Tag Archives: Women poets of the First World War

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Mrs Featherstone occupied the corner chair in our staffroom, a specially imported armchair unlike the institutional ones provided for the rest of us. I was frightened of her at first, then in awe, then respectful and finally missed her when she retired. She sat throughout the lunch hour, and if children needed to speak to her they were allowed to enter. The rest of us had to speak to children at the door. Mrs Featherstone let it be understood that in her day colouring hair with henna (as I did) was a sign of loose morals. She also told us that before the war she had been required to give up teaching when she married. And she and her husband had bought their first house for £60. No-one, staff, students, headteacher was able to get anything passed Mrs Featherstone. This was in the first days of my teaching career in the 1970s.

164 cover S RidingMrs Beddows, from South Riding, seems to me to be very like Mrs Featherstone. She is the 13th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog.

Mrs Beddows

Alderman Mrs Beddows is 72 and like all the main characters in South Riding a rounded character. She is married to a man so mean that her own generosity is a form of repentance. She uses their social advantage to benefit the community through serving on the Council. In addition to the tedious work of inspecting cash-strapped mental hospitals, interviewing for a new headmistress of the grammar school and the countless committee meetings, Mrs Beddows also manages to dispense charity and find jobs and other solutions to the many difficulties of the inhabitants of her area.

Here is how Winifred Holtby describes her at the opening of the novel

She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beaned benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore day-to-day a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this with a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies. She carried a large bag embroidered with raffia work and had pinned on her rounded bosom the first crimson rose out of her husband’s garden. Actually, she was seventy-two years old, a farmer’s daughter, and had lived in South Riding all her life. (4-5)

There is a great deal of affection in this description. The character may well have been inspired by Winifred Holtby’s own mother.

In both her public and private life Mrs Beddows is loyal. She never complains about her husband’s freeloading and generously provides a home for her neighbour’s daughter. She loves this neighbour, Robert Carne, who is a gentleman farmer finding it hard to keep his farm viable. Not only is agriculture a difficult economic prospect but Carne has the expense of supporting his wife in an asylum.

Mrs Beddows also supports the innovative Sarah Burton, appointed to provide a better education for the girls of the area. Miss Burton attempts to improve the school in the face of lack of interest in girls’ education, weak and inappropriate teaching staff, inadequate buildings and depressed and troubled social backgrounds. She too is supported by Mrs Beddows.

164 S R green coverWinifred Holtby has given us a portrait of an active woman of the county, finding satisfaction and pleasure in being useful to the community. Mrs Beddows is not waiting for death, although aware of her age. ‘The consciousness of her three-score-years-and-ten arose and smote her. There was so much to do that she must leave undone.’ (335) This is her reaction to a tour of the mental hospital. There is an echo here of Winifred Holtby’s own mortality. She knew she was terminally ill with Bright’s Disease, even as she wrote South Riding.

South Riding

Mrs Beddows is only one of the strong characters in this novel, which is broad-ranging enough to have been compared to Middlemarch in its scope. South Riding is a fictional county. It always intrigued me as a child that while we had North, West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, there was no South Riding. And the idea of a Riding conjured up people on horses marking out the boundaries.

This is the story of a rural community in the 1930s, suffering during the depression years, with its inter-relationships, and ambitious people, and inhabitants trying to survive in the hostile economic climate. The community of the South Riding stands for the country in those dire days. Many people were still suffering from the effects of the First World War. Building the Land Fit for Heroes promised by Lloyd George was proving harder than anyone had imagined.

Despite the hardships, the members of the community do support each other, and this spirit may have been evident during the war that was to come within a few years.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

While South Riding is a campaigning novel it does not read like one. It is admirable in its scope and for the careful plotting. It was the final achievement of Winifred Holtby, who died before its publication (March 1936) at the age of 39.

Relevant links:

Reviews on the Age of Uncertainty

And on Booksnob

Review of Land of Green Ginger on this blog.

Winifred Holtby was also a poet. I referred to her in a post about women poets of the First World War.


South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published by Virago Modern Classics since 1988, first published in 1938. 515 pp


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, poetry

The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby

137 LofGG coverThe Land of Green Ginger is the name of a street in Hull, briefly glimpsed by Joanna when she was a child. Its intriguing name represents her ambitions for a life in a different place, for travel, excitement and exoticism. Joanna is an attractive heroine and a very flawed one. Her attraction comes from her otherworldliness and her desire for more than life has offered her. And indeed this belief carries her through to the novel’s conclusion.

Winifred Holtby came from Yorkshire and knew something of women’s lives. She was also a pacifist, conscious of the damage done by the Great War on the men who fought and the society they defended. I reacquainted myself with her through her poems, which I mentioned in a recent post about women poets of the First World War. The effects of the war echo through this book, in Teddy’s illness, in the Paul Szermai’s long story, in the grinding rural poverty of the Dales. It was first published in 1927.

137 St signThe Land of Green Ginger keeps the war in the background and is mainly concerned with the restrictions upon a young woman’s life. Joanna is a flawed heroine and I think a very believable one. Joanna has spirit and imagination, but they lead her into trouble and she is unable to make the best of them until the end of this novel. She suffers the restrictive view of what her neighbours believe is proper behaviour, their condemnation of her lack of ability to fulfil her roles as mother, housekeeper and farmer’s wife. Her ambition and lack of consciousness of what is proper scandalises them. She struggles to rise above her difficulties, especially as she and her family live in desperate poverty, dogged by the ill health of Teddy and their oldest child.137 Virago green cover

Those things that she wished for – travel, excitement and exoticism – come to her life as mixed blessings. She finds love with a young man, because he impresses her with a single comment:

‘I’ve just been given the world to wear as a golden ball.’ (18)

We might understand Joanna’s enthusiasm for Teddy a little more if he had been referring to her, but in fact he has just been passed fit to join up as a soldier in 1914. Later we find out that he was tubercular and being passed fit makes him briefly believe that he is cured. They marry and he returns from the war to Joanna and their two daughters with his health ruined and facing a slow death on their unsuccessful farm.

Deftly, Winifred Holtby paints their declining situation and Joanna’s response to their difficulties. We are being invited to admire her spirit, even if her lack of realism will cause problems.

Scatterthwaite lay two and a half miles from Letherwick in Lindersdale. Like many other farms in the North Riding of Yorkshire it had a house built of grey stone, with a steep roof of dark slate. The house faced a narrow strip of garden with some gooseberry bushes, a mossy path and a weed-grown flower-bed. The back opened onto a yard entered by two gates: one from the high road over the hills, one from the low road round the Fell. …

Joanna used to think that the house was like a ship, and the rolling curve of the moors like great ocean waves. Its windows at night shone like the port-holes of a tramp steamer, ploughing its way up the North Sea in dirty weather. She had never seen ships except in Kingsport Docks and from the esplanade at Hardrascliff, but she felt they were like this …

[They] had been here for five years, and he had lost money every year. (36-7)

Their poverty and difficult farm grind them down until a friendly neighbour supplies them with a lodger. The young man is Hungarian, and provides temporary financial security and some exoticism for Joanna. Foresters from the continent have been brought over to create woodland and their manager Paul Szermai invites Teddy and her to a camp dance. Joanna is captivated by the dancing of these men from unfamiliar countries. Paul has his own sad love story to which Joanna listens with sympathy. The villagers believe she and the Hungarian are having an affair, (even Teddy came to believe it) especially when it is known that she is carrying a third child after Teddy’s death.

This part of the book sits uneasily with present day sensibilities, for Teddy raped her before he died, an act she sees as his bid for life. Marital rape was not a concept in common use in the years between the wars. But we are left in no doubt that it was rape, even if Joanna ‘understands’ Teddy’s motivation.

Joanna eventually attains her ambition to travel and in doing this finds calmness and a companionship in the excitement of her younger daughter. And in a delicate touch, Winifred Holtby also indicates that Joanna was able to influence another younger women to embrace braver futures. Here is the description of a young girl looking at Joanna as they prepare to board a ship to South Africa.

Without being beautiful she conveyed an impression of beauty, and the young wife, watching her, felt new conviction that life was a wonderful and fine adventure, and that her voyage to Africa was going to be the cumulating experience of her youth. The sorrow which had marked the older woman’s face held no fear for the girl, and when, as the tender drew up to the side of the ship, the young wife accidentally knocked against her and apologized, she received a smile so friendly and assured, that the nervousness and emotion of parting from her family left her, and she climbed onto the ship behind her husband with a sense of confidence and freedom. (274)

The novels of Winifred Holtby deserve to be better known. Her women are real, have a vision of a better life and the energy to do something about it. But they are flawed and had to face economic, social and health problems of the inter-war years.

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Winifred Holtby By Jburlinson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Three other book blog reviews of The Land of Green Ginger

Juxtabook also liked Joanna – ‘one of the most startling and memorable heroines that I have had the pleasure to encounter in a long time’.

SheReadsNovels found it dark and emotional but it left her feeling hopeful.

Fleur in her World had mixed, but mostly positive, feelings about it.

The novels of Winifred Holtby

  • Anderby Wold (1923)
  • The Crowded Street (1924)
  • The Land of Green Ginger (1927)
  • Poor Caroline (1931)
  • Mandoa! Mandoa! (1933)
  • South Riding (1936)


Have you read this or other novels by Winifred Holtby? Or her poetry? What were your reactions?


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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews