front in 1916; his two best friends, her main support after his death, were killed within months of each other in 1917; finally her unheroic, musical, stubborn little brother, Edward, was shot in the hills above Vicenza in June 1918.

Brittain also returned to Oxford in 1919, ‘a ghost too dazed to feel the full fury of her own resentment’ as she put it. She found herself plagued by the illusion of a witch’s beard sprouting on her chin, ‘an obscene, overshadowing fungus’; there were five mirrors in her new lodgings in Bevington Road and she entered the room in terror every night at the sight of five witches’ faces glaring back at her.

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