I have to confess it's been a funny old reading month.
Days would pass and I would realise I hadn't had a minute to open a book, let alone concentrate for long enough to read one, so I have no idea why I suddenly decided to read Winifred Holtby other than hearing mention of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth and in connection with some rather vociferous criticism on BBC Radio 4's Front Row of the latest BBC TV Great War offering The Crimson Field. Such vehement criticism can sometimes backfire and in this case create a strangely inverse effect, resulting in a digging in of heels and the determination that I would give this series a fair chance and find things to like about it...
I look upon all these 9pm on a Sunday night TV series as a variation of Downton. They fill a particular slot before the week begins and I have a low threshold of expectation for anything superlative, rather something enjoyable. There's Call the Midwife aka Downton with Forceps, and now The Crimson Field aka Downton with Bandages as it recounted tales of nurses at the Front, and whilst I know many people have found it dire, Bookhound and I really enjoyed it for what it was...Sunday night drama, and Offspringette, with her hyper-critical ex BBC post-production editor hat on was likewise very impressed. We thought the acting was excellent and if you watched it didn't you just love the rather gauche and naive Flora played by Alice St Clair...she absolutely nailed the role to perfection as did so many of the other actors, with the final episode having me on the brink of tears.
The very vocal critic on the radio suggested that a re-run of Testament of Youth would have been preferable but in fact there is a new film version on the way and The Crimson Field was something entirely different, offering a much broader scope. Not just one central character but many, and revealing the differing impact of the carnage and their various coping strategies along the way, plus tent flaps seem to have been left open on the storylines for a second series and we for two would watch it.
But back to Winifred Holtby and The Crowded Street published in 1924, and how easily could Muriel have been one of those girls nursing at the front had her overbearing family not laid claim to her life already, with the monotonous round of committees, needlework and the interminable wait for a husband. Not even a suitable one to be honest...any offers would have been welcome.
Muriel the eldest of two daughters of Arthur and Rachel Hammond is born and bred in Miller's Rise in Marshington (can't you just tell how 'bogged' down the place must be); the eleven-bedroomed, triple bathroomed family home bought with the proceeds of Arthur's succesful business ventures. Arthur is ponderous and aggressive, radiating heat and energy and with a vulgar turn of phrase that betrays his working class origins, whilst Muriel his daughter is sensitive and ambitious, eager to learn astronomy at school but the nuns prevail and needlework it is. The aim of the education of girls at Hardrascliffe is to learn to be a comfort to their parents...the school motto 'Loeta sorte mea' saying it all...Happy in my lot.
Poor Muriel is a loner, the one not chosen (haven't we all been there in those dire netball team choosings) and as her Coming Out approaches, and the chaperoned dances and parties proliferate, the whole process somehow foreshadows the dichotomy of a woman's world... sit quietly in the drawing room yet be the life and soul of the party. Sadly Muriel, hopelessly uncomfortable in her own skin, never seems quite able to find the party, her blank dance card ominously suggesting the story of her life to come.
I think I may have been unaware of the pressure for those not directly or even indirectly involved with the Great War until I read The Crowded Street. There was a form of levelling social kudos to be attained because, regardless of class, to be 'in' the war meant respect borne of suffering, anxiety and sorrow, to be 'out' of the war meant a form of hunger and isolation...no pride of loss, no glory in the sacrifice, and this is an aspect that Winifred Holtby delineated very clearly.
There is unbridled Wuthering Heights-ian melodrama here too. When Muriel's tomboyish sister Connie is catapulted into a quick marriage and into moorland farming stock, and far beneath her mother's plimsoll line of dignity and acceptance, Mrs Hammond, relieved to have a daughter married at all, even albeit unsuitably (and as it turns out quite miserably) is 'forced to build a victory on the foundations of defeat,' and yet more double standards are exposed. For all that we might be questioning arranged marriage in our reading of A Suitable Boy it often seems little different here in the 1920s.
But there is plenty more action to come as Muriel, closely mirroring Winifred Holtby's own experience of her friendship with Vera Brittain, does make good her escape, finding a degree of freedom and the path of self-discovery. As the book moves towards its conclusion I found myself feeling surprisingly gratified by the outcome, all would have been for nought had Winifred Holtby chosen any other route. I cheered her courage whilst feeling desperately sad for the overall plight...
'Suddenly we find ourselves alone in a dull crowded street - with no one caring, our lives unneeded.'
Apart from reading half of South Riding, before being overtaken by the recent TV series, The Crowded Street has been my first Winifred Holtby and I am now looking forward to the others. No plans to gorge in a rush because I can sense I need recovery time inbetween each one or they may seem a little...dare I say...'samey', but I am tossing up between The Land of Green Ginger and Anderby Wold with the biography The Clear Stream by Marion Shaw also vying for my attention.
So, as always, I would love to hear your thoughts on The Crimson Field, Winifred Holtby and anything else connected that comes to mind...