The 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.
The 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.
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.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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