Winifred Holtby

In an email on an entirely different matter, I was reminded of the wonderful work of Winifred Holtby (1898-1935). She is another who wrote in the 1930’s in England, describing the new and more open world for women after World War I. I first learned of her through the 1979 television adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933). I read Brittain’s memoir right away, and then the next two volumes, the second of which is titled Testament of Friendship (1940) in which she honors her dear friend Winifred Holtby, who died at age 37 in 1935. (Brittain extended her memoir to a third volume, Testament of Experience (1957).)

Like Dorothy L. Sayers and her group of friends, Holtby and Brittain attended Somerville College in Oxford a few years after The Mutual Admiration Society. They also wrote their experiences into the complicated history of war, The Great Depression, and the continued struggle for women to be treated equally. Holtby’s most famous novel, published posthumously in 1936, is South Riding. It won the James Tait Black Memorial prize in 1936 and it was recently adapted for television. Holtby didn’t see the acclaim this novel received because of her death the year before. She was buried in Rudstone in the East Riding of Yorkshire, just steps from the house where she was born. This is engraved on her tombstone: God give me work, till my life shall end And life, till my work is done.

40 years ago one of my mentors, Mary Hinderlie, found me a copy of Women and a Changing Civilization by Winifred Holtby, published in 1935. At the end of her description of needed changes, she writes this: “We might, perhaps, consider individuals, not primarily as members of this or that race, sex, and status. We might be content to love the individual, perceiving in him or her a spirit which is divine as well as human and which has little to do with the accident of the body. We might allow individual ability rather than social tradition to determine what vocation each member of our community should follow. And it is possible that in such a world we should find a variety of personality undreamed of to-day, a social solidarity to-day rendered unimaginable by prejudices, grievances, fears and repulsions, a radiance of adventure, of happiness and satisfaction now only hinted at by poets and prophets.” I think Holtby is describing our same needs today.

The book mentioned in the email that got me here is The Crowded Street and it’s on my list to read. South Riding is the most available, so I recommend that to you all.

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