I’m sure that most of us have authors who follow us around – not literally, you understand, although I swear Ian McEwan keeps getting on the same bus as me and the authorities have been notified. No, I mean the authors we keep seeing mentioned, or on the shelves of bookshops, or recommended to us, and we’re sure that we’ll love them, only… we never quite get around to reading them.
Well, Winifred Holtby is one such author for me. I’ve known about South Riding for about as long as I’ve been reading novels, and it used to be in more or less every bookshop I visited. Eventually I took the hint, and bought it. And, of course, there has been the recent television series, not to mention the beautiful Virago reprints. So… I read her book about Virginia Woolf.
Yep, I’ve still not read any Holtby fiction, even though my shelves are full of the stuff, but I have read Virginia Woolf (1932), which my friend Lucy gave me back in 2010. Oh, and having mentioned in my Felixstowe talk that I sometimes put sketches on SiaB, I realised that (a) I still need to make my Year Six Sketches post, and (b) I haven’t put up a sketch for ages. So there’s one of an early draft of the cover for Holtby’s book…
You’ve got to admire Winifred Holtby’s guts for writing about Virginia Woolf in the early 1930s. Not only was Virginia Woolf alive, but their respective reputations were even further apart than they are now – Holtby was a respected writer on women’s issues, but as a novelist, she was realms away from Woolf. In a literary society more firmly divided into highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow than we would now recognise, it was audacious (to say the least) for Holtby to dare to write critically about Virginia Woolf. I use the word ‘critically’ in its neutral sense – that is, an assessment. Holtby subtitled this ‘a critical memoir’, and it is far closer to an analysis and critique than it is a memoir – indeed, let’s call a spade a spade. For much of the time, Virginia Woolf is an appreciation. And that suits me down to the ground. Reading Holtby’s book reminded me that Woolf is, in my opinion, the greatest writer of the 20th century.
Let’s set the scene. When Holtby was writing this, Woolf had recently published The Waves, easily her most experimental book. (I imagine few people would have guessed that her final two novels [The Years and Between the Acts] would be a return to more traditional narratives; until that point, her writing had got steadily more and more experimental with prose style). So she had certainly done enough to establish her place as one of the best and most important writers alive, with Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Orlando, and The Waves (sometimes known as The Big Four, possibly only by me) under her belt – but, of course, none of her diaries or letters had been published. It is very intriguing to read an account by a woman who knew her tangentially, and had met and corresponded with her, and yet knew so much less of her internal life than has been revealed now to anybody who buys a copy of A Writer’s Diary (which is exceptionally brilliant) or flicks through the six volumes of her letters.
But Holtby can do what none of us can do, and give a firsthand impression of Woolf:
Tall, graceful, exceedingly slender, she creates an impression of curbed but indestructible vitality. An artist, sitting near her during a series of concerts given by the Léner quartette, said afterwards, “She makes me think of a frozen falcon; she is so still, and so alert.” The description does in some measure suggest her elegance veiling such intellectual decision, her shyness lit by such irony. Meeting all contacts with the world lightly yet courageously; withdrawn, but not disdainful; in love with experience yet exceedingly fastidious; detached, yet keenly, almost passionately interested; she watches the strange postures and pretences of humanity, preserving beneath her formidable dignity and restraint a generosity, a belief, and a radiant acceptance of life unsurprised by any living writer.
The biographical section of Virginia Woolf focuses chiefly on what it would be like to grow up with Leslie Stephen for a father – a man of letters, known for his work on the Dictionary of National Biography – and doesn’t look much at her adulthood, marriage, or the Bloomsbury group. Perhaps that is to be expected, knowing that Woolf would read it (and not being a prurient person – what halcyon days those must have been!) So, instead, she turns her attention to Woolf’s writing.
I have to say, I was really surprised by how modern Holtby’s criticism felt. I knew that Woolf was much admired during her lifetime, but so much of Holtby’s critique was so adroit, and covered arguments I’d assumed were rather more recent (such as comparing Jacob’s Room to filmmaking, or noting the importance of time in Mrs Dalloway.) Even her assessment of Woolf’s greatest and least achievements seemed to me completely to reflect decades of later discussion – with Night and Day at the bottom, and The Waves at the top. Comments like this one were illuminating:
She has never understood the stupid. Whenever she tries to draw a character like Betty Flanders or Mrs. Denham, she loses her way. They are more foreign to her than princes were to Jane Austen. Her imagination falters on the threshold of stupidity.
How beautifully phrased, too! As I say, I’ve not read any of Holtby’s fiction – I have read part of Women and the odd essay – but it seems that something of the precision and beauty of Woolf’s writing has been picked up by Holtby, and seems to lace her sentences here. And that mention of Jane Austen reminds me – Holtby names a chapter ‘Virginia Woolf is not Jane Austen’. Curious that the distinction was felt necessary, but I think Holtby puts forth an excellent point when she says that Night and Day is a somewhat failed attempt to write in the Austen school of fiction. One of the reasons it doesn’t work is explained by Holtby:
The events of a novel must appear important. Trivial though they may be, they must create the illusion that they fill the universe. Jane Austen was able to create the illusion that a delayed proposal or an invitation to a ball could fill the universe, because, so far as her little world was concerned, it did. But in England during the twentieth-century war no single domestic activity was without reference to that tremendous, undomestic violence. At any moment a telegram might arrive; the sirens might signal an approaching air-raid; somebody might come unexpectedly home on leave. The interest of every occupation, from buying groceries to writing a love-letter, was in some measure deflected to France, Egypt or Gallipoli.
But reading about Woolf’s early, non-experimental fiction probably isn’t why anybody would pick up a critical memoir. Instead, I was keen to find out how her characteristic, Modernist prose struck Holtby. Woolf is now famous for distorting the sentence, for stream of consciousness writing and playing with the conventions of prose. She is not alone in doing this, of course, but she is perhaps the best. Well, Holtby writes brilliantly about that too. This paragraph describes the earliest of Woolf’s experimental novels, Jacob’s Room, and the segue from that to her Big Four:
She had thrown overboard much that had been commonly considered indispensable to the novel: descriptions of places and families, explanations of environment, a plot of external action, dramatic scenes, climaxes, conclusions, and almost all those link-sentences which bind one episode to the next. But much remained to her. She had retained her preoccupation with life and death, with character, and with the effect of characters grouped and inter-acting. She had kept her consciousness of time and movement. She knew how present and past are interwoven, and how to-day depends so much upon knowledge and memory of yesterday, and fear for or confidence in to-morrow. She was still preoccupied with moral values; she was immensely excited about form and the way in which the patterns of life grow more and more complex as one regards them. And she was more sure now both of herself and of her public. She dared take greater risks with them, confident that they would not let her down.
Yes, Winifred, yes! What an excellent understanding of the elements of the traditional novel that Woolf kept, and those that she left behind her. Which does beg the question – if she was able to identify Woolf’s genius so perfectly, and analyse the techniques she used, why did Holtby herself not try them? (Or at least, I have always assumed her novels followed a more traditional format.) To some is given the gift of being at the forefront of literature; to others, the ability to recognise it. Each needs the other.
Not that Woolf seems to have been particularly grateful. Marion Shaw’s introduction (in the edition I have, pictured) is useful on the myriad mentions Woolf makes of the biography in her letters and diaries. I shan’t go into detail, but essentially Woolf was rather patronising and contradictory – par for the course for a woman who wrote wonderfully, but would have been rather a nightmare to know, particularly if one happened to be poorer or younger than her (and she’d have hated me for being a Christian). Would Holtby have minded about this reception? I rather think she might – she clearly puts Woolf-the-writer on a pedestal, and probably wanted to please Woolf-the-woman too. Or, who knows, maybe Holtby would have been satisfied with having paid homage to the novels, and not worried too much about the author?
The only biography I’ve read of Virginia Woolf before this one was Hermione Lee’s exhaustive tome – and, my goodness, it was exhausting too. Very scholarly, incredibly thorough, and quite a chore to read. For my money, Winifred Holtby’s is much more worthwhile for the average reader – a unique perspective on one of Britain’s greatest writers, by one whose fiction I now really must read…