A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This reprint of Winifred Holtby’s Letters to a Friend, her letters to Jean McWilliam from 1920 to 1935, is a joy and a delight to read. Even if one were not particularly interested in the period’s politics, literary figures, fashions or the business of scrambling to make a living as a history teacher and journalist while writing novels, all of which she writes about with gusto and penetration, these letters are simply lovely pieces of writing. Winifred Holtby is probably best known now for her last novel, South Riding (1936), which was made into a BBC TV series some time ago, and her close friendship with Vera Brittain. She died tragically early, at the age of 37, in 1935, with six novels published and clearly so much more to do in her world. She never married, she had affectionate and deeply-felt friendships with women and men, and she loved, simply loved, to dress. She was a tall Yorkshirewoman with big feet, and made a lot of her own clothes. The dress-making descriptions in her letters, of the colours and fabrics and the trimmings that she put together before breakfast or before going to bed, into gowns for dancing in, and lecturing in, and taking tea with George Bernard Shaw and G K Chesterton, are entrancing, and humbling. Not once does she mention a sewing machine, though she complains often enough about her fountain pen and typewriter breaking down.
She takes her professions very seriously, and sees herself as one of many struggling writers who have to make a living while retaining intellectual integrity. She studied history at Oxford, in the same year as many other writers. ‘What a year of fiction writers we were – Margaret Kennedy, Dorothy Sayers, Sylvia Thomson, Hilda Reid, Vera and myself. Well, well. Oxford doesn’t like us. We aren’t “scholarly” – but my word, I’ve done better and more scholarly work reading for my Wycliff book, I’ll bet, than half a hundred of their pet lambs in horn-rimmed spectacles who write theses on the Personnel in the Commons in the First Four Years of the Reign of Henry VI and so on. If it doesn’t come out right it’ll be my fault as an artist rather than a scholar’ (31 July 1925).
I thoroughly enjoyed these letters for the glimpses of the future that she sees without knowing it, and for descriptions of the home life and daily routine of the now admired and famous, who were not particularly well-known then. Vera Brittain has been written about many times since. These letters show moments of domestic quietness in the flats they shared, and a dogged concentration on their political missions. Winifred runs into Rose Macaulay quite a lot, she finds that Stella Benson actually wants to meet and be friends, and she is astonished but pleased to hear that one of her letters has induced John Buchan to support her feminist cause.
Winifred was a politician as well as a history teacher and a novelist. In between her sessional teaching in girls’ schools and adult evening classes, she worked for the League of Nations Union, and travelled to Geneva, and once to South Africa, to report and lecture for them. Her South African trip was originally to see Jean, who was then the headmistress of the Pretoria Girls’ High School, but it turned into a fact-finding mission, investigating with some alarm a rigid society on its way to adopting apartheid.
Scattered throughout these letters are the stories of the writing of her novels. She agonises over the drudgery of writing Anderby Wold, her first novel, and possibly her dourest. The Crowded Street came next – a Virago reprint like most of Holtby’s novels, and recently reprinted by Persephone – and later The Land of Green Ginger, a novel she began in high spirits and ended up hating. The novel I really wanted to read after reading these letters was her Wycliff book, a historical novel set in the 14th century. I don’t think it’s ever been published.
These letters edited by Jean McWilliam seem to have been the first memoir of Holtby to have been published after her death, followed by memoirs by Evelyn White and Vera Brittain’s very famous Testament of a Friend. They show Holtby working ardently and vigorously in the centre of her own life, not shunted into the background as she is in the version that is filtered through Vera Brittain, and with influence and energy that must have produced so much good work and influential writing. And, yes, there was a tortoise, called Adolphus, which lived in a cardboard box in their living room. Who couldn’t like a person like that?
Winifred Holtby, Letters to a Friend (1937), (Michael Walmer Books, 2014), ISBN 978 0 9924220 2 8.
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