Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby, the youngest daughter of David Holtby, a prosperous Yorkshire farmer, was born in Rudston, on 23rd June, 1898. Her mother, Alice Winn (1858-1939), was the first alderwoman in Yorkshire.

Holtby attended Queen Margaret's School (1909–16) in Scarborough (1909–16). After a year as a probationer nurse in a London nursing home, she went up to Somerville College in October 1917. Hotby's boyfriend, Harry Pearson, joined the British Army and served on the Western Front during the First World War. She later recalled: "I was sixteen when the war started. The first thing it made me do was fall in love. Brevity of life makes passion more insistent. The youngest and fittest in uniform. The erotic attraction of death."

Holtby added that: "He (Pearson) told me about all the enormities he had seen at the front - the mouthless mangled faces, the human ribs whence rats would steal, the frenzied tortured horses, with leg or quarter rent away, still living; the rotted farms, the dazed and hopeless peasants; his innumerable suffering comrades; the desert of no-man's-land; and all the thunder and moaning of war; and the reek and freezing of war; and the driving - the callous, perpetual driving by some great force which shovelled warm human hearts and bodies, warm human hopes, by the million into the furnace." Despite these stories Holtby left university in 1918 and joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and served in France. She later recalled that she had: "(a) The desire to suffer and to die - especially when suffering is associated with glory. (b) Fear of immunity from danger when our friends are suffering."

In 1919 she returned to Oxford University where she met Vera Brittain. Her new friend explained in her autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933): "I was staring gloomily at the Oxford engravings and photographs graphs of the Dolomites which clustered together so companionably upon the Dean's study wall, when Winifred Holtby burst suddenly in upon this morose atmosphere of ruminant lethargy. Superbly tall, and vigorous as the young Diana with her long straight limbs and her golden hair, her vitality smote with the effect of a blow upon my jaded nerves. Only too well aware that I had lost that youth and energy for ever, I found myself furiously resenting its possessor. Obstinately disregarding the strong-featured, sensitive face and the eager, shining blue eyes, I felt quite triumphant because - having returned from France less than a month before - she didn't appear to have read any of the books which the Dean had suggested as indispensable introductions to our Period."

Winifred and Vera graduated together in 1921 and they moved to London where they shared a flat in Doughty Street. They hoped to establish themselves as writers. Vera's first two novels, The Dark Tide (1923) and Not Without Honour (1925) sold badly and were ignored by the critics. However, Winifred had more success with Anderby Wold (1923) and The Crowded Street (1924).

In June 1925, Vera married the academic, George Edward Catlin. As Mark Bostridge has pointed out: "When Brittain and Catlin set up home in London after their marriage, Holtby joined them as the third member of the household. Catlin never overcame his resentment at his wife's friendship with the woman Vera described as her second self. He knew, in spite of all the gossip to the contrary, that the Brittain-Holtby relationship had never been a lesbian one, but its closeness still rankled."

Vera and her husband moved to the United States when her husband became a a professor at Cornell University. Vera found it difficult to settle in America and after the birth of her two children, John (1927) and Shirley (1930) she moved back to England where she lived with Winifred Holtby. The two women were extremely close and Vera once described Winifred as her "second self".

Winifred helped to bring up Vera's two children. Shirley Williams, later wrote: "She (Winifred Holtby) was tremendous fun and understood, better than any other grown-up, children's fantasies and fears. We had a dressing-up box full of discarded hats and dresses, scarves and masks and wooden necklaces from Africa. We would perform for our parents the plays Winifred wrote for us... I was a boisterous child, so Winifred, despite her frailty, joined in our rougher games as well. She would crawl around the nursery, balancing cushions on her back, while I rode on top, pretending to direct an elephant from my howdah."

Holtby was a socialist and feminist. She wrote that: "Personally, I am a feminist... because I dislike everything that feminism implies.… I want to be about the work in which my real interests lie... But while injustice is done and opportunity denied to the great majority of women, I shall have to be a feminist." Like her companion, Vera Brittain, Winifred was a pacifist and lectured extensively for the League of Nations Union. Winifred gradually became more critical of the class system and inherited privileges and by the late 1920s was active in the Independent Labour Party.

Winifred's relationship with Vera created a certain amount of gossip. Vera's daughter, Shirley Williams, argued: "Some critics and commentators have suggested that their relationship must have been a lesbian one. My mother deeply resented this. She felt that it was inspired by a subtle anti-feminism to the effect that women could never be real friends unless there was a sexual motivation, while the friendships of men had been celebrated in literature from classical times. My mother was instinctively heterosexual. But as a famous woman author holding progressive opinions, she became an icon to feminists and in particular to lesbian feminists." However, Vera's husband, George Edward Catlin, did not approve of the relationship. He wrote later: "You preferred her to me. It humiliated me and ate me up."

In 1926 Winifred Holtby became one of the directors of the feminist journal, Time and Tide. In an article published in August of that year she wrote: "Hitherto, society has drawn one prime division between two sections of people, the line of sex-differentiation, with men above and women below. The Old Feminists believe that the conception of this line, and the attempt to preserve it by political and economic laws and social traditions not only checks the development of the woman's personality, but prevents her from making that contribution to the common good which is the privilege and the obligation of every human being. While the inequality exists, while injustice is done and opportunities denied to the great majority of women, I shall have to be a feminist, and an Old Feminist, with the motto Equality First. And I shan't be happy till I get it."

Holtby took a keen interests in the struggle for equal rights in South Africa. She criticised General Jan Smuts when he failed to stop the introduction of racist legislation. Holtby argued that the reason for this was that "because for Smuts and his contemporaries, the human horizon does not yet extend to coloured races, as, for Fox and his 18th-century contemporaries, it did not extend to English women."

Vera's daughter, Shirley Williams, enjoyed living with Winifred: "What I remember above all about Winifred Holtby is her radiance. She was a ray of sunshine in the intense and preoccupied atmosphere of home life in my early years.... She was Viking-like in appearance, impressively statuesque with bright blue eyes and very pale flaxen hair."

Winifred Holtby published another novel, The Land of Green Ginger, in 1927. However, as Alan Bishop has pointed out: "Holtby's lively, stylish, witty articles and reviews soon gained her a high reputation as a journalist. She wrote for The Manchester Guardian and a regular weekly article for the trade union magazine, The Schoolmistress. Books publishing during this period included, Poor Caroline (1931), a critical study of Virginia Woolf (1932), Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933) and a volume of short stories, Truth is Not Sober (1934).

In the early 1930s Winifred began to suffer with high-blood-pressure, recurrent headaches and bouts of lassitude. According to Shirley Williams: "She was subject to bouts of serious illness, the consequence of a childhood episode of scarlet fever that led to sclerosis of the kidneys". Eventually she was diagnosed as suffering from Bright's Disease. Her doctor told her that she probably only had two years to live. Aware she was dying, Winifred put all her remaining energy into what became her most important book, South Riding.

Vera Brittain later recalled that she asked Harry Pearson to tell "Winifred he loved her and always had; that he'd like to marry her when she was better". She added that on 28th September, 1935: "At about three o'clock Hilda Reid rang up to say that Dr. Obermer had been round to the home and had already put Winifred under morphia; she was now unconscious and would never be permitted to come back to consciousness again. Later I learnt that Dr. Obermer did this because after Harry had been with Winifred she was so happy and excited that he feared a violent convulsion for her, with physical pain and mental anguish; and that he thought it best to let her go out on that moment of happiness, with the cruel realization that what she was hoping could never be fulfilled."

The following day Vera went to visit Winifred at the nursing home at 23 Devonshire Street in Marylebone: "Shortly after six o'clock I realised that she was breathing more shallowly, while her pulse was slower and weaker. After almost a quarter of an hour her pulse, which I was holding, had almost stopped, and her breathing seemed to come from her throat only... It was strange, incredible, after all the years of our friendship and all that we had shared together, to feel her life flickering out under my hand. Suddenly her pulse stopped; she had given two or three deeper breaths and then these ceased and I thought she had stopped breathing too; but after a moment came one final, lingering sigh, and then everything was at an end."

Winifred Holtby died on 29th September, 1935. Vera Brittain was Winifred's literary executor, and was determined to make sure South Riding was published. However, as Mark Bostridge has pointed out: "The major obstacle she faced was the indomitable figure of Holtby's mother, Alice, the first woman alderman of the East Riding. She feared that her daughter's depiction of local government, allied to the vein of satire and puckish mischief familiar from her earlier books, might expose her own job to criticism and ridicule... Alice Holtby remained obdurate in her opposition to the book's publication, forcing Brittain to adopt a strategy of mild subterfuge, negotiating the uncorrected typescript through probate in order to have the novel ready for publication by Collins in the spring of 1936."

Alice Holtby immediately resigned from the East Riding County Council when South Riding was published. It received excellent reviews. One critic claimed: "The most public-spirited novel of her generation." The novel was adapted for the cinema in 1938 starring Edna Best as Sarah Burton, Ralph Richardson as Robert Carne and Edmund Gwenn as Alfred Huggins.

Vera Brittain subsequently wrote about her relationship with Winifred Holtby in her book Testament of Friendship (1940). It was adapted for television by Yorkshire Television in 1974, starring Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton, Nigel Davenport as Robert Carne and Judi Bowker as Midge Carne. An adaptation by Andrew Davies, starring Anna Maxwell Martin, David Morrissey, Peter Firth, Penelope Wilton, Douglas Henshall and John Henshaw appeared on BBC in 2011.

He told me about all the enormities he had seen at the front - the mouthless mangled faces, the human ribs whence rats would steal, the frenzied tortured horses, with leg or quarter rent away, still living; the rotted farms, the dazed and hopeless peasants; his innumerable suffering comrades; the desert of no-man's-land; and all the thunder and moaning of war; and the reek and freezing of war; and the driving - the callous, perpetual driving by some great force which shovelled warm human hearts and bodies, warm human hopes, by the million into the furnace.

(a) The desire to suffer and to die - especially when suffering is associated with glory. (b) Fear of immunity from danger when our friends are suffering.

It always seemed to me then that I yielded to desire to join the W.A.A.C., a desire which my poorer contemporaries, who had to hurry through with their preparations to earn livings, could not afford to indulge in. I had been so infinitely happier both nursing and in the W.A.A.C. than I had been in that ghastly year at Oxford in 1917, that it never occurred to me that Army life was anything but a fortunate privilege.

I cannot describe it excepting that it was one of the most wonderful things I ever saw or heard in my life. There were fifteen thousand of us there, all in khaki. The band was splendid, and I wish you could have heard those 15,000 girls all singing 'Fight the Good Fight' with the rolling drums of the military band. The preacher was very good and very simple. Many of the girls were sobbing when he had finished.

I was sixteen when the war started. The erotic attraction of death.

Miss Holtby, my tutor told me, was anxious, like myself, to study the nineteenth century; she had also been down from college for a year serving in the W.A.A.C., so perhaps that too would form a link between us. Quite sure that it would not, and wishing that I could have had the Dean to myself, I sauntered lugubriously down to Hertford, where I was to meet this stranger towards whom I felt so unaccountably antagonistic.

I was staring gloomily at the Oxford engravings and photographs of the Dolomites which clustered together so companionably upon the Dean's study wall, when Winifred Holtby burst suddenly in upon the morose atmosphere of ruminant lethargy. Only too aware that I had lost that youth and energy for ever, I found myself furiously resenting its possessor.

Hitherto, society has drawn one prime division between two sections of people, the line of sex-differentiation, with men above and women below. The Old Feminists believe that the conception of this line, and the attempt to preserve it by political and economic laws and social traditions not only checks the development of the woman's personality, but prevents her from making that contribution to the common good which is the privilege and the obligation of every human being.

While the inequality exists, while injustice is done and opportunities denied to the great majority of women, I shall have to be a feminist, and an Old Feminist, with the motto Equality First. And I shan't be happy till I get it.

She (Winifred Holtby) was tremendous fun and understood, better than any other grown-up, children's fantasies and fears. She would crawl around the nursery, balancing cushions on her back, while I rode on top, pretending to direct an elephant from my howdah.

There are today in England - and in France and Germany and Austria and Italy, one imagines - women peacefully married to men whom they respect, for whom they feel deep affection and whose children they have borne, who will yet turn heartsick and lose colour at the sight of a khaki-clad figure, a lean ghost from a lost age, a word, a memory. These are they whose youth was violently severed by war and death; a word on the telephone, a scribbled line on paper, and their future ceased. They have built up their lives again, but their safety is not absolute, their fortress not impregnable.

Friday 27th September, 1935: I told him that I thought Harry ought to tell Winifred he loved her and always had; that he'd like to marry her when she was better; and that only another man could put this over to him in such a way that he wouldn't be offended or frightened; and that it should be done at once, because, for all our renewed hopes, time might be short.

Saturday 28th September, 1935: At about three o'clock Hilda Reid rang up to say that Dr. Obermer had been round to the home and had already put Winifred under morphia; she was now unconscious and would never be permitted to come back to consciousness again.

Later I learnt that Dr. Obermer did this because after Harry had been with Winifred she was so happy and excited that he feared a violent convulsion for her, with physical pain and mental anguish; and that he thought it best to let her go out on that moment of happiness, with the cruel realization that what she was hoping could never be fulfilled.

The room was dim, with a shaded lamp, but I saw at once that Winifred had changed, and though her pulse was still tolerably strong, she was breathing very shallowly, and wore the look that I had so often seen on the faces of dying men in the War. Her lips were only slightly parted; her eyes were serenely closed and her hair brushed back from the forehead. She looked utterly at peace - "like a tired child", as Gordon said afterwards, "who has at last had a good night after many bad ones".

Shortly after six o'clock I realised that she was breathing more shallowly, while her pulse was slower and weaker. After almost a quarter of an hour her pulse, which I was holding, had almost stopped, and her breathing seemed to come from her throat only. I nodded to Gordon and he came and stood beside her. Suddenly her pulse stopped; she had given two or three deeper breaths and then these ceased and I thought she had stopped breathing too; but after a moment came one final, lingering sigh, and then everything was at an end.

But when I came to consider local government, I began to see how it was in essence the first line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies-poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, and social maladjustment. The battle is not faultlessly conducted, nor are the motives of those who take part in it all righteousness or disinterested. But the war, is, I believe worth fighting... we are not only single individuals, each face to face with eternity and our separate spirits; we are members one of another.

Spent most of the morning reading Vera Brittain on Winifred Holtby - frightfully bad, but it aroused various reflections. It is a glorification of the second-rate and sentimental and reeks of femininity. Why should woman on woman so painfully lack irony, humour or bite? And it's too winsome and noble, somehow. But much of that belongs to the First War, and not to women only. (There it is in Rupert Brooke.) A musty aroma of danger glamourized and not understood by girls at home floats out of this book. Vera Brittain writes of the number of women now happily married and with children who still hark back to a khaki ghost which stands for the most acute and upsetting feelings they have ever had in their lives. Which is true I think, and the worst of it is that the ghost is often almost entirely a creature of their imagination.

My parents, my brother and I, and my mother's dear friend Winifred Holtby lived in a long, thin house at 19 Glebe Place, Chelsea, a street much favoured by artists, actors and other Chelsea characters. John and I loved Auntie Winifred. Tall and blonde, she radiated a gaiety that helped to dispel the sadness in my mother's life. They had met at Somerville college, Oxford, and had sharedd flats in London. Both were regarded as progressive writers, addressing topics like feminism and equal rights not much discussed in conventional society.

Some critics and commentators have suggested that their relationship must have been a lesbian one. But as a famous woman author holding progressive opinions, she became an icon to feminists and in particular to lesbian feminists. She sometimes took me with her when she met lesbian women who were besotted with her, to indicate her own commitment to marriage and family.

In the early period of their friendship, Holtby had rescued Brittain from grief at the loss during the war of her brother and her fiancé, Roland Leighton. After Holtby's death, Brittain attempted to repay the debt by ensuring, as her friend's literary executor, that her final and most significant work saw the light of day. The major obstacle she faced was the indomitable figure of Holtby's mother, Alice, the first woman alderman of the East Riding. She feared that her daughter's depiction of local government, allied to the vein of satire and "puckish mischief" familiar from her earlier books, might expose her own job to criticism and ridicule. Holtby had tried to allay these fears in a "Prefatory Letter" to her mother in which she admitted that while Mrs Holtby's descriptions had first alerted her to the drama of English local government, her material for the novel had emanated from sources "unknown to you".

This wasn't strictly true. Holtby had used council minutes taken from her mother's wastepaper basket to help plot her story. In 1932 she had attended the public inquiry into a land purchase scandal in Hull, which had led to the suicide of a long-serving Conservative member of the council, guilty of making profits from land sales. This case would provide the basis for the scheming of Alderman Snaith and Councillor Huggins in the novel. The real-life models for the book's locale are also clearly identifiable. Although the South Riding is a fictional place – there are only North, West and East Ridings, since "riding" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "thriding", meaning a third – Holtby's novel is located in the East Riding she knew so well. Kingsport is instantly recognisable as Hull. Kiplington, the coastal town where Sarah Burton is headmistress, is an amalgam of Hornsea and Withernsea, the seaside towns where Holtby lodged while writing the book. The novel's Cold Harbour Colony, the ex-servicemen's colony of smallholdings, is based on Sunk Island, the area of Holderness that rose from the waters of the Humber, while Robert Carne's decaying Maythorpe Hall was inspired by the White Hall in Winestead, which Holtby would have observed, shuttered and derelict, as a passenger on the Hull-Withernsea railway...

Sarah Burton is the book's chief advocate for social change, and an optimistic believer in the eradication of disease, poverty and ignorance through greater governmental intervention in people's lives. She gets her "astonishing" red hair from the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson, Holtby's colleague at Time and Tide, and as a headmistress she is reminiscent of Jean McWilliam, Holtby's friend from her wartime service in France with the WAACs, who later went to teach in Pretoria. But, most of all, Sarah is Holtby herself, never more so than when she is defending the right of single women to lead fruitful, independent lives. "I was born to be a spinster," Sarah tells herself, "and by God, I'm going to spin."

Burton puts her trust in the power of collective action by local government to create a more beneficent "English landscape". As she explains to Alderman Mrs Beddows (whose "racy tongue" was borrowed from Holtby's mother): "If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like." Yet the novel recognises that chance still has a hand to play. Lydia Holly, the talented girl from the slum dwellings known as the Shacks, is rescued from the domestic dead-end of caring for her younger siblings not by Burton's efforts, but by Mr Holly's remarriage, which frees Lydia to return to school. And it is chance that makes progressive, idealistic Burton fall in love with the local squire Robert Carne, a symbolic figure of reaction, who opposes the expansion of local government and the widespread benefits it would bring.


Tag: Winifred Holtby

On 25th March 1725, Sir John Warton died at 77 in Beverley. He was reputed to be the richest man in England, even though his father’s estates had been depleted by fines to Parliament for Royalism. He was elected MP for Hull, and twice MP for Beverley, but took little active interest in Parliament. In his will, he left £4,000 for the repair of Beverley Minster, £1,000 to Warton’s Hospital, £500 to the charity school, £100 to the poor and £100 to each parish in Beverley. photo shows Warton’s Hospital

On 25th March 1780, Peter Horsfield, a negro servant to Mr Knowsley, curate of Boynton, married Elizabeth Lawson, daughter of the vicar of Weaverthorpe. It was fashionable at the time for rich families to employ black servants.

On 25th March 1868, Rev John Healey Bromby died at 97 at Hull Charterhouse he was up to then the oldest working minister of the Church of England.

On 25th March 1904, a ‘Smoking Café and Lounge’ was opened in the basement of the Prudential Building, Victoria Square, a landmark Hull building. In 1941, the whole building was demolished by a German bomb.

On 25th March 1927, the Ministry of Agriculture closed the Crown Colony at Sunk Island, a failed experimental farm settlement for ex-servicemen set up during WW1. This is referred to in Winifred Holtby’s ‘South Riding’ as Cold Harbour colony.


Praise for Winifred Holtby

‘Amazingly rich and complex … we meet every kind of human being. Courage and vitality blow like a high wind through her story.’ L.P. HARTLEY, OBSERVER

‘Sarah Burton is an excellently drawn portrait - vivid, human, and without a false or inconsistent line. It is rare to find a novel with so much richness.’ GUARDIAN

Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) novelist, journalist and critic, was born in Rudston, Yorkshire. Her remarkable life and tragically early death are movingly portrayed by her close friend Vera Brittain in Testament of Friendship.

Esta obra maestra de Winifred Holtby es una rica evocación de la vida y las relaciones de 160 personajes que pueblan South Riding (el Distrito del Sur) de una inesperada belleza. Sarah Burton, su protagonista, es una ardiente y joven directora de una escuela de niñas. Mrs. Beddows, concejala del distrito, es un personaje inspirado en la propia madre de Holtby, y Robert Carne, un conservador caballero encerrado en un matrimonio desastroso. De él se enamora Sarah Burton, una mujer de extremos. Esta historia ofrece una vista panorámica e inolvidable de la vida de la campiña inglesa durante la primera mitad del siglo xx.

Esta novela, convertida en un gran clásico de la literatura europea, fue publicada póstumamente en marzo de 1936 por la escritora y amiga Vera Brittain, y obtuvo el James Tait Black Memorial Prize en el mismo año. Ha sido llevada al cine y adaptada a la televisión en varias ocasiones, y es uno de los pocos libros que no ha sido descatalogado desde su publicación hasta la fecha.

La traducción ha sido revisada, actualizada y anotada.

Virginia Woolf is one of the most important writers of the twentieth century.

Part of the Bloomsbury set, she lived surrounded by other artists and writers, and her novels and essays have inspired generations of readers and writers ever since their publication.

Her personal struggles with depression and mental illness, and her feminist beliefs come across strongly in her work, illuminating an important period in British social history, not just for women’s rights, but for a whole nation scarred by the effects of two world wars.

Winifred Holtby gives us Woolf the critic, the essayist and the experimental novelist in this critical memoir which is of particular interest as the work of one intelligent, though very different, novelist commenting on another.

Holtby’s careful reading of Woolf’s work is set in the context of the debate between modernist and traditional writing in the 1920s and 1930s.

Although Holtby greatly admires Woolf’s art, she considers its limitations as an elite form that ignores the material conditions of everyday life and the consequent social responsibility expected of the novel.

Choosing to write about Woolf as ‘the author whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own,’ Holtby has written a candid appreciation of the complex, groundbreaking work of a contemporary writer at the height of her career.

Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was an English novelist and journalist. She is also the author of the ‘South Riding’ series.


The story of the friendship between Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain

As Vera Brittain’s Life of her companion Winifred Holtby is republished, Mark Bostridge examines the friendship between two timeless writers.

"Although we didn’t exactly grow up together,” Vera Brittain once wrote of her relationship with fellow writer Winifred Holtby, “we grew mature together and that is the next best thing.”

For 16 years, until Holtby’s untimely death, at the age of 37, from kidney failure caused by Bright’s disease, the two women had enjoyed a close companionship. As friends they had been intimates. As writers they were the most decisive influences on each other’s work. It was a relationship, above all, that made significant contributions to the writing of two bestselling masterpieces, which have stood the test of time: Brittain’s memoir of the cataclysmic effect of the First World War on her generation, Testament of Youth, and Holtby’s South Riding, her novel about a Yorkshire community struggling in the grip of the Great Depression of the Thirties.

After Holtby’s death, Brittain memorialised their friendship in a biography of Winifred which, she hoped, would remind people “of the glowing, radiant generous, golden creature whom we have lost”. This friendship has achieved iconic status, as an example of an emotionally and intellectually supportive relationship between two women, of a kind rarely recorded in literature.

It’s soon to be portrayed on the big screen, in a film adaptation of Testament of Youth, produced by BBC Films, and Heyday Films, makers of Harry Potter. The concluding scenes of Juliette Towhidi’s screenplay provide what are in essence two happy endings: Vera Brittain’s marriage to the political scientist George Catlin, and the continuation of her working partnership with Winifred Holtby, who will be no less integral to the domestic equation of husband, wife, and wife’s best friend than Catlin is.

Yet Brittain and Holtby’s initial encounters as undergraduates at Somerville, Oxford, had been marked by undisguised hostility. “We did not, to begin with, like each other at all,” Brittain later admitted. Physically and temperamentally, they were total opposites. Brittain was small, dark and moody, while Holtby was tall, blonde and gregarious. At shared tutorials, Vera felt nothing but resentment towards Winifred’s vitality.

Vera had returned to Oxford in 1919 raw and scarred by the war, in which she had lost her fiancé, Roland Leighton, and only brother in action, and witnessed death and mutilation firsthand – having four years earlier gone to nurse – in London, Malta and France. She was bitter at what she regarded as the insensitivity of her younger Somerville contemporaries towards her war experience. They were irritated by her obsessive preoccupation with the war, in which most of them had been too young to serve. At a Somerville debate, Vera was invited by Winifred, as the secretary of the society, to propose the motion that “four years’ travel are a better education than four years at a university”. Winifred then delivered a witty indictment of Vera’s superiority towards those who had not shared her experiences.

Vera’s humiliation was deeply felt. But from Winifred’s subsequent recognition of Vera’s emotional fragility emerged a relationship that was to be mutually satisfying and beneficial. Winifred’s warmth and generosity, her need to be needed, which was such a strong component of her personality, would sustain Vera as she rebuilt her life and attempted to fulfil her literary ambitions. Vera, for her part, would help to mould Winifred’s future as a writer, as well as encouraging her interest in working for women’s rights.

After leaving Oxford in 1921, they set up home together in Bloomsbury, and later in Maida Vale. From here they published their debut novels, Winifred’s Anderby Wold and Vera’s The Dark Tide, unceremoniously burned in Oxford’s Cornmarket by Somervillians offended by its portrait of college life, as well as launching themselves as journalists and lecturers.

They saw themselves, in a sense, as part of the generation of “surplus women”, who, as a result of the deaths in the war of three-quarters of a million British men, might never find husbands. It always seemed unlikely, though, that Vera, conventionally pretty and keen to be her own test-case for her feminist theories that a woman could be married with children and have a successful career, would remain unattached for long, and in 1924 she accepted a proposal from a young academic, George Catlin. Winifred promised Catlin she would arrange “a quite neat and painless divorce” for herself from Vera. But after more than a year apart, during which Vera failed to make a satisfactory life for herself at her husband’s American university, Winifred joined the Brittain-Catlin household in London, subsequently becoming an honorary aunt to Vera’s two children.

Some of Winifred’s friends remained resentful of Vera’s dominant place in her life and the demands she made upon her. To the novelist Stella Benson, Vera was Winifred’s “bloodsucking friend”, while the critic St John Ervine advised Winifred to divorce Vera “citing Catlin as co-respondent”.

However, the working partnership remained firm. In 1933, when Vera was close to breakdown in the final stages of writing Testament of Youth, it was Winifred who acted as conciliator, stepping in to appease Catlin, who had raised stringent objections to his appearance in his wife’s autobiography. Vera played a similar role in the months following Winifred’s death in 1935, ensuring that South Riding was published to universal acclaim, in the face of opposition from Winifred’s mother, who feared the consequences of the book’s local government theme for her own position as an East Riding county councillor.

It was perhaps inevitable in the wake of Winifred’s early death that Vera should decide to write a biography of her. Testament of Friendship was published in 1940 and remains a vibrant portrait of Winifred by the person who probably knew her best, as well as a moving record of a literary friendship.

In one important respect, however, the book fails to do Winifred justice. She had always been a proud defender of the right of single women to lead fruitful, independent lives. Yet, Vera, always defensive about the question of Winifred’s sexuality and unsubstantiated rumours that the two women had had a lesbian relationship, created an unconvincing heterosexual love story for Testament of Friendship, uniting Winifred with Harry Pearson, her childhood sweetheart, in a deathbed happy ending.

In some ways, a truer testament to the Brittain-Holtby friendship is contained in their correspondence, housed at the new History Centre in Hull (the city which appears, thinly disguised, in Winifred’s fiction). In these letters, domestic trivia – the perennial middle-class problem of finding space in a tiny flat for a maid – jostle alongside more profound pronouncements.

Assessing the relative importance of husband and best friend, Vera assures Winifred that “You are more necessary to me because you further my work, whereas he merely makes me happy.” In lighter vein she remarks that “Much as I love my husband, I would not sacrifice one published article for a night of sexual passion.” Commenting on the obscenity charge brought against Radclyffe Hall in 1928 for The Well of Loneliness, Winifred remarks: “To love other women deeply is not pathological. To be unable to control one’s passions is.”

Was Winifred Holtby in love with Vera Brittain to the extent that she had to control her own passions? Vera was adamant that she and Winifred had not been lovers, and nothing in their letters suggests otherwise. On the other hand, no one reading them could fail to be touched by the protective tenderness that Winifred expresses for Vera, her “very small, very dear love”. Yet the correspondence also makes clear that beyond personal sentiment Winifred loved Vera for the values she embodied, and which she taught her to share: the rejection of war and a determination for the betterment of women’s lives.

As she lay dying in a London nursing home, Winifred acknowledged the twin characteristics of this remarkable friendship. “Whatever I may do,” she told Vera in one of their final conversations, “remember that I love you dearly… I’m immensely grateful to you – you’re the person who’s made me.”

* Testament of Friendship: the Story of Winifred Holtby by Vera Brittain is published by Virago Modern Classics at £12.99


Holtby

Winifred Holtby, the writer of South Riding, was born and lived at Rudston House on Long Street.

In 2015, there are a number of events in the village to commemorate Winifred Holtby’s birth:

DateEventLocation
11th and 12th April Travelling exhibitionVillage Hall
May 17thWalk where Winifred walkedVillage Hall
May 28Her Yorkshire roots and family connectionsVillage Hall
27th 28th JuneWinifred Holtby birthday weekendRudston House and garden
11th -14th SeptemberFlower festival based on the life and works of Winifred HolbyAll Saints Church
19th SeptemberWinifred Holtby Society visit to Rudston. Starts at Hull History Centre at 10:00.Various

A one page list with full details can be downloaded by clicking here.

A flyer about the Winifred Holtby Society event can be downloaded by clicking here.


South Riding (84 minutes), British film, directed by D. Victor Saville, starring Ralph Richardson, Edna Clements, Marie Löhr , Milton Rosmer, and Glynis Johns , 1938.

"Testament of Friendship," BBC television series (1981), a serial devoted to Vera Brittain's three "testaments," including Testament of Youth and Testament of Experience.

Jill Benton , author of Naomi Mitchison: A Biography, and Professor of English and World Literature at Pitzer College, Claremont, California

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The New Old Woman of the 1930s: Aging and Women’s History in Woolf, Sackville-West, and Holtby

In the decade following the victory of the Franchise Act of 1928, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, and Winifred Holtby all wrote novels representing older female protagonists as active, vital, critical thinkers. Working against the backdrop of the over-determined meanings of youth and age created by both the progressive discourses of the suffrage movement and the backlash against them, these authors represent older heroines positioned in alliance with younger women. The novels respond to a cultural hostility towards older women and spinsters, but they also use older protagonists to represent an element of women’s history, positioning them as critical sifters of the traditions of the past who have something essential to contribute to the future of the women’s movement.

KEYWORDS: British Modernism, Aging, Suffrage Movement, Women’s History, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Winifred Holtby


Female Poets of The First World War

Winifred was born in Rudston, Yorkshire on 23rd June 1898. Her Father was David Holtby and her Mother, Alice, was the first woman to be an Alderwoman on the East Riding County Council. Winifred went to St. Margaret’s School in Scarborough and was going to go to Oxford in 1917 but instead joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and in early 1918 she was sent to France as part of a signals unit.

In 1919, Winifred went up to Oxford, where she met Vera Brittain who became her life-long friend and in 1921 she became one of the first women to be awarded a degree by that University.
Winifred was a feminist, pacifist, writer, poet and journalist – working for The Manchester Guardian, Daily Express, Evening Standard, Good Housekeeping and The News Chronicle. Winifred’s debut novel “Anderby Wold” was published in 1923.

She travelled widely, lecturing for the League of Nations, wrote a book about Virginia Woolf, which was published in 1932 and “Women in a Changing Civilisation” for the Women’s Movement, which was published in 1934.

In 1931, she was diagnosed with Brights Disease and she died in 1935.

Of all the 14 books Winifred wrote, the most famous – the novel, “South Riding”, which was published in 1936 after her death - was made into a film and twice into a television series. Hull History Centre holds many of Winifred’s papers and an academy school in Hull has been named after her.

Hearing them hunt you down, my dear, and you,
Hearing them carry you away to die,
Trying to warn you of the beasts, the beasts !
Then, no, thought I
So foul a dream as this cannot be true,
And calmed myself, hearing their cry no more.
Till, from the silence, broke a trembling roar,
And I heard, far away,
The growling thunder of their joyless feasts –
The beasts had got you then, the beasts, the beasts –
And knew the nightmare true.


Re-visiting the friendship of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: a ‘trade’ in work and desire

This article re-visits the friendship of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby through some (largely unpublished) correspondence exchanged in 1926. Building on a body of literature which asserts the personal and professional importance of this friendship, my own analysis moves beyond what I identify as a polarisation of ‘work’ and ‘sexuality’ and reveals a friendship where professional and erotic interests are engaged in a dynamic exchange. In addition, I argue that the ways in which work and desire ‘trade’ with each other in this friendship are symptomatic of material and discursive conditions concerning women's work and sexuality in the interwar period. Specifically, ‘work’ will be seen to stand in for and legitimise a friendship which may be placed under censorious scrutiny, while ‘desire’ is displaced onto real professional ambitions which become possible at this historical moment. Brittain and Holtby were among scores of middle-class women becoming professional writers in large numbers for the first time in English history. Their ‘trade’ in work and desire invites more complex readings of other intense friendships which enabled women to succeed in professional life like never before.


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