Partner Vera Brittain
University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA, UK
58 Doughty St, Holborn, London WC1N 2JT, UK
6 Nevern Pl, Kensington, London SW5 9PR, UK
19 Glebe Pl, Chelsea, London SW3 5LD, UK
All Saints Churchyard Rudston, East Riding of Yorkshire Unitary Authority, East Riding of Yorkshire, England
Winifred Holtby (23 June 1898 – 29 September 1935) was an English novelist and journalist, now best known for her novel South Riding, which was posthumously published in 1936. Returning to Oxford after the war to read history, Vera Brittain found it difficult to adjust to life in postwar England. She met Winifred Holtby, and a close friendship developed, both aspiring to become established on the London literary scene. The bond lasted until Holtby's death from kidney failure in 1935. Writing in 1940 about her friendship with Winifred Holtby, in Testament of Friendship Vera Brittain explicitly denied that their relationship was lesbian, the necessity of which would not have occured to an author writing twently years earlier, before The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall was published. Holtby had also a close relationship with Margaret Haig Thomas, 2nd Viscountess Rhondda.
Cicely Hamilton and Edith Watson were Nina Boyle’s close friends. Cicely Hamilton, Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain were at one stage neighbours of Nina Boyle. Margaret Haig, who later became Lady Rhondda, also knew Nina Boyle and became a Patron of the Nina Boyle Memorial Fund. Margaret Haig was also a very important friend of Cicely Hamilton, so much so that “she recorded her gratitude for it in her will”. According to Cicely Hamilton’s biographer, Liz Whitelaw, Margaret Haig lived for many years with Theodora Bosanquet, Henry James’ secretary, and the destruction of her personal papers on her death was to disguise that relationship.
Somerville students in 1917. Hotby, seated, far right.
Holtby was born to a prosperous farming family in the village of Rudston, Yorkshire. Her father was David Holtby and her mother, Alice, was afterwards the first alderwoman on the East Riding County Council. Winifred’s family had always half-expected her to marry her childhood friend Harry Pearson. Harry had written poetry to her, and they shared a love of their Yorkshire roots. Educated, good-looking and patriotic, typical of the public-school officer class, he survived the war and emerged wounded. But then he did nothing. The promising writer who had won the school prize for English verse quit his Cambridge place and started on a lifelong career as a drifter, aimlessly travelling, always short of money, a disaffected loner and vagabond. When he turned up, which he did from time to time, Winifred would sympathise and try to help him, but her vigorous self-sufficiency crushed Harry’s fragile pride. The relationship was on-off; at one point, to her anguish, he got engaged to a pretty pianist, but it was short-lived. Later he and Winifred may have had a brief sexual relationship. She struggled to be non-possessive, but there were days when she was powerless against his old charm and physical presence. ‘I love every tone of his voice, every movement of his hands. And I wouldn’t not love him for anything,’ she wrote to Vera. Though she knew it would never work – she described him to another friend as ‘my-young-man-who-will-never-be-more-than-my-young-man’ – he was the only man who ever held any attraction for her. But Harry was not to be had. The poetry he had written to her back in 1916 withered, and after the war he was never there for her again. Vera Brittain described Harry Pearson as ‘a war casualty of the spirit’.
Holtby was educated at home by a governess and then at Queen Margaret's School in Scarborough. Although she passed the entrance exam for Somerville College, Oxford in 1917, she chose to join the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in early 1918 but soon after she arrived in France, the First World War came to an end and she returned home.
In 1919, she returned to study at the University of Oxford where she met Vera Brittain, a fellow student and later the author of Testament of Youth, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship. Other literary contemporaries at Somerville College included Hilda Reid, Margaret Kennedy and Sylvia Thompson. After graduating from Oxford, in 1921, Winifred and Vera moved to London, hoping to establish themselves as writers (the blue plaque at No. 82 Doughty Street refers).
Eleanor Rathbone, Nina Boyle, Marian Reeves, Elsa Gye, Winifred Holtby, Alison Neilans, Edith Craig, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were among the feminists who shared membership in the Myra Sadd Brown Memorial Library, which suggests that these women held similar intellectual, political and literary interests.
Holtby was, together with Brittain, an ardent feminist, socialist and pacifist. She lectured extensively for the League of Nations Union and was a member of the feminist Six Point Group. She was active in the Independent Labour Party and was a staunch campaigner for the unionisation of black workers in South Africa, during which she had considerable contact with Leonard Woolf.
In The Crowded Street (1924), her heroine, Muriel Hammond, grows up in the oppressive small town of Marshington where ‘the only thing that mattered was marriage…’ Muriel’s long lonely path in coming to terms with singleness must have mirrored her author’s own dark nights of the soul, when dread of the twilight state of aunthood could bring her to the brink of despair: ‘Nobody wants me – I’m like Aunt Beatrice, living in fear of an unloved old age. I must have some reason for living. I must, I must. I can’t bear to live without. I just can’t bear it. Oh, what am I going to do with myself?’
One evening in the mid 1920s, when she was about twenty-seven years old, Winifred Holtby took a family friend to the theatre. This lady was middle-aged, and worked as the matron of a celebrated boys’ public school. As Winifred described her: I doubt if there is among my whole acquaintance a more admirable and respectable person or one whose looks inspire more confidence in her tact, wisdom, moderation and morality. Her face, her bearing, even her hats emphasize the strong sense of responsibility towards the young which has developed during her life’s work. She has also, mercifully, a sense of humour, a knowledge of human nature, and many other pleasant qualities. The play was a long one. When they reached the station Winifred and her friend found that they had missed their train, which left them with an hour to wait until the next one, at midnight. It was cold and rainy, the ladies’ waiting-room fire had gone out, and the café had closed. Fortunately, Winifred recalled that the Station Hotel, right opposite the platform, had a comfortable lounge where they would be able to spend an hour in the warmth with a cup of tea. She had often been there and the staff knew her by sight. It would be a relief to have a hot drink sitting in their deep sofas on such a miserable night. They went in. Winifred beckoned the waiter and ordered. In return she got a puzzled look; embarrassed, he shuffled off and brought back with him the manager, who now made cautious enquiries. ‘I’m sorry – but are you residents?’ No, Winifred explained, they were waiting for their train. ‘I’m sorry,’ he responded, ‘I’m afraid you can’t stop here. We can’t serve you. You must go.’ Protest was in vain. It turned out that there were quite unequivocal rules: ‘Ladies not admitted unless accompanied by a Gentleman’. These rules had been made to safeguard public morality. Winifred and her respectable friend were females, they were not residents, and they were entering the hotel without a man after a certain hour. So they must go out. And out we went. We walked up and down the bleak, chill, draughty platform until our train arrived – twenty minutes late. Next day my companion was in bed with a bad cold and acute rheumatism… Later, Winifred was furious with herself for not marching straight on to the platform and borrowing the first friendly porter she could find to play his part, but at least she had made her point in print. The assumption that she and her nice middle-aged friend in her matronly hat, entering a café unaccompanied after ten o’clock, were prostitutes was, in the circumstances, laughable. But it was insulting and damaging too.
In a 1926 article, Holtby wrote:
Personally, I am a feminist … because I dislike everything that feminism implies. … I want to be about the work in which my real interests lie … But while … injustice is done and opportunity denied to the great majority of women, I shall have to be a feminist.
After Brittain's marriage in 1925 to George Catlin, Holtby shared her friend's homes in Nevern Place and subsequently at 19 Glebe Place, Chelsea; Catlin resented the arrangement and his wife's close friendship with Holtby, who nevertheless became an adoptive aunt to Brittain's two children, John and Shirley (Baroness Shirley Williams).
Poor Caroline (1931), by Winifred Holtby, is a relentlessly uncomforting novel, its heroine a preposterous figure. It seems likely that in her portrayal of this sad spinster, Holtby was bravely and unflinchingly confronting her own fears of an unloved and lonely old age. The eponymous heroine, Miss Caroline Denton-Smyth, is brought low by her own ludicrous fantasies. ‘Artistic’, she is first seen draped in beads and lorgnettes, in an antique green coat trimmed with moth-eaten fur, her fringe in a frizz, topped with a feathered and ribboned red hat. In this guise she puts on a brave face, lunching with a financier at Boulestin’s. But in reality Caroline lives up three flights of stairs in a bedsitting-room in West Kensington, eating bread, margarine and stale seed-cake, reduced to borrowing money. Her life is a struggle against despair and solitude. At nights, driven by her frantic need for companionship, she seeks out her landlady for a cup of tea and a chat – ‘Not so lonely as going up to that room alone, night after night…’ – but even that becomes impossible when she finds herself owing £7 8s 6d for the rent: ‘…I can’t speak to her when I’m in debt like this.’ Over the course of the novel, Holtby systematically demolishes the props that have underpinned Caroline’s dignity and will to survive; her hopes of love, fortune and status disintegrate, until eventually her world collapses around her. A motor-car runs her over in Westbourne Grove, and she ends her days abandoned in a bleak public infirmary, her faith only intact. Poor Caroline indeed. Winifred Holtby died too young to endure her heroine’s fate, but single women who lived into old age had the all too real prospect of facing death alone.
In an essay she wrote in 1934 she stared her own prospects as a spinster in the face: What am I missing? What experience is this without which I must – for I am told so – walk frustrated? Am I growing embittered, narrow, prudish? Are my nerves giving way, deprived of natural relaxation? Shall I suffer horribly in middle age? At the moment, life seems very pleasant; but I am an uncomplete frustrated virgin woman. Therefore some time, somewhere, pain and regret will overwhelm me. The psychologists, lecturers and journalists all tell me so. I live under the shadow of a curse. When Vera Brittain first met her, Winifred Holtby was wearing a boldly striped costume, topped with an emerald green hat; as she was exceptionally tall and well-built, the effect was astonishing. Winifred, throughout her tragically short life (she died of an incurable disease aged thirty-eight), made a career out of her refusal to be pigeonholed, denounced or ignored. And in the same spirit as F. M. Mayor, she publicly confronted frustration. Winifred was eventually so goaded by the attacks on spinsters (Oswald Mosley had publicly referred to them as ‘this distressing type’) that she sat down to write a robust defence of the millions like herself. The single woman was in need of social rehabilitation, and Winifred was not one to shirk the task. Her essay ‘Are Spinsters Frustrated?’ is a war-cry, challenging the assumption that sex is the only channel for fulfilment. Yes, she conceded, frustration was bad; but we have to get our terms sorted out. Popular psychologists were wrong that marital sex was the only alleviation for frustration; this was a misconception based on the Protestant emphasis on women as primarily wives. It was dismaying to see Mosley and the others so fixated on the idea that women without sex lives would ‘become riddled with complexes like a rotting fruit’. Holtby refuted the notion that pleasure, ecstasy, happiness, achievement and a full life were dependent on this one circumstance. Many wives were utterly miserable, yet society had taught girls to dread the fate of the ‘old maid’. The muddled thinking that made spinsterhood seem so unenviable prevented the world from recognising the reality: The spinster may have work which delights her, personal intimacies which comfort her, power which satisfies her. She may have known that rare light of ecstasy. Funny, intelligent and courageous, Winifred Holtby was herself a powerful embodiment of her own creation Sarah Burton’s compressed philosophy: ‘I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.’ Thus armed with courage, humour and pride, Sarah Burton/Winifred Holtby looked to the future.
Holtby began to suffer from high blood pressure, recurrent headaches and bouts of lassitude, and in 1931 she was diagnosed as suffering from Bright's disease. Her doctor gave her only two years to live. Aware of her impending death, Holtby put all her remaining energy into what became her most important book, South Riding. Winifred Holtby died on 29 September 1935, aged 37. She never married, though she had an unsatisfactory relationship with a man named Harry Pearson, who proposed to her on her deathbed.
As well as her journalism, Holtby wrote 14 books, including six novels; two volumes of short stories; the first critical study of Virginia Woolf (1932) and Women and a Changing Civilization (1934), a feminist survey with opinions that are still relevant. She dedicated the latter book to composer Dame Ethel Smyth and actress and writer Cicely Hamiltion, both strong suffragists who "did more than write"The March of the Women", the song composed in 1910 for the Women's Social and Political Union. She also wrote poetry, including poems about Vera Brittain's dead brother, Edward.
Holtby is best remembered for her novel South Riding edited by Vera Brittain and published posthumously in March 1936, which received high praise from the critics. The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1936 and has never been out of print. In 1938, it was made into a film directed by Victor Saville; in 1974 it was adapted by Stan Barstow for Yorkshire Television and in 2011, BBC One produced a three-part dramatisation by Andrew Davies. There have also been several radio adaptations, the most recent for BBC Radio Four in 2005. South Riding (1936), tells the story of an enterprising headmistress, Sarah Burton, who falls stormily in love with an unavailable man who is also her political opponent. But Sarah’s love affair with Robert Carne is thwarted, her hungry longing violently disrupted at the point when it is about to be consummated. Robert comes to her bed, but before anything can happen suffers a terrifying heart attack; shortly afterwards his horse rears on a clifftop and he is killed in the fall. The great question of Holtby’s story is, how will Sarah herself survive? Despair threatens to engulf her: I cannot bear it, she repeated to herself. I do not want to live… She suffered not only sorrow; she suffered shame. If he had loved me, even for an hour, she sometimes thought, this would not have been unendurable. As an apologist for despairing, embattled singles fighting for identity and independence in hostile territory, Winifred Holtby was unequalled. Her heroines Muriel Hammond and Sarah Burton emerge from setbacks strong and self-sufficient. Muriel’s sick terror at being unwanted, of never becoming a wife, has evolved into a determination not to compromise with an unhappy marriage. She has been taught that there are other things in life, has glimpsed ideals that may be even more significant for her than marriage; and though a lover eventually comes to Muriel, she turns him away: ‘ “I can’t be a good wife until I’ve learnt to be a person,” said Muriel, “and perhaps in the end I’ll never be a wife at all.” ’ Sarah Burton’s shame, sorrow and loss of hope after Robert Carne’s death are finally tested when the pilot of the light aircraft she is in momentarily loses control; at that moment she knows she wants to live. ‘Comforted by death, she faced the future.’ And Sarah’s future will see her finishing the task before her. It is school speech day. Bandaged from her near-miss, she stands before her pupils and delivers an eloquent address on anti-authoritarianism: ‘ “… Question your government’s policy, question the arms race, question the Kingsport slums, and the rule that makes women have to renounce their jobs on marriage, and why the derelict areas still are derelict… Questioning does not mean the end of loving…”’
Vera Brittain wrote about her friendship with Holtby in her book Testament of Friendship (1940) and in 1960, published a censored edition of their correspondence. Their letters, along with many of Holtby's other papers, were donated in 1960 to Hull Central Library in Yorkshire and are now held at the Hull History Centre. Other papers are in Bridlington library in Yorkshire, in McMaster University Library in Canada and in the University of Cape Town library in South Africa. A biography by Marion Shaw of Holtby, entitled The Clear Stream, was published in 1999 and draws on a broad range of sources.
Holtby was buried in All Saints' churchyard in Rudston, East Yorkshire, just yards from the house in which she was born. Her epitaph in her words is "God give me work till my life shall end and life till my work is done".
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