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Sex, Style, and Sewage Farms: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf

By Rohan Maitzen.

The first meeting between Virginia Woolf and Winifred Holtby did not go well. Class was not the only impediment to their bonding, though Woolf’s condescending description of Holtby (“She is the daughter of a Yorkshire farmer and learnt to read, I’m told, while minding the pigs”) certainly doesn’t show her at her best. They were also opposed aesthetically: it’s hard to imagine novels less similar than Holtby’s The Crowded Street (1924)  and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), though they were published barely a year apart.

Woolf, of course, dominates our picture of early twentieth-century women writers: Holtby paid a price in prestige for her commitment to the kind of social realism Woolf eloquently dismissed in essays such as “Modern Fiction” or “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.” Holtby’s novels offer us not the “luminous halo” of consciousness, but the materiality Woolf rejected as lifeless; to Woolf’s rhetorical question “Must novels be like this?” Holtby implicitly replies that at any rate they can be like this and still convey something important, that the “series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged” may reveal social patterns of genuine significance — not just artistically but politically. It’s in politics that the two writers in fact find their common ground, and the congruity between Holtby’s aims and her methods is an argument for bringing her out from Woolf’s shadow.

The two writers met initially because Holtby had undertaken to write a critical study of Woolf — the first one ever done, and, I think, still one of the best. She took this project on not in spite of but because of their differences. “I took my courage and curiosity in both hands,” she wrote to a friend,

and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own. . . . I found it the most enthralling adventure — to enter, even at second-hand, that world of purely aesthetic and intellectual interests, was to me as strange an exploration as it would have been for Virginia Woolf to sit beside my mother’s pie and hear my uncles talk fat-stock prices and cub-hunting. . . . My own taste is far from impeccable. . . . But I do find adventure and enlightenment in the intensive study of any mind better than my own — the more alien, perhaps, the better.

This spirit of bold inquiry was characteristic of Holtby, who at that time was better known for her social activism and political journalism than her fiction. A committed feminist, she wrote stringent opinion pieces about the condition of women in England, but also powerful critiques of racial segregation in South Africa and the growing menace of Nazism in Germany: for her, these were facets of the same moral failure. “In her mind,” her close friend and biographer Vera Brittain explained,

she began to substitute the noun “women” for the noun “natives,” and found that these fiercely held, passionately declared sentiments of white South Africa coincided almost word for word with the old arguments in England against women’s enfranchisement, women’s higher education, and women’s entry into skilled employment. She even perceived … a close relationship between the two forms of subjection.

Contemplating the rise of Oswald Mosley’s Fascist Blackshirts in England, Holtby excoriated Nazi policies that claimed to make women “the centre of family life”:

Throughout history, whenever society has tried to curtail the opportunities, interests and powers of women, it has done so in the sacred names of marriage and maternity. Exalting women’s sex until it dominated her whole life, the State then used it as an excuse for political or economic disability. . . . Today, whenever women hear political leaders call their sex important, they grow suspicious. In the importance of the sex too often has lain the unimportance of the citizen, the worker and the human being.

These intertwined critiques of race, class, gender, and militarism are reminiscent of Three Guineas (1938), in which Woolf argues that a fascist dictator is no more and no less than the patriarchal tyrant gone global:

He has widened his scope. He is interfering now with your liberty; he is dictating how you shall live; he is making distinctions not merely between the sexes but between the races. You are feeling in your own persons what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women. Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews, because you are democrats, because of race, because of religion. It is not a photograph that you look upon any longer; there you go, trapesing along in the procession yourself. And that makes a difference. The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing Street, against Jews or against women, in England, or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain is now apparent to you.

Woolf’s rhetorical complexity makes Holtby’s journalistic polemic seem blunt by comparison, but the ideological affinity between the two writers is as clear as the difference in their prose styles.

As a novelist, Holtby continued to explore the linked causes and debilitating effects of injustice. To serve this goal, she turned away from Modernism’s experiments with subjectivity and consciousness, which she felt were not only in tension with social critique but also, potentially, just confusing: about Woolf’s fiction, for instance, she observed that while “the changing shape of the novel may make her obscurities clear and her strangeness familiar,” in the meantime “there is still only a minority which prefers To the Lighthouse . . . to a novel such as [J. B. Priestley’s] The Good Companions.”

The results of her own artistic choices are not always exhilarating, to be sure. The Crowded Street, for instance, has just the plodding literalness Woolf mocked in the work of Arnold Bennett or John Galsworthy. Holtby quotes from “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” in her study of Woolf, observing that, having “gone to the Edwardians — to the Victorians too, if we must be precise” for direction, Woolf had been dissatisfied with the fictional tools they offered her and “forthwith flung the tools … out of the window, and had started again with an entirely new technique”:

she had begun to question the necessity of all the heavy impedimenta of plot, narrative and description hindering the novelist. Why, she seems to have asked herself, should he be weighed down by all the external trappings of life?

Yet much as she admired Woolf’s artistic courage in shaking off these trappings, Holtby believed the result was fiction that was limited in its own way, because it was disconnected from “the material circumstances of life.” As Brittain put it,

Woolf’s men and women write, paint, lecture, teach, edit the classics and read in the British Museum; they inhabit a specialised mental planet having no remote contact with the crude everyday world [of Holtby’s characters].

Holtby herself was not ready to discard the very tools that allowed her to explore and critique that world and its material circumstances, especially as they affected and constrained women. And though literary history has by and large taken Woolf’s side, Holtby wasn’t obviously wrong. The Crowded Street may be formally flatfooted, but its merciless account of a provincial young woman’s painfully ordinary life is, by the end, surprisingly defamiliarizing; its very literalness perfectly reflects — and thus provokes resistance to — “the awfulness of a life where nothing ever happens.”

But it was in South Riding that Holtby most triumphantly achieved, as Brittain proclaimed, “the reconciliation of the artist and the social reformer.” The broad scope of the novel — which is, like George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a “study of provincial life” (Holtby’s subtitle is “An English Landscape”) — allowed her political interests full play, while its closely particularized humanity prevents it from lapsing, as George Eliot worried her own political novels might, “from the picture to the diagram.”

South Riding was Holtby’s last novel, published posthumously in 1936 after Holtby’s premature death from Bright’s disease (she was only 37). In the words of Shirley Williams (Brittain’s daughter and a long-time liberal MP), it is “the great epic of local government.” Its parts are named for key council committees (“Education,” “Highways and Bridges,” “Public Health,” “Housing and Town Planning”). If this scheme sounds more prosaic than epic, that’s because we don’t typically appreciate the importance — the glory, even — of such mundane business. “When you come to the bottom,” observes Alderman Emma Beddows,

all this local government, it’s just working together — us ordinary people, against the troubles that afflict all of us — poverty, ignorance, sickness, isolation — madness.

What idealism survives the often grim realities of South Riding rests there, not in any utopian vision: in that picture of ordinary people doing their best to make things just a little better for everyone: “You begin by thinking in terms of world-revolution,” alderman Joe Astell, the novel’s most radical character wryly concludes, “and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm.”

The novel’s heroine is Sarah Burton, who brings to her appointment as head of the local girls’ school her considerable assets (which she itemizes as “brains, will-power, organising ability, a hot temper, a real enjoyment of teaching”) as well as a defiantly independent spirit: “I was born to be a spinster,” she declares, “and by God, I’m going to spin.” Sarah arrives full of modernizing zeal:

She had unlimited confidence in the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by a still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies, and to inoculate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight. She knew how to teach; she knew how to awaken interest.

Sarah soon discovers, however, that the community she enters is both stranger than she thinks and stronger than her individual will. She will be influenced by those she meets as much as she will influence those she teaches.

Chief among those she must reckon with is conservative local landlord Robert Carne, who sees nothing in the new teacher to recommend her, especially for the care of his own vulnerable and unstable daughter:

Clever she might be, but Carne wanted affection, he wanted experience and sympathy and a big motherly bosom on which a little girl could cry comfortably. . . . Miss Burton was neither gentle nor a lady, and her bosom was flat and bony as a boy’s.

Sarah, in her turn, recognizes in this grimly autocratic figure an antagonist to both her person and her principles. That these hostile personalities eventually fall in love may be a literary inevitability, but their romance (a term that fits their relationship only uneasily) is hardly a conventional one, forged as it is out of the mutual respect they discover while midwifing a cow:

They were bound together by a shared intention, throwing the whole of their united strength into the business of saving life. When at length their task was accomplished, and the thin, long-legged calf lay on the straw, they shared down at it with the unique satisfaction which comes only to those who have together accomplished a difficult and exacting task.

There’s nothing sentimental in the picture of them “filthy, reeking, aching in every muscle, [as] they faced each other across the animals they had saved,” though there’s plenty of raw physicality. Further, Holtby does not use their attraction as a convenient device for reconciliation between opposing principles, in the manner familiar to us (as it would have been to her) from a long line of novels including Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. They are and remain, as Sarah reflects, “natural and inevitable” enemies, and Carne’s declining fortunes are personally tragic but historically predictable: “he belonged to a past age; his world was in ruins.” Sarah’s unreasonable love for him will not hold her back or make her regret the new era she anticipates. The suffering it causes does, however, help her understand what it really means “to belong to a community.”

And as the title tells us, South Riding is really not Sarah’s story but — like Middlemarch — the story of a whle  community, one which is no country idyll but a cross-hatch of competing interests comprising impractical dreams, failed hopes, well-meaning effort, and sordid scheming. Unlike Middlemarch, however, South Riding aspires less to philosophical and moral wisdom and more to pragmatic solutions for very concrete problems. Its large cast of characters ranges from local leaders including Carne, his ally Alderman Beddows, and their fellow councillors (among them the unscrupulous businessman Anthony Snaith and the idealistic socialist Joe Astell) to residents of the run-down dwellings known as “the Shacks” (among them, Sarah’s most unexpectedly promising student Lydia Holly, “an untidy fat loutish girl in a torn overall”). Holtby artfully interweaves their diverse stories to show how the prosaic domains of local government — education, roads, drainage, contagious diseases — bind disparate individuals together “by a shared intention.”

The challenges the characters collectively face are not susceptible to easy solutions, but the only shame is in not trying. “That’s as near to mysticism as I ever get,” as Astell writes to Sarah in the novel’s elegaic epilogue: “the belief that good work is never wasted.” That belief is inspiring because it connects humble private efforts to public improvement, however incremental. This is the promise that concludes Middlemarch as well — that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” — and that also motivates Woolf’s Three Guineas:

A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realize that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstractions, forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual world, for they are inseparably connected.

The echoes remind us again that their styles as writers and thinkers differentiate but do not divide them.

“One’s never pulled up by a single original idea,” was Woolf’s dismissive assessment of South Riding: although by Holtby’s death they had met and corresponded often, Woolf was clearly not won over to “poor gaping Holtby.” Woolf’s own fiction set the standard for literary prestige so decisively that Holtby’s novels (like Holtby herself) have receded to the margins of literary history. But there’s another point of convergence that — had either of them lived to see it — might have inspired Woolf to draw Holtby to her side.  Both Woolf and Holtby were dedicated to the cause of women’s education, which they knew had been held back as much by women’s economic disadvantages as by ideological obstacles. In Three Guineas, Woolf wrote vehemently about “Arthur’s Education Fund,” into which “the daughters of educated men [had] paid … from the year 1262 to the year 1870 all the money that was needed to educate themselves.”

Unlike Woolf, Holtby did attend university: she was a graduate of Oxford’s Somerville College, and in her will she bequeathed to Somerville all the royalties from her as-yet unpublished novel. South Riding’s popular success — it has been in print continuously since its first publication — means this legacy has proven a very valuable source of scholarship support. For this, these two very different yet closely allied women writers would have been united in celebration.


Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014.