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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Winifred Holtby (1898-1935)


Novelist, journalist, pacifist, and feminist, whose best-known novel South Riding (1936) won posthumously the 1936 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was partly based on Holtby's experiences as a teacher and her childhood memories and experiences in the East Riding. Holtby's name is inseparately linked with Vera Brittain's, who described their partnership in her memoir Testament of Friendship (1940). Their friendship has become a feminist icon. Since her childhood, Holby wrote poems, and put occasionally them into the letters she wrote, but she published only one small volume of poems in her lifetime.

"I had an hour, my love was here one hour,
She it was who smiled at me, hers the voice I heard,
Hers the gown of green and gold, hers the laughter
Hers the head as soft to kiss as feathers of a bird
(from 'Treasure in Heaven,' in Poems and Verse of Winifred Holtby, edited by Antony Webb, 2012, p. 5)

Winifred Holtby was born in Rudston, Yorkshire, the youngest daughter of David Holtby, a farmer, and Alice Winn, who became the first woman alderman in the East Riding County Council. In her early childhood Holtby developed love for the Yorkshire countryside and later portrayed its people and landscape in her fiction. Dales country, where Holtby's mother was born, she portrayed in The Land of Green Ginger (1927). Due to her father's ill health, the household was mostly run by Winifred's mother. She encouraged her daughter to write poetry and had her first collection printed – as a surprise – when Winifred was just 13.

In 1909 Holtby entered Queen Margaret's School in Scarborough where she wrote for the school magazine. She enrolled in 1917 in Somerville College, one of the female colleges at Oxford, but broke off her university career to work in a London nursing home and serve as a volunteer in the Signal Unit of the Women's Auxiliary Corps. She was posted in France in 1918.

During this period she began her relationship with Harry Pearson, the son of a local bank manager in Yorkshire, her "Boy friend that isn't a boy friend." (Poems and Verse of Winifred Holtby, edited by Antony Webb, 2012, p. 1) According to Vera Brittain, he was "deeply, irretrievably wounded". (Sisters and Rivals in British Women's Fiction, 1914-39 by Diana Wallace, 2000, p. 122)  Pearson kept on appearing and disappearing, back and forth in Holtby's life. It wasn't until she was on her death bed that he proposed marriage to her. In 1919 Holby returned to Oxford to finish her history studies. She became one of the first women to be awarded a degree by the university.

While at Oxford she met Vera Brittain, with whom she shared in London a flat with a tortoise. The arrangement continued until her death. When Brittain married the political scientist George Catlin, she continued to live with the couple. After graduating Holtby worked as a journalist, writing for the Manchester Guardian, Daily Express, Evening Standard, Good Housekeeping, and the News Chronicle. In 1926 she became director of Time and Tide, a feminist weekly. Her first novel, Anderby Wold, came out in 1923.

In addition to her writing, Holtby devoted herself to social causes and international questions. She helped Labour Party candidates, lectured on women's rights for the League of Nations Union and Six Point Group. In 1929 Holtby published A New Voter's Guide to Party Programmes, directed for women after they got in 1928 the right to vote in Great Britain – 22 years after Finnish women, who were granted the vote in 1906, the first in Europe.

In 1926 Holtby spend six months in South Africa, where she learned about the conditions of native South Africans and began speak for the unionization of black workers. "She went to preach the gospel of peace to white South Africa," wrote Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship (1940), "she returned to plead, with passion and pertinacity, the cause of black South Africa to an indifferent England." (Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby by Vera Brittain, Seaview Books, 1981, p. 189) Holtby's observations of racism found their way to the novel Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933). In the story, set in a fictitious African state, Holtby satirized the unfortunate British travel industry. The Astonishing Island (1933) was also satirical and examined contemporary English customs and ways of life.

Like Brittain, Holtby basically believed, that all writing should have a purpose behind it. The protagonists in Holtby's novels were often strong-willed and courageous, whose struggle reflected her own experiences and feminist views, like the social crusader of Poor Caroline (1931) or the heroine from Land of Green Ginger, who rises above her oppressive farmhouse surroundings.

Holtby's other works include a critical study of Virginia Woolf (1932), Women in a Changing Civilization (1934), a history of the women's movement which was a commercial success, and a play, Take Back Your Freedom, with an anti-Fascist theme. It was revised and completed by Norman Ginsbury and first produced in 1940. Holtby's correspondence with Vera Brittain was collected in Letters to a Friend (1937). Holtby once wrote to Brittain, "We are so entangled now in people's minds that Lady Steele Maitland, my chairman at Thursday's meeting, introduced me as 'Miss Vera Holtby!' to loud laughter and applause." ('Introduction' by Lisa Regan, in Winifred Holtby, “A Woman In Her Time”: Critical Essays, edited by Lisa Regan, 2010, p. 3) Holtby dismissed rumours of lesbianism as "Too, too Chelsea."

Many of her poems Holtby destroyed or left unfinished. The Frozen Earth and Other Poems (1935), Holtby's posthumous collection, was compiled by Vera Brittain. One of the pieces, 'For the Ghost of Elinor Wylie,' first printed in Time and Tide in December 1933, was about the American poet and novelist, who died from a disease similar to Holtby's own. She wrote three poems for the Ghost of Elinor Wylie. 

Holtby suffered from a heart condition, which gradually diminished her energy. When she collapsed in 1932, she was told it was exhaustion due to overwork. While travelling round France in 1933, she had a sequece of headaches, which she tried to cure with brandy and soda. After the second collapse, she was diagnosed as having Bright's disease (a kidney disease). As a "woman in here time," Holtby was involved in a number of activities. In 1935, just before her death, she received a letter from Virginia Woolf, asking if she would write an autobiography for the Hogarth Press. "I don't see how I can write an autobiography," she told Vera Brittain. "I never fell I've really had a life of my own. My existence seems to me like a clear stream which has simply reflected other people's stories and problems." (The Clear Stream by Marion Shaw, 1999, pp. 3-4)

Holtby died on 29 September 1935, but managed to complete South Riding. It was published with the help of Vera Brittain, her literary executor, although Holtby's mother Alice did not approve its portrayal of herself and her work as a county councilor. The book has remained in print ever since. Upon its publication, Mrs Holtby resigned from the East Riding County Council. The Winifred Holtby Prize for best regional novel was established in 1967 by the Royal Society of Literature. The society was abolished in 2003.

Holtby's South Riding is a fictional part of Yorkshire. There are only North, West, and East Ridings in reality. The word "riding" comes from an old Norse word "thriding," meaning a "third part". The novel's Kingsport is Hull.

Among the wide array of characters are Sarah Burton, the newly arrived and enterprising headmistress of the local girl's school, Mrs. Beddows, a wise but autocratic alderwoman, modeled after Holtby's mother, Robert Carne, a gentleman-farmer and the local squire, and Lydia Holly, a girl from the slum. Mrs. Beddows is a plump sturdy little woman, who enjoys her popularity and has naturally racy tongue. Sarah Burton, the advocate of social change, believes that she was born to be a spinster, but she falls in love with Crane, who is stuck to his conservative views. The story was filmed in 1937 (directed by Victor Saville, starring Ralph Richardson, Edna Best, Edmund Gwenn, Ann Todd), and later on serialized for television in 1974 and 2011. George Catlin, who did not accept his wife's friendship with Holtby, never read South Riding.  "You preferred her to me," he said in a letter to Vera in 1937. "It humiliated me and ate me up. That's why of course I could not read South Riding and probably never shall be able to do so . . . The point is, not sex but preference is what matters." (Vera Brittain: A Life by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, 1995, p. 342)

For further reading: Letters to a Friend by A Holtby & J McWilliam (1937); Winifred Holtby as I Knew Her by Evelyn White (1938); Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain (1940); Winifred Holtby: A Concise and Selected Bibliography by G. Handley-Taylor (1955); Selected Letters by Vera Brittain and G. Handley-Taylor (1960); Between Ourselves, Letters between Mothers and Daughters, 1750-1982, ed. by K. Payne (1984); 'Winifred Holtby,' in The Reader's Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, ed. by Peter Parker (1995): 'Holtby, Winifred,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 2, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); The Clear Stream: A Life of Winifred Holtby by Marion Shaw (1999); Winifred Holtby, a Woman in Her Time: Critical Essays, edited by Lisa Regan (2010); Odd Women?: Spinsters, Lesbians and Widows in British Women's Fiction, 1850s-1930s by Emma Liggins (2014); Off to the Pictures: Cinema-going, Women's Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain by Lisa Stead (2016); The Politics of 1930s British Literature: Education, Class, Gender by Natasha Periyan (2018)
Modernism and Physical Illness: Sick Books by Peter Fifield (2020)) 

Selected works:

  • My Garden & Other Poems, 1911
  • Anderby Wold, 1923
  • The Crowded Street, 1924
  • The Land of Green Ginger: A Romance, 1927
  • Eutychus; or, the Future of the Pulpit, 1928
  • A New Voter's Guide to Party Programmes: Political Dialogues, 1929
  • Poor Caroline, 1931
  • Virginia Woolf, 1932
  • The Astonishing Island, 1933
  • Mandoa, Mandoa! A Comedy of Irrelevance, 1933
  • Truth is Not Sober and Other Stories, 1934
  • Women and a Changing Civilization, 1934
  • The Frozen Earth and Other Poems, 1935 (ed. Vera Brittain)
  • South Riding: An English Landscape, 1936 (in U.S.: South Riding: A Novel [with] "Ave atque Vale, an Epitaph by Vera Brittain") -Film 1937, prod. by Alexander Korda, Victor Saville, dir. by Victor Saville, starring Ralph Richardson, Edna Best, Edmund Gwenn, Ann Todd; TV series 1974, prod. by Yorkshire television, written by Stan Barstow, starring Dorothy Tutin, Hermione Baddeley, Nigel Davenport. BAFTA judget the series best of the year (13 x 50m); TV series 2011, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Diarmuid Lawrence, teleplay Andrew Davies, starring Charlie Clark, Shaun Dooley and Peter Firth
  • Pavements at Anderby, 1937 (ed. V. Brittain, H.S. Reid)
  • Take Back Your Freedom, 1939 (with N. Ginsburg)
  • Letters to a Friend, 1937 (ed. A. Holtby and J. McWilliam)
  • Selected Letters of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain 1920-1930, 1960 (ed. V. Brittain and G. Handley-Taylor)
  • Testament of a Generation: the Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, 1985 (ed. P. Berry and A. Bishop)
  • Remember, Remember! The Selected Stories of Winifred Holtby, 1997 (ed. Paul Berry & Marion Shaw)
  • 'South Riding; an English Landscape, 2020 (with a preface by Shirley Williams; an introduction by Marion Shaw; and an epitaph by Vera Brittain)
  • Poems and Verse of Winifred Holtby, 2012 (edited by Antony Webb)

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