Shedding a relatively rare light on the plight of rural England in time of war, this novel by A. G. Street (author of the better-known Farmer’s Glory (1932)) concentrates on the story of a single farm in the south west of England. It centres on the character of Phoebe Carpenter, a young farmer’s wife who undergoes a battlefield promotion when her husband, Ralph, goes away to fight in Palestine. This itself is not without some consternation, as Ralph finds himself torn between his duties at home and the broader responsibilities foisted on him by the times (in the end concluding that ‘’I can’t soldier for fun and kudos during peace, and then run to cover under farmin’ when war comes’’). Unfortunately his departure plunges his wife into crisis, and after a period of fruitless hand-wringing it falls to her forthright uncle, the veteran farmer Phil Ferris (married to the equally acid-tongued but less prominently featured Aunt Mary), to provide the necessary stiff words:
‘You’m like too many young people nowadays, lazy and selfish. Makes me sick when I hear ‘em say they didn’t ask to be born, and so things ought to be done to suit ‘em by others. It don’t matter when you’m born, you got to take yer luck, face the conditions in the world at the time whatever they be […] I got no time for you at all. You had the best England had to offer before the war, and now you offer England your worst.’
This has the desired effect; thus chastised, Phoebe undergoes something of a metamorphosis as running the farm becomes (conveniently) the new raison d’être. It is clear, however, that the challenges she faces are in certain respects greater than those of her male counterparts, in terms of overcoming the break with convention that her new role implies. To this extent the novel is framed, implicitly or otherwise, by the question of shifting gender roles in time of war, and by extension the implications of such shifts for post-war Britain. By degrees, and under the guidance of Uncle Phil (who busies himself with, among other things, starting the local Home Guard, which he then neglects to formally join), Phoebe earns the respect and co-operation of her employees and the broader community. Indeed, it is not too long before pupil threatens to outstrip master (certainly outstripping her conservatively-minded husband – ‘Somehow Ralph couldn’t stomach that war-time innovation…’). Yet there are points when Phoebe’s devotion to her new role borders on the neurotic, more about the suppression than the realisation of her potentialities. This has the effect at times of giving a novel which, on the face of it, turns precisely on the theme of rising to the occasion (‘cometh the hour, cometh the woman’) an unduly negative feel. A short-lived romantic encounter with a male colleague is a brief hiatus in an otherwise uninterrupted chronicle of self-discipline which, persuasively or not, contains more than a hint of the embattled literary heroine struggling against the odds.
Street does offer a substantial degree of detail on the minutiae of agricultural work; its unrelenting nature and intimate relationship with the weather and changing seasons. Attention is also paid to the tensions between preserving older skills and methods and the need to keep pace with the times. Ironically it is the latter with which Ralph struggles on his return, while his wife proves herself adept at embracing the modern epoch (of which the contentious purchase of a combine harvester is the most obvious symbol). Certainly the ability to adapt to war-time conditions is one of the chief underlying themes, and to this extent Street’s tale might be read as analogous to the broader plight of the country as a whole, (though the antagonisms between the farming community and Ministry of Agriculture are also laid bare). In the main what we get is a steadfastly anti-romantic, yet appealing and readable account of the condition of British agricultural life by the early 1940s. As Uncle Phil is apt to point out:
I treat farmin’ for what it is, a business, and that fashion enable it to provide a bit of romance, any road a decent way of life. These damn fools that be always squawkin’ about farmin’ bein’ a way of life would soon have it a way of misery for all concerned.
Street’s account is abetted further by his use of local dialect, lending the novel a fuller sense of realism and added authenticity. Clearly this is irrevocably bound up with Street’s occupation as a farmer as well as writer; consequently there is little of the idealization towards which the urban onlooker might be tempted. Uncle Phil makes no secret of his contempt for the urban business classes (‘’while slackin’ ain’t noticed in a big business, it sticks out like a sore toe on a farm’’), underlining the sense that, for better or worse – and in times of peace and war – these are people living up against the coalface of reality, and that in the end (as the title suggests) it is survival which is the name of the game.
Reply posted by Chris Hopkins. I read Holdfast (1946) last month when the Reading 1900-1950 reading groups turned their attention to novels dealing with ‘Occupations’ (as it turned out a rich and varied topic). I remembered you had reviewed it, Neil, and agree with pretty much everything you say. It was very educational about matters agricultural and rural (though I felt the knowledge was woven quite skilfully into the story), and particularly engaged with the adoption of modern mechanised farming methods during WW2.
One thing I noticed was that there was a sustained parallel drawn between the experience of the young male farm-owner away in the army and that of his wife who, at first very much against her will, has to take over the management of the farm for the duration. Thus Ralph Carpenter goes away in 1939 with his Yeomanry cavalry regiment on horseback to Palestine, and subsequently reports in his letters that horses have been replaced by tanks which they are learning to operate (he does not sound that keen on the change). Meanwhile, his wife Phoebe is on a steep learning curve, but, from a position of knowing little of farming, is soon (often grudgingly) acknowledged as the most up-to-date and efficient farmer in the area, largely because of her investment in difficult to get combine harvesters and in modern grain sorting, drying and storage facilities. This makes an important contribution to the war effort in increasing her production per acre.
Phoebe’s agricultural and personal triumph over and in adversity does give the novel some structural problems in that she becomes absolutely the most interesting and central character. Despite his serious war wounds, when Ralph returns from North Africa after Al Elamein, it is difficult to find him very interesting, especially as he frankly admits that he knows much less than Phoebe about mechanised and modern farming and is inclined to leave it all to Phoebe, though he has been invalided out of the Army (his experience with tanks does not seem to be transferable to combine harvesters – maybe his driver, gunner and radio operator did the maintenance). He also feels insecure and somewhat emasculated by this situation. However, once Phoebe becomes pregnant, ‘normal’ gender roles are restored and Phoebe is confident that if she could survive a steep modern agricultural learning curve then Ralph will be able to emulate her example. It seems in fact best to accept Holdfast as an interestingly woman-centred wartime novel.
I very much enjoyed the novel despite little previous knowledge of farming methods between 1939 and 1944. A.G. Street seems a remarkable author in his combination of farming knowledge and his ability to write a more than satisfactory novel. Though the novel’s techniques are mainly conventional, its approach to gender seems a little out of the ordinary for a male author of the period. In short, I’d recommend reading Holdfast both for reading pleasure and gender and agricultural education.