‘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.”