Poor Caroline (1931) by Winifred Holtby

Book review by Sylvia D:  Poor Caroline is a satire in which Holtby pokes fun at the worlds of philanthropy and religion but also introduces other themes: the loneliness and frustrations of old age, the position of women in interwar society, and the lingering impact of the First World War on those who fought in it. It was the fourth of her novels to be published.

Poor Caroline is Caroline Audrey Denton-Smith – a small, plump elderly spinster who peers at the world through a lorgnette and is bedecked with chains and beads. Her clothes are preposterous: ‘a red hat, with its huge ribbon bows and sweeping pheasant’s feather, bobbed triumphantly above her fizzled hair. Her green coat shone with age, but it was elaborately decorated with lumps and bands of sealskin, the fur worn to that soft ruddy opalescence which it acquires with extreme decrepitude. Her shoes were worse than inadequate, they were shameful’. However, her shabbiness wore ‘an air of picturesque and debonair eccentricity’. She has snobby Northern relatives who speak of her with contempt. Over the years she has been a school matron, an agent for educational books, secretary to a Rescue Home and a travelling companion. She lives in penury in a bedsit in London and shamelessly borrows money from people knowing she will never be able to pay it back. She is hopelessly impractical and dreams of being rich and successful. She comes up with the idea of establishing the Christian Cinema Company which will make “pure” and British films as an antidote to the immoral offerings of Hollywood. She assembles a motley board of directors and the story of the Company and of Caroline is told through the eyes of each Board member in turn.

The chairman is Basil St Denis – an impoverished minor aristocrat. He has been to Oxford but came down without a degree; he is good-looking, foppish, languid, with elegant clothes and manners. He is married to and managed by Gloria, ‘a large magnificently built brunette, with warm brown colouring and mobile eyebrows’. As one of the other directors comments, ‘Not one of those female anchovies, all leg and lipstick’. It is Gloria who persuades St Denis to give up his life of leisure and get involved in the company.

Then there is Joseph Isenbaum – a rich, successful businessman who, ‘cherished a wistful and often misplaced devotion to the Best’. However, he has poor taste and judgement and only ended up with ‘a catholic collection of monstrosities’. He struggles to be accepted by society and when he finally has a son, Benjamin, after the disappointment of five daughters, is frustrated in his attempts to get his son accepted for Eton. He hopes he can buy the friendship of Etonian St Denis by joining him in what he sees as a ‘wild-cat enterprise’. It is Isenbaum who initially bankrolls the company.

Next up is Clifton Roderick Johnson, a big, hearty man, gone to seed, with big yellow, neglected teeth. ‘His clothes smelt of tobacco and whisky and he had a wild western air’. e
He drawls with an American/Canadian accent and has an air of self-assurance. He is the sole proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing which is nothing more than a scam. He is revealed to be a swindler and a philanderer.

Board member number four is Hugh Macafee – a young, tall, thin, lugubrious Scot. He has invented the Tona Perfecta film. He spends all day and every day beavering away in his lab in a crumbling factory. He has a very poor opinion of women and sees his fellow directors as a ‘pack of children playing at the serious and important business of adults’. He gives them a deadline in which to raise the £3,000 he demands for his Tona Perfecta film.

The final board member is Mr Charles Fry Fox Guerdon, a thin, bloodless Quaker who is too insipid and timid to warrant a chapter of his own!

The money for the film comes from the motherless Eleanor de la Roux, a distant relative of Caroline’s, who has come to London from South Africa grieving for her father killed in a car accident. Eleanor is a petite, independent young woman who is determined to have a successful career but she is inspired to invest most of her inheritance by a sermon preached by Father Roger Mortimer in Caroline’s church. Mortimer is a good-looking young clergyman who is very kind, thoughtful and learned but in Eleanor’s eyes, as a clergyman, ‘not quite a proper man’. It takes a long time but they finally declare their love for each other.

It is only towards the end of the novel that we get a chapter about Caroline herself. By now the company has virtually disintegrated. St Denis’s health has deteriorated and he has back to the south of France. Isenbaum has succeeded in getting his son down for Eton and is carefully unavailable when the subject of the need for more investment arises. Johnson’s misdemeanours are catching up with him so he helps himself to the remaining funds and disappears into Europe. Macafee is offered a job in the States by a prominent film maker who sees possibilities in his process for making colour films. By now Caroline is also in love with Roger Mortimer but discovers he is only interested in Eleanor and is intending to take a mission job on the other side of the river. She offers Eleanor a place on the board but discovers Eleanor is thinking of going to America – everything seems to be falling apart. And then she is knocked down by a car and ends up in the Poor Law infirmary with a broken thigh. Caroline continues to work and plan from her bed. The rest of the time she lies and dreams. She recalls her happy childhood, she remembers snatches of the poetry she wrote when younger, the loss of the one man who had once kissed her but married her best friend, the sale of her home when her mother died and left large debts, and her past jobs. And then she dies,’ a brave if battered adventurer striving through storms and perils towards a splendid harbour’.

The novel has the occasional dark streak – both St Denis and Roger have survived the First World War and are still affected by their experiences – St Denis’ health is not good and Roger is haunted by the horrors he has seen and the loss of two good friends.

It can also be quite cutting in its treatment of the world of philanthropy. Macafee for instance sees Caroline’s world as the world of uplift, good works and propaganda. ‘It had its own inhabitants, busy middle-aged women in drab clothes, elderly, rather querulous Quakers and Socialists, blossoming round-bellied Liberal Philanthropists, earnest young women with spectacles and pimples, clergy with saccharine manners, social workers carrying bags heavy with reports and pamphlets and it has its own language and its own activities. For Eleanor, charity might enable one to play providence a little: ‘That’s what most charity is – a way of making oneself an amateur God’.

There is plenty of humour. The description of Caroline’s funeral is amusing. It is conducted by Anglo-Catholic Father Mortimer assisted by Caroline’s low church cousin, Ernest Smith, who deplores the dark stuffy church, the incense, the oils, the bobbing, the unfamiliar words. ‘Naturally he had wanted to take some part in his cousin’s funeral service; but if he had known, if he had had the slightest idea, of the discomfort and embarrassment to which he would be subjected, he would not have come near the place’. Quaker Mr Guerdon takes yet another view of the proceedings.

Caroline’s will is a treat – she lavishly bequeaths money she hasn’t got and worthless shares in the company to all and sundry with piquant little comments such as ‘To my nephews, Claude and William, sons of my late dear sister . . . I leave the sum of £50 each in token of my total forgiveness of all their past neglect’.

And why ‘Poor Caroline’? Each character, both board members and non-board members, sees Caroline in a different light but whether they are contemptuous of her, frustrated with her or taken aback by her, everyone pities her and thus most chapters end with the same words, ‘Poor Caroline’. This novel is very entertaining and it is refreshing to have the rare instance of a main character who is over 70. It does though have an underlying feel of melancholy and I found it very different from other Holtby novels I have read.

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