‘The Secret Fortresses of Her Mind’: Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger

Once again, I’ve finished a book from my Somerville cluster feeling, paradoxically, both engaged and adrift: it’s as if these novels have their own idiolect, their own set of terms and meanings and tropes that are related to the ones I know from my other reading, or from the general ideas I’ve picked up from reading literary history, but are somehow not quite of them. This one, The Land of Green Ginger, is Holtby’s third novel, published in 1927, after Anderby Wold (1923) and The Crowded Street (1924). It centers on Joanna Burton, a young woman full of a kind of coltish ungainly enthusiasm and romantic dreams of foreign lands and fairy tales. She’s an unlikely heroine: she’s foolish, impulsive, naive, socially awkward. But she’s also loving, with an unquenchable thirst for life and hope for better things. It takes all the dreary events of the novel (and they do rather pile up) to crush her spirit.

Joanna’s fantasies of travel and adventure come to nothing when she falls for Teddy Leigh, a handsome young man who seems as fanciful as she. Teddy comes back from the trenches of the First World War flattened by tuberculosis, a medical history he had suppressed well enough to pass as fit and be accepted into the army but which now returns with a vengeance. He and Joanna take up farming but are spectacularly unsuccessful: the work is relentless, the money is poor, and Teddy’s health gets worse and worse. They have two children, one of whom is sickly. Joanna can barely manage: she was never particularly competent before, and now all she has going for her is dogged persistence.

Like Anderby Wold and South RidingThe Land of Green Ginger offers no pastoral idyll: it shows us country life full of grime, blood, and sweat. Joanna tries to compensate for her real life by sustaining her fantasy life, but I think the novel shows this as ultimately disabling: until she faces up to the life she’s actually living, she can never be in control of it. Her tendency to live in her own head also makes her oblivious to the interpretations of her life that are made by those around her, a problem that becomes a crisis when rumours begin to circulate that she is having an affair with a Hungarian laborer, a dispossessed nobleman named Paul Szermai, who rooms with the Leighs. It’s true that she sees him as the embodiment of one of her fairy tales: in her eyes he’s “Young Tam Lin,” and he brings not only welcome help and money to the household but a different and disruptive energy. She feels only kindness for him, though, and it’s her interference with his mental life that causes a crisis between them: her sympathy inspires him to tell her the story of his suffering and loss at the hands of the Bolsheviks, culminating in the death of his fiancée. Paul becomes obsessed with Joanna, despite (as he tells her with painful bluntness) her lack of beauty, grace, or wit: in his mind, she has come between him and his beloved, and he feels that only by possessing Joanna can he recover that lost intimacy. In the meantime, Teddy is miserably aware of his own decrepitude: his doctor has ordered him to avoid exertion or excitement, so he and Joanna are no longer sleeping together, and he’s sure she and Paul are lovers.

Of course things come to a crisis, but the oddity of the novel seems to me to be Joanna’s role in all of this. She is not attracted by Paul, not tempted to infidelity, annoyingly tolerant and forgiving of Teddy’s bellicosity and paranoia. She’s too awkward and confused herself to drive the plot forward, even though she’s at its center: for her, what that means is being beset on all sides by demands and expectations. After Paul tells her his horrific tale, she can’t even lose herself in dreams any more:

Always she saw that horror. Whenever she dared to dream and to seek her kingdom, she found Paul Szermai waiting there, bearing with him his unbearable memories.

They pressed about her. They besieged her, the miseries of these men, they entered with their incessant demands the secret fortresses of her mind. She had no place of refuge from their clamorous sorrows.

‘Oh, must I bear it all for you? I have made your beds and cooked your meals for you. I have born your children and nursed your bodies in sickness. Is there no end, no end? Must you take my dreams? Will you leave me nothing, not even the untouched privacy of my imagination?’

If there is a common thread among the Holtby novels I’ve read, I think it’s visible here in that plea by a woman for room to create her own story, especially without deference to, or even reference to, the imperatives of men. For most of the novel, Joanna is hardly conscious of this longing, or at least can hardly articulate it. She seems to be blundering around, intellectually and ideologically, wanting to experience something good and beautiful more than she wants to achieve anything in particular or stand up for anything at all. She just keeps trying to do the right thing–and, as she finally realizes, she just keeps failing, over and over, at least by any external measures.

Towards the end of the novel she finally realizes that her life is in complete chaos. The precipitating events are closely connected: Teddy, enraged beyond reason by his suspicions and his hatred of his own weakness, rapes her, and she can only protest but not fight back, afraid “of his treacherous heart.” For her this is a moment of belated revelation: “She had thought her mind free to create its own enchanting world. . . . And all the time reality had imprisoned her.” She cannot escape the life of the flesh for the life of the mind. But even as she comes at last to “face the facts” of her captivity, Teddy dies of a hemorrhage brought on by his violent exertion.

Freed of Teddy, Joanna still cannot create a good life for herself: pregnant from the rape, she learns that everyone in the village assumes the child is Paul’s, and that because of her reputation nobody will work for her in the house or on the farm. At this point the distinction between reality and fantasy is irrelevant, she thinks: “It was not the truth but people’s idea of the truth which made it possible for one to live in society.” Having faced up to the real world with innocent courage, she finds that it offers her “no safety”:

She had lost hold on its essential code of manners. She did not know how to behave. She did not feel that she was the right person to be live here. . . . She had known pain before, the enriching pain of love, the futile pain of anxiety, the dragging pain of impotence before the suffering of others. But this knowledge of desolation which made her feel that the ground upon which she trod was hollow, that the world she saw was only a phantasm, that she was lost in an alien place where neither her courage nor her love could guide her, this brought the horror of defeat.

Bereft of fantasy, defeated by reality, Joanna somehow finds the strength to start all over, taking the children and returning to South Africa, where she was born but has never lived. The novel ends with her on the voyage, poised on the brink of a future that just might be better than the past. It seems a fragile, lonely hope, but there’s something unexpectedly inspiring about it. “It is true, you know,” she says to her daughter about their dreams of their new life. “If nothing nice ever happens again, this is true”–that is, as I read it, truth lies, paradoxically, in that unrealized moment of expectation.It lies in the moment of discovering a street named “The Land of Green Ginger” when you’re looking for “Commercial Lane,” as little Joanna does early in the novel when out walking with her aunts in prosaic Kingsport. The aunts won’t turn down that street, but in that moment, at least you can be sure it’s there, and who knows where it might lead: “to Heaven, to Fairy Land, to anywhere, anywhere, even to South Africa.”

South Riding: They like it! They really, really like it!

I’ve just finished rereading South Riding, ready for our final discussion of the novel in the Somerville seminar tomorrow. I was caught up in it both intellectually and emotionally, more than I was when I first read it last spring. Rereading made the subtleties of the novel’s construction more apparent: the sophisticated way Holtby weaves together the stories of her vast array of characters, the tensions between their disparate visions for their own lives and the life of their community, the ironies of unintended consequences, the conflicts between political commitments and personal affections, the books each named for a council committee. More apparent also this time was the role of the communal events (concerts, festivals)  in returning us over and over to the intermingling of these lives and values. Though there are strong personalities that dominate the novel, it is, ultimately, a social novel, and our realization that even the strongest individuals cannot really shape their own destiny–cannot control either the forces of history or the forces of their own nature–is shared, in the end, by Sarah Burton, who in a different novel would be the heroine but here learns to subordinate her ego to a communal story.

I think she also learns to accept that there are currents in life outside her control. I wrote before of my dissatisfaction with Sarah’s discovery of her love for Carne. I still find it melodramatic in its presentation, but on this reading I had more ideas about how it belonged, thematically, to this novel. Sarah arrives in South Riding keen to bring reason to bear in the service of progress and reform. In a pivotal exchange with Mrs. Beddows, she asserts,

I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.

Mrs. Beddows feels “sorry for the wilful unbroken girl before her.” South Riding is partly the story of how Sarah’s will is broken, and I’ve been thinking that her love for Carne is one of the ways that happens. Love – passion – desire – is not reasonable; it cannot be brought neatly under our control. It is, I think, shown as part of the natural world, in which raw forces like sex and death wreak havoc on well-laid plans. Many of the novel’s subplots, in fact, show people’s lives similarly wrought upon by their intractably physical elements: people get sick, they get pregnant, they inherit ‘tainted blood,’ they die. Sarah knows that Carne represents, politically, everything she opposes, and yet she loves him. Her feelings are characterized, in one of Holtby’s characteristically dry chapter titles, as a form of temporary insanity. In her conversation with Sarah after Carne’s death, Mrs. Beddows helps her to see that love carried her past their ideological differences: it was a response to Carne’s full presence and complexity as a human being. “He was everything I dislike most,” exclaims Sarah, ” – reactionary, unimaginative, selfish, arrogant, prejudiced.” “He may have been all that you say he was,” responds Mrs. Beddows,

but he was much more. He was courageous and kind and honest. He was, in dealing with people, the gentlest man I ever knew. He knew all about loving. . . . He never ran away from failure; he never whined, never deceived himself, never blamed other people when things went wrong. In the end – it’s not politics nor opinions – it’s those fundamental things that count – the things of the spirit.

Without suggesting that specific policies don’t matter, Holtby advocates the primacy of humanity over ideology. That’s an ideal, she suggests, for how we live our individual lives, but it’s also the model she endorses for civic government, because, in the novel’s simplest and most compelling idea of all, we’re all in it together. Thus Sarah’s conclusion:

She was one with the people around her, who had suffered shame, illness, bereavement, grief and fear. She belonged to them. Those things which were done for them – that battle against poverty, madness, sickness and old age – was fought for her as well. She was not outside it.

We end not with Sarah’s love for Carne, but with her love for the South Riding.

South Riding has been a hit with the class. Frankly, I’ve been both pleased and a little bit puzzled by their outspoken enthusiasm. It’s buoying, for sure, not just for me, but especially for them, given that before long they are going to be deep into their independent reading projects, and I think their expectations are now higher about what they might find as they explore other books that they hadn’t heard of before. The things they like about the book include its range of characters, its political and social engagement, and its dry humor. I was worried that they would find the novel too diffuse, but they’ve talked a lot, with enthusiasm, about the frequent changes in perspective and how Holtby keeps shifting and complicating how we see people and situations. We can’t ever rest in simple judgments, seems to be the message they are taking away from that. The introduction of the love plot provoked a lot of discussion, but mostly they had accepted Sarah’s declaration less skeptically than I had. To be fair, it’s prepared for by a broad hint on the back cover blurb, as one student pointed out with justifiable annoyance. But they liked the frankness of Sarah’s confrontation with her feelings and the way her love contradicts her political principles. I’m curious to find out how they react when they see how things turn out! It is certainly not a conventional romance plot.

It’s great that they like it and are really energized to talk about it. I know I won’t have to carry the discussion tomorrow! But at the same time, I am reminded why I usually try to set the terms of my classes to rule out a lot of talk about ‘liking’ or ‘not liking.’ I have allowed, even encouraged, them to explain why they like South Riding, partly because it’s so clear that they do and it’s interesting to know why. And their positive response to the book is clearly motivating them to think about it and ask questions about it and make connections and generally be good readers of it. Yet there’s also a temptation for them to use the book they do like as a stick to beat the books they didn’t like as much or didn’t find as easy to appreciate–that is, both of the other books we’ve read for the course.* There’s a risk in setting up South Riding as a standard for success, as if other books that have very different aims and methods are not as good in some absolute way: for our purposes, that’s not a very productive way to proceed. It encourages complacency about their own preferences and interpretations and reading habits, which is just the kind of thing I’m guarding against when I worry that I’m not challenging my own reading of Gaudy Night. I’m certainly not sorry that so many of them seem so fired up about South Riding. I’m just going to do my best to channel the resulting energy back into ideas about why Holtby’s form and style serves her ideas so well, while Brittain and Sayers are doing other kinds of things.

*I can’t help but reflect that this is how I sometimes use Middlemarch. Ahem. But my purposes here are not the same as my purposes in the classroom. If I were teaching Madame Bovary I would save the possibility of a comparative critique of that kind for the very last day. The rest of the time would be all about appreciating Flaubert for being Flaubert. Honest!

This Week In My Classes: Love Poems and Social Novels

In English 1000, we’ve started our first poetry unit. We’ll be doing more poetry after Christmas, organized into what I hope will be provocative thematic clusters, but for now we’re just working through the basics of reading and analyzing poetry — meter and scansion, figurative language, poetic forms and modes. We haven’t really talked much about specific poems yet, since I’ve been using the assigned ones mostly to teach vocabulary for poetic devices, but on Wednesday we’re reading a little group of love poems and I hope to open things up a bit more than I have been doing so far. I haven’t quite decided how, though. The poems are Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” EBB’s “How do I love thee,” and Shakespeare’s “Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds.” I guess some talk about sonnet form is probably appropriate, and about EBB’s appropriation of the conventions of love sonnets for a woman’s voice. Maybe we’ll get a bit silly and play Poetry Survivor: set up some standards for a great love poem and then vote one off the island out of the anthology as the weakest of the three. All this talk about metrical variation and synecdoche has probably made them afraid to react viscerally to a poem! The challenge, an exercise like that might show them, is to channel that gut reaction into an energetic analysis of the actual poetry.

In English 2040, it’s hard-boiled detective fiction time. Every year I swear I’ll dump The Maltese Falcon for The Big Sleep and I never do. But the thing is, first of all, that I really do think The Maltese Falcon is brilliant, and it teaches so well, by which I mean it brings up so many of the themes we’re interested in across all of our readings. Also, and this is not incidental, I have been working with it for a while and feel pretty confident talking about it. Even just considering how convoluted the plots of these novels are, that’s no small thing! Still, I’m sure The Big Sleep is just as brilliant in its own style. Maybe next year, since it looks like I’ll be teaching this class yet again…which is fine, as I really do enjoy it. I just find it kind of funny that the class I have offered most often in the last decade is this one, because it gets bums in seats (83 bums this year, to be precise).

Most fun this week is working on South Riding in the Somerville seminar. The students are very engaged, especially now that we’re past the initially disorienting ‘getting to know all the characters’ phase. We had a lively discussion today about the variable points of view in the novel and how they affect our understanding of the community and also our sympathies. One idea we considered is that the constantly shifting perspective makes it hard for us to arrive at moral judgments about the characters: just when we think we condemn their choices or actions, we are brought to see them in a different context. And yet there seem to be exceptions to this, people whose points of view show off their faults or limits. Alderman Snaith attracted the most attention. He seems clearly set up to be the bad guy, but it was pointed out that he isn’t really after anything so different from what everyone else wants (money, power, success)–he’s just smarmier about it. Also, he is indifferent to suffering caused by his pursuit of his own interests. Holtby has given him a back story that seems calculated to awaken our sympathy: it seems that he was abused or raped as a child by “evil men” and he’s been left “a psychological cripple for life,”  feeling only horror at “all thoughts of mating and procreation.” We haven’t really worked out how this particular trauma fits into the larger themes of the novel, or even into the overall portrayal of his character, but we were noticing other scenes or intimations of sexual violence and the destructive potential of sexual desire, from the death of Mrs. Holly in childbirth to the suggestion that Robert Carne raped his wife (the word he uses is “forced”). It’s a novel full of the rhythms and forces of the natural world, but it’s hardly a pastoral idyll: perhaps this is a way of showing that human life, despite the best efforts of civilization, is driven by the same powerful urges. One implication would be that reform (social, political, educational) is both urgently needed and inevitably futile. Sarah Burton’s idealism can make us want to stand up and cheer. “We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our own hands,” she declaims to Mrs. Beddows. “If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.” But Mrs. Beddowss has “seen compassion impotent and effort wasted”; she reflects on the parade of miseries she has seen, on illness and suffering and injustice all brought on “by circumstances which neither courage nor intelligence could have altered.” Sarah dreams of “the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance,” but so far the novel has not filled its readers with optimism that such transformation is possible. Perhaps the novel is a lesson in lowering expectations. As Alderman Astell, the once-idealistic socialist, remarks to Sarah, “You begin by thinking in terms of world-revolution and end by learning to be pleased with a sewage farm.”

“She is in love with life”: Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir

holtby-woolfIn my post on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, I quoted a passage Brittain includes from Holtby’s letters, addressing her decision to write a critical biography of Virginia Woolf:

I took my courage and curiosity in both hands 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. I felt that I was learning and learning with every fibre of such brain as I have.

The result of this open-minded effort, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (1932,) is as generous as I’m coming to expect from Holtby. Though at times it’s clear she has reservations about the potential limits of Woolf’s emphasis on art as “an end in itself,” or Woolf’s opposition to “materialism” in the novel (Holtby cites, for instance, “Modern Fiction,” with its critique of Bennett and Wells and Galsworthy for being “concerned not with the spirit but with the body”), and sharp as Holtby is, too, about “the advantages of being Virginia Stephen” (the title of a chapter in which, among other things, she lightly mocks Woolf for concluding “Every second Englishman reads French” — “that particular hyperbole was only possible to a woman brought up as Leslie Stephen’s daughter had been brought up”)–despite all this and the differences in her own life and aims, Holtby writes with energetic appreciation, sometimes even rapture, about Woolf’s development from a writer with an abstract and difficult idea about the novel to a novelist who has found the freedom and technique to realize her vision.

Holtby finds broad continuities of theme across Woolf’s oeuvre: an interest in life and death (especially death), in women and men (especially women), in the meaning of life, in the possibilities of art. She also finds a continuity of aesthetic effort, a movement towards a different kind of fiction. She sees it taking Woolf a while to figure it all out, to achieve unity of form and concept in a single work. So The Voyage Out shows signs of what will come, especially in its characters and thematic interests, but “here she has curbed her fancy, and accepted the traditional novel form.” Holtby’s chapter on Night and Day is called “Virginia Woolf is not Jane Austen”: she reads this novel as Woolf’s experiment in writing “a domestic story on the Jane Austen model.” She quotes a passage from Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek” (a passage I quoted too, in my piece on Woolf’s essays for Open Letters), about Austen choosing “the dangerous art where one slip means death”: “Mrs. Woolf, in Night and Day, chose it and failed.” It’s not, Holtby is quick to say, that the novel itself is dead, not altogether: “It has beauty and gravity, nobility of theme and high distinction.” But in it, Holtby believes, Woolf followed the wrong master for her own gifts and for her own time:

Her technique is the technique of experiment, not of tradition. Her hunting-ground lies among the subtle gradations of sentiment, memory and association to which less delicate sight is blind. She was, in Night and Day, playing a game which was a good game, which had been played almost perfectly, which she could play better than most; but it was not her game. She was a disciple here, not a master; a follower, not a maker of the law.

More specifically, she thinks “a comedy of restrictions” (such as she believes Austen writes) does not suit a writer who is “a rebel against restrictions.” Austen had the “peculiar fortune to live at a time and in circumstances ideally suited to her talent.” Woolf, in contrast, stood in a critical a relation to her age, and “it is this implied criticism, this straining towards some larger life, some more liberal standard of values, which disturbs the quiet and enclosed perfection of the comedy.” So for all its virtues, Night and Day is a failure–but “the measure of its failure was, perhaps, a mercy,” Holtby concludes, as “it drove Mrs. Woolf to seen new forms of expression. It marked the end of her apprenticeship to tradition.” (Another exhibit for our case that failure is necessary to greatness?)

Holtby finds in Woolf’s essays experiments in the fictional techniques that will finally free her: the “cinematic,” in which the “perspective shifts from high to low, from huge to microscopic, to let figures of people, insects, aeroplanes, flowers pass across the vision and melt away” (Holtby sees this as the aesthetic style of “Kew Gardens,” for instance, or “The Mark on the Wall”) and the “orchestral,” in which “senses, thoughts, emotions, will, memory, fancies, the impact of the outside world, action and conversation each play a different instrument.” The result of this freedom to create in new forms, when Woolf finally achieved it, was to be superb:

If her knowledge of life was narrow, it was profound. There was no fear, no sorrow, no ecstasy, and no limitation that she could not penetrate. And now she had an entirely new technique. She could compensate herself for all the things she did not know by arranging in a thousand new patterns the things she did.

Once free, she learns “an entirely new note”: gaiety. “She did not use it for long; her sense of life is tragic rather than comic,” Holtby says; “But having discovered it, she never lost it again. Perhaps laughter is the first gift of freedom.”

Though her discussions of Woolf’s later books is extraordinarily sensitive to the tragedy in them, the remaining chapters echo with Holtby’s appreciation of Woolf’s delight in both the world and her own expanding art. There’s an inevitable poignancy in that, not just because when we reach the last chapter, “The Waves–and after?” we know, as Holtby could not, that there was to be only one more major novel, and that published posthumously after Woolf’s suicide, but because we also know that Holtby herself did not live to read it (she died in 1935, leaving her own last novel, South Riding, also to be published posthumously). But there’s also something exhilarating in reading about Woolf from someone who can focus on what is life-affirming in her work without any sense of impending doom. Holtby’s focus is deliberately on the novels, not the life, and that design plus her ignorance of Woolf’s illness and death  lets us too revel in what is triumphant and joyful about the writing.

Holtby’s commentaries are persistently articulate and interesting. Like Woolf’s own critical essays, they are more impressionistic than analytical, though I was struck by how attentive Holtby is to technique, and particularly to the congruencies between the forms and the ideas of the novels. Holtby’s own fiction is so formally straightforward it could give the impression of a certain artistic naivete, but reading this book confirmed for me what Marion Shaw argues (in the essay I quoted from in my post on Brittain’s Honourable Estate)–that documentary realism was a deliberate option, not a default for writers who could not conceive of alternatives. Jacob’s Room was, Holtby observes, “a triumphant experiment in a new technique”;

But now that we can set it beside Mrs. Woolf’s later work, beside Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and The Waves, we know that it was not the best that she could do. The cinematographic style was brilliantly effective, but it was not as subtle as the orchestral effect which she was to use in To the Lighthouse; she was to obtain a surer control over her material in Mrs. Dalloway. She was to adventure further into obscure realms of human consciousness in The Waves. The contrasts, perhaps, in Jacob’s Room are too violent. There are obscurities which even the most diligent study cannot penetrate. The effect created is very largely visual. Later she would plunge into the nerves, the brains, the senses of her characters, exploring further, yet binding the whole more closely into a unity of mood.

So Jacob’s Room too is seen as a step towards Woolf’s greatest work:

She had thrown overboard much that had been commonly considered indispensable to the novel: descriptions of places and families, explanations of environment, a plot of external action, dramatic scenes, climaxes, conclusions, and almost all those link-sentences which bind one episode to the next. But much remained to her. She had retained her preoccupation with life and death, with character, and with the effect of characters grouped and inter-acting. She had kept her consciousness of time and movement. She knew how present and past are interwoven, and how to-day depends so much upon knowledge and memory of yesterday, and fear for or confidence in to-morrow. She was still preoccupied with moral values; she was immensely excited about form and the way in which the patterns of life grow more and more complex as one regards them. And she was more sure now both of herself and of her public. She dared take greater risks with them, confident that they would not let her down.

The chapter on To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway is called “The Adventure Justified,” and it treats the novels as the culmination of a dangerous but ultimately triumphant experiment. In them Holtby finds a unity “far more profound than anything that can be obtained by a trick of reference. . . . It is a metaphysical unity, the unity which the old scholastic philosophers saw binding creature to creature and all created things to God. It was also a psychological unity, such as the most modern Viennese psychologists see binding infancy to age.” In these novels “her characters play now a double purpose”:

They are themselves and they are symbols. They are part of the visible universe and they are its interpretation. Her metaphors have grown more fluid, and they have overflowed into the action of the novel. The motion of time, light, change, the passage of wind through a house, have all assumed a spiritual quality.

About To the Lighthouse Holtby is ecstatic, almost as if caught up herself in the final vision of the novel:

Its characters move in a radiant, half-transparent atmosphere, as though already suffused into the spiritual world. The action takes place out at sea, on an island; because it is there, away from the land, on a ship, out at sea, on an island, that Mrs. Woolf sees humanity with detachment. From that vantage point she can look back on life, look back on death, and write her parable. Its quality is poetic; its form and substance are perfectly fused, incandescent, disciplined into unity. It is a parable of life, of art, of experience; it is a parable of immortality. It is one of the most beautiful novels written in the English language.

Orlando and A Room of One’s Own do not move her to such raptures, though she seems them as complementary completions of long-running preoccupations of Woolf’s. Reading her discussion of Room I was expecting more polemical engagement, but I think in the end it’s to Holtby’s credit that she keeps her focus on Woolf’s theories, particularly on sorting out Woolf’s arguments about man-womanly and woman-manly collaboration as part of her overall vision for art and creative freedom.

I wish Holtby had lived to write about Three Guineas. But her last section is about The Waves, and again, her appreciation for Woolf’s experimental form–her interest in what it reaches and enables–is strikingly open-minded and generous, as well as attentive to its place in contemporary literature:

We know, externally, very little about [the characters]. They are the cultured, well-to-do characters common to most of Mrs. Woolf’s novels, but their external lives, their relations to each other, are barely indicated. Yet we know almost everything about them. For the drama takes place not in the external world of speech and action, but in the subconscious world, below the articulate thoughts and spoken words with which most novels are concerned. Down there, in the submarine cave of which Mrs. Woolf’s characters are always dreaming, moves the strange, subtle confusion of memory, experience, contact and imagination which forms the running stream below our surface thoughts. It is a world hitherto largely neglected by the English novelist. James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, and D. H. Lawrence have adventured there; but their voyages of discovery have not been followed by a general conquest. The territory is uncharted and extremely hazardous, for only the most intent and penetrating observation of human behaviour can make a writer free of the unformed thoughts and impulses of his characters. Yet these are as much a part of “character” as their external acts . . . .They inhabit a land where the law of reason does not run; and Mrs. Woolf acknowledges allegiance to the law of reason. Yet in spite of these difficulties she has essayed the task, crossed the borders, and, finding the new land still sunk beneath a tossing sea, plunged bravely down to discover and reclaim.

If you find that extended metaphor a little florid, note that Holtby turns neatly to technical specifics: “The method that she has used to re-create this world is not entirely strange to her. Each character speaks in a kind of recitative, recording an individual current of subjective thought . . . . personality, drama and development emerging slowly from the sequence of conscious and unconscious thought and memory.” In The Waves, she concludes, Woolf has achieved “the music and subtlety of poetry.” The Waves, she believes, has not just its own internal unity but “is bound in that strange unity which is the artist’s mind, to Mrs. Woolf’s other novels.” And in it, too, she finds “an affirmation of life”: “Death is the enemy; death, not only of the body, but of the mind, the perceptive spirit, the faculty by which man recognises truth.”

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir ends by wondering where Woolf will go next: “We cannot predict what problem will attract, what beauty entrance her next”–though Holtby anticipates continued growth “in breadth and power.” But Holtby speculates that Woolf “is unlikely ever to command the allegiance of a wide contemporary public”: “at present there is still only a minority which prefers To the Lighthouse with its demands upon the reader’s intelligence and imagination, to a novel such as [J. B. Priestley’s] The Good Companions, which tells a pleasant, full and easy tale.” That’s ironic in a way, of course, because Woolf’s name is well known to a wide public today, while Holtby’s much more accessible novels are largely unread–though it remains true, surely, that To the Lighthouse is a minority taste. In fact, I have never read it myself, though I have started it several times. I have always found Woolf’s fiction much more elusive than her non-fiction; until a couple of years ago I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway either. I felt I didn’t know how to read the novels (and frankly, reading Orlando didn’t help much with that!), and the academic criticism I read about them was typically intimidating rather than encouraging. Holtby’s book, on the other hand, has an infectious enthusiasm along with a lot of smart and useful discussions of what Woolf is doing and why. Now I feel that I too should take my “courage and curiosity in both hands” and “learn and learn with every fibre of such brain as I have.”

Holtby’s final passages stand as both a celebration and, unintentionally, a worthy epitaph, generously offered from one artist and woman to another:

For all her lightness of touch, her moth-wing humour, her capricious irrelevance, she writes as one who has looked upon the worst that life can do to man and woman, upon every sensation of loss, bewilderment and humiliation; and yet the corroding acid of disgust has not defiled her. She is in love with life. It is this quality which lifts her beyond the despairs and fashions of her age, which gives to her vision of reality a radiance, a wonder, unshared by any other living writer. . . . It is this which places her work, meagre though its amount may hitherto have been, slight in texture and limited in scope, beside the work of the great masters.

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

It’s hard to spot similarities between Virginia Woolf and the Somerville novelists I’ve been looking at if you focus on Woolf’s fiction. Winifred Holtby wrote a book about Woolf, and as I noted in my post about Testament of Friendship, she did so deliberately because she knew Woolf was such a different novelist: “I took my courage and curiosity in both hands 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.”

A Room of One’s Own, with its framing focus on women’s education and particularly on the material differences between women’s colleges and their male counterparts, brings out an important point of convergence, if also another distinction, as unlike Holtby and Brittain and Kennedy and Sayers, Woolf did not go to university herself. It’s in Three Guineas, though, as I have just (belatedly, I know) discovered, that Woolf really shows herself their contemporary, as the issues she focuses on are very much those that dominate their non-fiction as well. Woolf’s arguments offer nothing like the sharp direct hits of Holtby and Brittain’s social and political journalism: as in A Room of One’s Own, she is indirect, circuitous, ironic; she ventriloquizes both questioners and audiences, sets up targets only to slyly destroy them, hypothesizes, imagines, projects. Her conclusions are not single and direct but layered and proliferating. I have taught A Room of One’s Own several times. Once, in a course evaluation, a student raged that it made her “want to gouge [her] eyes out with an ice pick.” Ridiculous! A Room of One’s Own  is a (arguably, the) great work of non-fiction prose. But at the same time, if you go to books like these expecting the orderly presentation of an argument that proposes and then supports a straightforward thesis, well, I can see how you  might end up a little frustrated. But what a trip it is when you follow her along those byways of her thought–not as exhilarating, perhaps, as her literary essays, but with the same effect of provoking surprise and argument and active thought as you go.

In this case what I tripped across most often was her careful restriction of her arguments to “the daughters of educated men,” a class specificity for which she makes some careful arguments (mostly in the notes) but which I think raises a lot of questions about the economics of the ideals she holds out in the book. She is ruthless about the moral corruption of writing for money, for instance (poor Mrs. Oliphant, who “sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children” – the underlying point is that she ought not to have to sell herself in this way, but isn’t there another version of this story by which writing is a good enough way to make a living? and in Mrs. Oliphant’s case at least, do we really imagine that freed of the need to make money she would have turned her “intellectual liberty” in some particularly brilliant direction?). By and large Woolf seems to characterize money as weakening to the moral fiber–though at the same time she is passionate about the need, the right, to be economically independent. You should want enough to sustain yourself, I think is the idea, but not otherwise pursue financial reward, as all too quickly then you will interest yourself in what pays best rather than what is best.

There’s lot more to be considered about the economics of Three Guineas (its whole conceit, after all, is “where shall I bestow these three precious coins?”). Given that I’m reading it as part of my “Summer of Sommerville,” though, I am particularly interested in ways it resonates with the other things I’ve been reading. On women’s education, she offers a curt history but also a trenchant commentary on the investment women across the centuries have made in the education of their brothers:

For have not the daughters of educated men paid into Arthur’s Education Fund* from the year 1262 to the year 1870 all the money that was needed to educate themselves…? Have they not paid with their own education for Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, and all the great schools and universities on the continenent…? Have they not paid so generously and lavishly if so indirectly, that when at last, in the nineteenth century, they won the right to some paid-for education for themselves, there was not a single woman who had received enough  paid-for education to be able to teach them?

She is similarly pointed on women’s enthusiasm for the first World War:

So profound was her unconscious loathing for the education of the private house with its cruelty, its poverty, its hypocrisy, its immorality, its inanity that she would undertake any task however menial, exercise any fascination however fatal that enabled her to escape. Thus consciously she desired ‘our splendid Empire’; unconsciously she desired our splendid war.

The support rests, then, not on patriotism, but on rebellion, and in fact a continuing theme of the book is women’s very different relationship to the country that expects their loyalty and service:

She will find that she has no good reason to ask her brother to fight on her behalf to protect ‘our’ country. ‘ “Our country,” ‘ she will say, ‘throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions. “Our” country still ceases to be mine if I marry a foreigner. “Our” country denies me the means of protecting myself, forces me to pay others a very large sum annually to protect me, and is so little able, even so, to protect me that Air Raid precautions are written on the wall. Therefore if you [men] insist on fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself of my country. For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’

For Woolf, as for Holtby, it’s not so much the military-industrial complex that is a threat to her freedom as the military-patriarchy complex: both writers make a strenuous case for recognizing the links between the masculine will to power (which Woolf analyzes in one section of Three Guineas, with stinging condescension, as “infantile fixation”) with Fascism. In Holtby’s 1934 essay “Black Words for Women Only” she observes that Nazism has rolled back all the progress made by women between 1918 and 1933:

There is little hope for ambitious young women in Nazi Germany, where the brightest contribution of constructive economic thought towards the solution of the unemployment problem appears to have been the expulsion of large sections of the community from paid work, as a penalty for being women, Socialists or Jews, and their replacement by unobjectionable loyal male Aryans. Individual women have protested against this mass campaign to restore their economic dependence and drive them back to the kitchen. . . .

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. The ‘normal’ woman knows that, given freedom and equality before the law, she can be trusted to safeguard her own interests as wife, mother, daughter, or what you will.

Pondering the contaminated “atmosphere” created by the unwanted intrusion of women into professional life (“it is likely that a name to which ‘Miss’ is attached will, because of this odour, circle in the lower spheres where the salaries are small rather than mount to the higher spheres where the salaries are substantial”) Woolf demands, in her turn, “is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity?” The Fascist dictator is simply the oppressive patriarch gone national:

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.

The dictator is only the extreme version of “Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations”: “He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our own language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him lie ruined houses and dead bodies – men, women, and children.”

The key lesson of Three Guineas is “that the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.” But from this connection Woolf draws hope, and a recipe for social and political transformation:

It suggests that we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure. It suggests that we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure. 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 abstrations 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.

I think that this desire for men and women to recognize and stand together in a united front (“now we are fighting together. The daughters and sons of educated men are fighting side by side”) lies behind her rejection of the word “feminism” (“a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete”), though this was another of the things I stumbled against, reading along. Given her insistence precisely on women’s “outsider” status, and on the particularities of their experiences and perspectives, why oppose language that identifies their cause as sex-specific? “They [those called ‘feminists’] were fighting the same enemy that you are fighting and for the same reasons,” she says; “They were fighting the tyranny of the Fascist state.” But that rather erases that until the rise of the Fascist state, and indeed for those not living in a Fascist state, different groups in fact have different antagonists. She wants to make a distinction between men as private people (she is eloquent, for instance, about the excellent relationships of brothers and sisters in private life) and men as social beings: “we look upon societies as conspiracies that sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist . . . [who] enjoys the dubious pleasures of powers and dominion.” But men and brothers, and societies, do not exist in the abstract, and as her own examples of the ‘infantile fixation” of fathers with controlling their daughters show, the tyranny actual individual women fought was very much the tyranny of their own families, a fact that no analogy or extension to Hitler and Mussolini should erase.

But that’s what Woolf does: she provokes argument even as she compells you with the intelligence and elegance of her writing. I know she met Holtby but did not warm to her (actually, she was quite snooty about her in her letters), but I don’t know if she met Brittain (she read Testament of Youth “with extreme greed”). Do you remember the old TV show “Meeting of Minds,” hosted by Steve Allen? An episode featuring these three would absolutely bristle with intellectual excitement, political commitment, and aesthetic contrasts.

*The explanation for this is in my favorite line of the book: “You, who have read Pendennis, will remember how the mysterious letters A.E.F. figured in the household ledger.” OK, fine, Virginia, I will read Pendennis this summer!

The Summer of Somerville

Now that the dust has mostly settled from the teaching term, I’ve begun organizing my plans for the summer. One of my top priorities is preparing for my new seminar on ‘The Somerville Novelists,’ which is the first official academic manifestation of the reading I’ve been doing about Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, and Margaret Kennedy. Oh, and Dorothy Sayers, except that my interest in her goes back longer and I’ve taught Gaudy Night several times before, so there I don’t feel I am starting so much from scratch.

As I wrote in a previous post about the way reading changes when it becomes research, I am having to think now not just about what I’m interested in but also about what I need to know to do the job. But since there’s no pre-existing definition of “the job,” this early phase has to be both open-ended and creative: ‘there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.’

I’ve actually been thinking that I’d like to preserve that lack of definition going into the course, rather than trying to get everything under control according to a template of my own. I’m enjoying the sense of discovery as I read in this new (to me) material, and ideally that’s something the students will feel too: that together we are finding things out, rather than that they are trying to catch up with my expertise. I don’t think my seminars are usually stifling, but they do often focus on material I know very well and have gone through often with students. This has the advantage that I can steer our discussions in what I know will be significant directions and give guidance on research and assignments that I feel confident about, but it has disadvantages too, not least of which is that there aren’t a lot of surprises, and the level of personal commitment from students isn’t that high. I don’t mean that students don’t work hard and aren’t often very engaged, because I’ve had some great seminar groups and usually the students are enthusiastic about them (at least judging from their course evaluations). But I’d like to see them working together on something they think is important–on something they feel collectively responsible for, rather than accountable to me for.

I’m going to be thinking through the summer about how to organize the course to create this kind of atmosphere, and especially about what kinds of assignments and course requirements to include. I’ve been thinking in terms of class projects – a wiki, perhaps, to go public at the end of term, or a collaborative Prezi (I’ve seen some that cover an enormous amount of content in really interesting ways). I’m also thinking less about critical essays or research papers of the conventional academic kind and more about writing projects that show off the class material for a general audience. If anyone has suggestions, especially of assignment sequences that have worked well when exploring non-canonical material for which there simply aren’t a lot of academic resources, I’d be very interested!

In the meantime, I’m brainstorming lists of things I need to know about that will probably become part of our class discussion, including historical, biographical, and literary contexts and connections. Here’s the list so far, in all its unpolished open-endedness:

  • Individual writers from our list (Brittain, Holtby, Sayers, Kennedy)
  • Core readings (Testament of Youth, South Riding, Gaudy Night, The Constant Nymph)
  • Other books by them not officially assigned to class (perhaps for student projects or presentations)
  • critical / theoretical approaches and contexts
  • History of Somerville / women at Oxford (perhaps women in Canadian universities?)
  • Boer War
  • WWI, especially women in the war (nursing)
  • Suffragist movement
  • Women’s / feminist press, e.g. Time and Tide
  • Other contemporary writers–Olive Schreiner, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Robert Graves, maybe D H Lawrence?
  • Genres, e.g. autobiography
  • Literary movements, e.g. modernism, in relation to our writers
  • Virago Press

I’m thinking in terms of a giant Venn diagram, with all these topics overlapping in different ways. The central artifice of the course is that there’s something coherent about our group of four, but part of what’s so interesting is that there isn’t, really, except that they all went to Somerville at roughly the same time and all became novelists. I’m used to organizing courses that are much more strongly unified by some kind of internal logic, usually thematic (the one I’ve offered most often is ‘The Victorian “Woman Question,”” for instance). Probably (though it’s too early to be sure) we will return regularly to the question of whether we’re doing something that makes any sense, and whether that matters. The diffusion of topics could lead to confusion in the course, so one of my jobs this summer is to bring it under control without spoiling the fun. You can expect lots of updates as I explore.

I’ve started, because it seemed pretty fundamental, with the history of women at Oxford, which has been really interesting to learn about. One of the first things I realized was that this aspect of the new class actually follows much more closely than I had realized from my usual teaching, including the  ‘Woman Question’ seminar, because an instigating factor in the movement of women into Oxford was the pressure to educational reform stimulated by the difficult situation of governesses in the mid-Victorian period (Jane Eyre!) and the statistical imbalance between men and women highlighted in the 1851 census and of increasing concern towards the end of the century (The Odd Women!). Many of the names of early advocates for women’s education are moderately familiar to me from my 19th-century studies: Emily Davis, Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), Matthew and Thomas Arnold, Mary (Mrs. Humphrey Humphry) Ward. George Eliot donated to the founding of Girton College, Cambridge — a modest £50 only, but evidence of the precedence she gave to education over political rights.

And on that note, it’s back to the Oxford History of Oxford!

“The Awfulness of a Life Where Nothing Ever Happens”: Winifred Holtby, The Crowded Street:

Only the last section of The Crowded Street – a mere 16.5 pages – is named for the novel’s protagonist, Muriel Hammond. Each of the other sections is named for another woman whose life preoccupies and dominates Muriel’s: first her schoolmate Clare, then Muriel’s mother, then her sister Connie, then her friend Delia. Structurally, then, The Crowded Street reflects the central problem of Muriel’s life: that she has never been its main character, never lived according to her own values, never pursued-much less fulfilled-her own dreams, never known-much less got-what she wanted.

It’s a risky premise and a risky structure. It’s not, in practice, very interesting to read about someone whose life is so lacking in individual motivation and agency. “All books are the same,” Muriel reflects bitterly, late in the novel; “In books things always happen to people. Why doesn’t somebody write a book about someone to whom nothing ever happens–like me?” If we hadn’t already seen it, this assures us that Holtby has made a deliberate choice to write just such a book. She has risked boring us, alienating us, in order to drive home the point, not that there is something redemptive about a life in which nothing of note happens, but that young women should be liberated from the conventions and expectations that trap them in such a meaningless existence.

The Crowded Street is relentlessly, satirically critical about the stultifying provincial society in which Muriel is raised. Though as a young girl she dreams of studying “Higher Mathematics and the Stars,” such radical ideas are promptly crushed:

Mrs Hancock [her teacher] explained how there were some things that it was not suitable for girls to learn. Astronomy, the science of the stars, was a very instructive pursuit for astronomers [I love the circular logic!], and professors (these latter evidently being a race apart), but it was not one of those things necessary for a girl to learn. ‘How will it help you, dear, when you, in your future life, have, as I hope, a house to look after?’

“Her initial failure sapped her courage,” and Muriel never really tries again. Her passivity in the face of discouragement is frustrating (if, as seems plausible, Holtby had The Mill on the Floss in mind, we get none of Maggie’s rebellion against these gender-specific barriers to knowledge). But Muriel’s passivity is part of her character and stems, sadly, from her better qualities, including a strong sense of duty and loyalty to her family and a desire to help others. Though her grown-up life offers her no personal fulfillment, as long as she feels useful she can at least accept it.

In Muriel’s home community of Marshington, the only recognized option for women is marriage (or “sex success,” as the vicar’s outspoken daughter Delia calls it). Holtby chronicles with painful acuteness the maneuverings of Muriel’s mother (who herself made a questionable marriage) to get her girls accepted into the highest levels of Marshington society and land suitable husbands. Holtby balances satire with poignancy in some of the scenes of Mrs Hammond’s disappointments: the trick, when hearing another girl has caught the young man she thought might choose Connie or Muriel, is to rejoice in her good fortune and wish the new couple every happiness, to regroup, and to try, try again. But as the years go by her desperation increases.

Her daughters react somewhat differently to the pressure. Connie, the wild one, goes off to work as a “land girl” during the war, takes the risk (fairly calculated, it seems) of getting pregnant, and ends up in a loveless marriage when her parents coerce the child’s presumed father into agreeing. Muriel goes to live with her and tries to help her improve her situation a bit, but Muriel is ineffectual and Connie’s story ends miserably. It’s hard not to think that at least Connie screams and fights and runs, but there’s really nothing admirable about her except that emotional rebellion, and that’s not much, especially when she pays for it with her life. This is the price, we see, of respectability, which is the only value recognized by Marshington society.

The price Muriel pays is almost as high, though less literal. As the years go on, it starts to seem inevitable to her that she will never achieve that “sex success” but dwindle into the life of an unappreciated spinster. Her aunt gives her a chilling picture of what lies ahead:

‘Marriage is the–the crown and joy of woman’s life–what we were born for–to have a husband and children, and a little home of her own. Of course there are some of us to whom the Lord has not pleased to give this. I’m sure I’m not complaining. There may be many compensations, and of course He knows best. But–it’s all right when you’re young, Muriel, and there’s always a chance–and when my dear mother was alive and I had someone to look after I am sure no girl could have been happier. It’s when you grow older and the people who needed you are dead. And you haven’t a home nor anyone who wants you–and you hate to stay too long in a house in case someone else should want to come–and of course it’s quite right. Somebody had to look after Mother. Everybody can’t marry. I’m not complaining. I’m sure they’re very kind to me, but I sometimes pray that the good Lord won’t make me wait here very long–that I can die before everyone gets tired of me, and of having me stay around–‘

Now that’s a fate worse than death, isn’t it? And it’s hard to see any alternative, in Marshington. Muriel thought she might have a way out, once: for years she has loved (or at least admired and yearned after) Godfrey Neale, handsome, popular, endearingly stuttering, and once, in the dark, under the impetus of a war-time crisis, Godfrey kissed her. Does the kiss mean nothing or everything? Her answer finally comes with the news of his engagement to the flamboyant Clare. No other prospective suitor appears, and Muriel’s resignation becomes bitter passivity.

But marriage is not the only alternative; other people are not the only means to the end of self-actualization and worth. Muriel finally learns this lesson from Delia, who has left Marshington for London where she work for the Twentieth Century Reform League. “Things happen against our will,” Muriel says to her morosely, when Delia is back visiting Marshington.

We listen, we think, that we are moving on towards some strange, rich carnival, and follow, follow, follow. Then suddenly we find ourselves left alone in a dull crowded street with no one caring and our lives unneeded, and all the fine things that we meant to do, like toys that a child has laid aside.

Delia is impatient with this renunciation of agency. “You can’t wriggle out of responsibility with a metaphor,” she tells Muriel; “Your life is your own, Muriel, nobody can take it from you.” She insists that Muriel recognize that she has been making choices, that society and other people’s expectations are not, in themselves, determining factors. She invites Muriel to move with her to London–which, somewhat unexpectedly, Muriel finds the courage to do. In her new independent life, she begins to discover and use her own strengths and to define her self-worth on her own terms.

Muriel flourishes, but the portion of the novel dedicated to that flourishing is tiny. Did we need to see so clearly, in so much detail, how dull and destructive the world of Marshington (and everything it stands for) is, in order to welcome the alternative? Does that world really need such a long exposé? Not now, but maybe in 1924, when The Crowded Street was first published, it was harder to explain what was wrong with it, or harder to justify  Delia and Muriel’s new life (which was very close to Brittain and Holtby’s, of course). Maybe, too, it was important to thoroughly defamiliarize that world, to take its perfectly ordinary tennis parties and dances and committee meetings and visits for tea and wear us out with them so that we would end up unable to accept them as ordinary, unable to stand it for one more minute. “If ever I had a child,” Muriel tells Delia before her rescue, “and it was born a girl and not beautiful, I believe I’d strangle it rather than think  that it should suffer as I’ve suffered!” To understand that shocking statement as anything but hyperbole, we have to have felt the weight and especially the duration of Muriel’s suffering through “the awfulness of a life where nothing ever happens.”

The first graphic is the elegant endpaper from the handsome Persephone edition of The Crowded Street.