With Winifred Holtby we return once more to the novelists of the 1900-1950 who have been found acceptable to the modern palate. The Crowded Street was among the first Virago reprints in 1981, and is now in print with Persephone.
Review by George Simmers (see his blog Great War Books)
Muriel, the heroine of this novel, is scornful about conventional fiction:
Read? All books are the same – about beautiful girls who get married or married women who fall in love with their husbands. In books things always happen to people. Why doesn’t someone write a book about someone to whom nothing ever happens – like me?(219)
This speech sums up the technical challenge that Winifred Holtby has set herself in this novel. Muriel is, in the eyes of others, a rather dim character: awkward and shy; the perpetual wallflower at dances; a young woman who lets her flickers of ambition be doused by her practical mother. Life and excitement happen to other people: an acquaintance becomes a militant suffragette and social reformer; her sister becomes pregnant and makes a disastrous marriage. To her, nothing happens except a dull apologetic routine. Although she is caught in the bombardment of Scarborough, even the Great War makes little difference to her life – just some minor inconveniences and some (mostly missed) social opportunities:
But sometimes – one wonders -you know, I don’t know how the war could have made a difference. It was only a grocery shortage here, and an influx of officers and the arrival of the Graingers.
It’s a measure of Winifred Holtby’s skill as a novelist that she keeps the reader (or this reader at least) interested in Muriel’s internal life, even as she lets herself be spiritually suffocated by the provincial values of Marshington, where a young woman is valued according to her skill in attracting a husband.
Muriel’s mother is a well-drawn character – a woman who married beneath her to a successful trader, and slowly fought her way into the better Marshington society. She is a battler who fights for her daughters, working on the local eligible bachelors for them, and showing her strength when Connie, the younger daughter, becomes pregnant outside wedlock.
There are two other strong women who Muriel rather despairingly measures herself against. One is Claire, a brilliant singer confident in her own beauty, who gets through several husbands and lovers, including the man whom poor Muriel allows herself to hope for.
The other is Delia, a young woman at the centre of Marshington society who rejects Marshington values. She goes to university, and becomes a tireless – and sometimes insensitive – political campaigner (the character is partly based on Vera Brittain). It is she who gives Muriel her chance to leave home, and to find her own niche, unmarried, useful, but gradually finding her own voice.
In the last chapters of the book, the rather glamorous local squire adored by all the Marshington girls finally recognises Muriel’s worth and proposes to her. You wonder – will Winifred Holtby give her a Cinderella ending after all? No. Muriel sticks to her new-found wisdom, and stays away from the small town that has constricted her.
Winifred Holtby set out to write a deliberately unconventional novel. Her publisher, John Lane’s, were sure that it would not sell. Their reader’s report commented:
It has no passion, not even for freedom. As a love story, it is cold as the north pole. The unattractive heroine will appeal neither to the sexually unattractive, who will be repelled by this ruthless but calm analysis of their failures, nor to the sexually attractive, who will ignore her, as they do in life. (Letters to a Friend, 244)
Despite such misgivings, the firm accepted the book, but it does not seem to have been profitable. In May 1925 Winifred Holtby wrote: ‘Until December 31st it only made £14 10s for me! I may make £20 with luck from the whole thing.’ (Letters to a Friend, 332)
Reviews were mostly respectful, and Winifred Holtby knew that the book had struck a chord with some readers. In a letter of April, 1925, she wrote about one very direct response to the book:
‘Last Friday […] a girl came to the flat and asked for me. She was well dressed, quite nice-looking, but seemed to be desperately nervous and in trouble. [….] She had read The Crowded Street, and being a Muriel, though with a rather different – and sadder – story, she felt that she had come to the end of her tether. She had to speak to someone and, being singularly friendless. She came to me. [….] I am sending her to a nerve specialist first, and then have found what I think are the two things she needs most – a man to take her out – and out of herself – and some work to do.’ (Letters to a Friend, 327)
Reference: Winifred Holtby, Letters to a Friend:edited by Alice Holtby and Jean McWilliam (London: Collins, 1937)