Books: Short life of a Viking

The Clear Stream: A Life of Winifred Holtby by Marion Shaw Virago pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
Writing the life story of someone who died comparatively young is a task which presents a particular set of problems for the biographer. Whereas biographers of men and women who live into old age are able to plot a meaningful trajectory of their lives and achievements, those writing about lives cut short often leave the reader with more questions than answers, and sometimes lead us into fairly fruitless speculation about how their subject might have developed had he or she fulfilled their biblical span.

In the case of Winifred Holtby, the Yorkshire-born writer and reformer, who died in 1935 from Bright's Disease a few months after her 37th birthday, and shortly after completing her fifth and most important novel, South Riding, the ways in which her destiny might have shaped itself seem open to multiple possibilities. She had already packed so much into a short career, making her mark as a novelist and journalist, as a leading feminist and pacifist of the interwar years, and as a prime campaigner in the unionisation of black South African workers. It's tempting to hazard a guess, for instance, that her social reformer's conscience might have increasingly drawn her into the arena of active politics. She had always been torn between her obligations to her art and obligations to society, and perhaps she might have even have become an MP like her Time and Tide colleague Ellen Wilkinson, whose red hair and fiery temperament is shared by Sarah Burton, the headmistress heroine of South Riding (though probably in the Independent Labour Party rather than the less radical mainstream party).

Along with this frustrating guesswork, Winifred Holtby's life presents other problems for her biographer. The first is that she was almost universally seen by her contemporaries to be the embodiment of goodness. As Marion Shaw comments in the introduction to her new book, Holtby's enduring image is of generosity, eagerness, and "lovely kindness". Memories of her physical presence echo this. One person remembered how the lights in a room seemed to become brighter when Winifred Holtby walked into it, while Shirley Williams, who was only five when Winifred, her adoptive aunt, died, recalls someone of almost mythical physical attributes, a "Viking" with bright hair and blue eyes. A "nullifying sanctification" has taken place in the years since Holtby's untimely death, and, as Shaw recognises, good people are unlikely to be as interesting to read about as the wicked or even the ordinarily flawed.

More perplexing is the fact that there is an empty space at the centre of Winifred Holtby's life which has much to do with her own reticence and self-deprecation, but which also derives from her simple belief that she never really had a life of her own. "My existence," she told her great friend Vera Brittain in the last year of her life, "seems to me like a clear stream which has simply reflected other people's stories and problems." And it's true that although her life was extraordinarily full and fulfilled, it doesn't slip easily into the conventional biographical form which is so dependent on the "human interest" element. Holtby never married or had children, and she had no great love affair. "There was ... nothing obviously intense, climactic, sensational, or even tragic about her," Shaw notes, "except, of course, her early death." Shaw takes Winifred Holtby at her word and, bravely dispensing with a strictly chronological and narrative structure, searches for Holtby in her writing, and in the interests and causes by which, in the absence of a committed emotional relationship, she defined herself.

Holtby is best known today for two things: South Riding and her friendship with Vera Brittain, whom she met at Oxford in 1919 and whose life was closely intertwined with hers for the next 16 years. Brittain undoubtedly knew Holtby better than anyone else, though their relationship was not, as was rumoured in Holtby's lifetime and afterwards, a lesbian one. "Although we didn't exactly grow up together," Brittain once wrote to the critic St John Ervine, "we grew mature together, and that is the next best thing." In 1940 Brittain published her biography of Holtby, Testament of Friendship. While the book boosted Holtby's posthumous reputation, and presented a view of the friendships of women as "ennobling" which would one day make the Brittain-Holtby relationship a significant one for new-wave feminists, it is unsatisfactory as biography. Brittain's portrait of Holtby is too clouded by her own grief and by her guilt at having exploited her best friend's generosity even, unwittingly, during her final illness.

Furthermore, Brittain, perhaps unconsciously, constantly portrays herself as the "star" of the friendship and Holtby as a pitiful saint, which has the effect of seriously downgrading one of the major achievements of Holtby's life: her positive presentation of herself in the image of an independent woman. "No chance of a love affair here in the South Riding, and a good thing too!" Sarah Burton declares to herself as she arrives in Kiplington to become headmistress. "I was born to be a spinster and, by God, I'm going to spin." Marion Shaw skilfully displaces Vera Brittain from the centre of Winifred Holtby's life. Brittain is still there in focus, but the decision allows Shaw to range more freely over other important relationships which flesh out the character: with Margaret Rhondda, the proprietor of the feminist journal Time and Tide, who called Holtby the most important journalist in London; with Alice Holtby, Winifred's mother, a powerful matriarchal figure who became the first woman county councillor of the East Riding; and Jean McWilliam, "Rosalind" to Winifred's "Celia" in the published Letters to Friend, whom Holtby met while serving in Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in France in 1918.

While Holtby had no great love affair, she did have an on-off relationship for much of her life with Harry Pearson, her "boy friend" as she ironically called him, whom she first met in childhood when he came to play at her father's farm at Rudston. Vera Brittain called Harry "a war casualty of the spirit" (though Shaw does some interesting spadework in casting doubt on Harry's account of his war and subsequent army service). He drifted after the war, finding it difficult to settle down or discover any sense of purpose, and would suddenly turn up to see Winifred, promising much but failing to deliver, unable to rouse himself from "the lethargy of hopelessness".

For Shaw, Holtby's attitude of "generalised benevolence" was achieved at the expense of sexual satisfaction. Harry's fecklessness taught her "that love should not be importunate, that love denied could be sublimated into work ... that it is more fulfilling to love than be loved". These lessons are worked out in Holtby's fiction, in the failed love affair between Sarah Burton and Robert Carne in South Riding, and in some of her short stories, a selection of which are published this month by Virago, edited by Shaw and Paul Berry, under the title Remember, Remember!

The Clear Stream gives full weight to Winifred Holtby's political activities, to her feminism and her work for the League of Nations Union. But it is the chapter on Holtby's immersion in South African affairs (based on the Holtby papers at Hull, recently awarded a Lottery grant in the interests of their preservation) which charts less familiar territory. "Equality of liberty, status and opportunities" was Holtby's motto, and that applied as much to blacks and Jews and to other "oppressed and humiliated creatures", as it did to women. Following her 1926 tour of South Africa, Holtby became actively committed to supporting and financially maintaining the black Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU). For a time it seemed that the ICU would change the whole face of South African political and industrial relations, but by the early 1930s, the union was in a state of schism.

And so to South Riding which has proved the least ephemeral of Winifred Holtby's achievements. A best-seller on its publication, five months after Holtby's death, it went on to become a successful 1938 film (albeit with a happy ending), a television series in the early 1970s, and has been read and dramatised on radio several times.

Its popularity seems enduring, though the novel's traditionalism and conformity mask an altogether more radical "English Landscape" in which a progressive, practical vision routs narrow conservation and unites with a fighting belief in "the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health, and wisdom". Marion Shaw's clever, sparkling book does full justice to a remarkable woman whose whole life was dedicated to working towards such an end.