Holtby, Winifred 1898-1935

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HOLTBY, Winifred 1898-1935

PERSONAL: Born June 23, 1898, in Rudstone, Yorkshire, England; died of kidney disease September 29, 1935, in London, England; daughter of David (a farmer) and Alice (a philanthropist and member of East Riding City Council) Holtby; companion of Vera Brittain, beginning 1921. Education: Somerville College, Oxford, B.A., 1921.

CAREER: Part-time tutor and lecturer for Six Points Group and Open Door Council, early 1920s; active in Friends of Africa organization from 1926, and South African Industrial Commercial Workers' Union; lecturer for League of Nations, South Africa, 1926; contributor, from 1924, and director, from 1926, Time and Tide, London. Good Housekeeping, London, literary critic, 1933-35; feature writer for Radio Times, London, and Schoolmistress (journal of the National Union of Women Teachers). Military service: Women's Auxiliary Army Corps Signals Unit, Huchenneville.

AWARDS, HONORS: James Tait Black memorial prize, 1937, for South Riding.


My Garden and Other Poems, Brown (London, England), 1911.

Anderby World, John Lane (London, England), 1923.

The Crowded Street, John Lane (London, England), 1924.

The Land of Green Ginger: A Romance, Cape (London, England), 1927, McBride (New York, NY), 1928.

Eutychus; or, The Future of the Pulpit, Dutton (New York, NY), 1928.

A New Voter's Guide to Party Programmes: PoliticalDialogues, Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebner (London, England), 1929.

Poor Caroline, McBride (New York, NY), 1931.

Virginia Woolf, Wishart (London, England), 1932.

Mandoa, Mandoa! A Comedy of Irrelevance, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1933.

The Astonishing Island: Being a Veracious Record of the Experiences Undergone by Robinson Lippingtree Mackintosh from Tristan da Cunha during an Accidental Visit to Unknown Territory in the Year of Grace MCMXXX-?, Macmillan (London, England), 1933.

Truth Is Not Sober, Macmillan (London, England), 1934.

Women and a Changing Civilisation, John Lane (London, England), 1934, Longmans, Green (New York, NY), 1935, published as Women, John Lane, 1939.

The Frozen Earth, and Other Poems, Collins (London, England), 1935.

South Riding: An English Landscape, Collins (London, England), 1936.

Pavements at Anderby: Tales of "South Riding" andOther Regions, edited by H. S. Reid and Vera Brittain, Collins (London,England), 1937, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1938.

(With Norman Ginsbury), Take Back Your Freedom, Cape, 1939.

Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of VeraBrittain and Winifred Holtby, edited by Paul Berry and Alan Bishop, Virago (London), 1985.

Contributor to Manchester Guardian, Yorkshire Post, and News Chronicle.


Letters to a Friend, edited by Alice Holtby and Jean McWilliam, Collins (London, England), 1937, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1938.

Selected Letters of Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain,1920-1935, edited by Vera Brittain and Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, Brown (London, England), 1960.

ADAPTATIONS: South Riding was adapted as a film in 1937, and as a television series in 1974.

SIDELIGHTS: Winifred Holtby is best known for penning humanist novels in which she attempted to show the necessity of equality for all persons. Through her proportionally epic, perceptually homely novels, Holtby showed her readers a revelation they could share: that if one thought of the world as a single community, there could be no more war.

Holtby was born in Rudstone, Yorkshire on June 23, 1898. Her parents were well-to-do and socially connected: her father, David Holtby, was a farmer and her mother, Alice Holtby, was the first female alderman of the East Riding County Council. The area would later serve as the model for South Riding, in which the character Mrs. Beddows, an elderly female politician, seems strongly modeled on Holtby's mother. As a child, Holtby was encouraged to write; when she was thirteen her mother published a volume of Holtby's poetry titled My Garden and Other Poems (1911). She was educated by a governess and at Queen Margaret's School in Yorkshire, and at eighteen she began a B.A. at Oxford University's Sommerville College.

During World War I Holtby joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and served as hostel forewoman in France until 1919. During this period, Holtby met Harry Pearson, the love of her life, who told her about the enormities of the front. Clearly, Holtby found the war romantic. Indeed, she seemed to enjoy the war's gruesome appeal.

When Holtby returned to college, she quickly met and befriended Vera Brittain, another student who had served in the war, and who would become Holtby's confidante and touchstone. The two women lived together from 1921 forward, even after Brittain married Gordon Catlin in 1925. As Alan Bishop explained in an article for Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Initial hostility gave way to deep understanding in which their literary ambitions, some similarities of experience, and their leftist social and political views allowed them to help and encourage each other creatively. Physically and temperamentally, they were quite different, however: Holtby tall, fair, sociable, enthusiastic, and equable; Brittain small, dark, pretty, shy, and volatile. These differences complicated and strengthened their friendship." Sarah Gamble explained in Feminist Writers: "Their obvious and enduring intimacy led to inevitable rumors of a lesbian relationship, rumors which both women refuted. Whatever the nature of their partnership, however, it is certain that Holby and Brittain were a great influence on each other's work and political activity." The two women maintained their friendship throughout their under-graduate education, and when each took her B.A. in 1921, they began rooming together in London.

While in London, Holtby began to support herself as a writer; she produced voluminous journalistic essays, along with a steady flow of novels. Holtby's first novels, Anderby World (1923) and Along a Crowded Street (1924), received favorable reviews and a small commercial success. In the latter novel, Holtby first began to approach the topic of spinsterhood. In Holtby's third novel, The Land of Green Ginger (1927), she again focuses on the romantic dreams of women as they erode the possibility of women's social achievement. Reviews were, again, positive; a contributor to the New York Times declared, "In the hands of one not an artist, The Land of Green Ginger would be a story of drab futility, soon forgotten, but in the hands of the author it becomes a memorable portrait of a delightful woman."

Holtby's fictional work was best known for its satiric edge and its sane, perceptive character portraits. Reviewing Holtby's 1931 Poor Caroline, a Times Literary Supplement contributor exclaimed: "Miss Holtby's characters, rounded, objective and independent, are as firmly embedded in life as plums in cake. Though she understands each one of them with extreme thoroughness, she presents them without comment or reflection, a detached, impassive observer. . . . This is a living book with an astringent flavor." In praise of Holtby's satire of Ethiopia, Mandoa, Mandoa! A Comedy of Irrelevance (1933), a reviewer declared in the Boston Transcript: "A novel at once brilliant and unusual is the rarest of discoveries at any time, but such a novel is this by Miss Holtby which has already won the author high praise in England. There is in it romance and humor and a keen understanding of many of the foibles which afflict our present civilization." T. S. Matthews, writing for New Republic, stated: "Miss Holtby's imperialist satire, Mandoa, Mandoa! which she subtitles 'a comedy of irrelevance,' is a brilliant performance—so brilliant, indeed, that while we are being entertained by it we almost fail to notice how well Miss Holtby is arguing her case."

During the writing of Mandoa, Mandoa! Holtby was diagnosed with Bright's disease, a degenerative illness of the kidney. After completing Mandoa, Mandoa! she set out through her painful final months to write her masterpiece, South Riding. All in all, the novel took two years to write; Holtby completed it just before her death in 1935. South Riding was adored by critics and audiences alike. It was adapted to film in 1937 and to television in 1974.

South Riding tells the story of two women, Mrs. Beddows, an older female politician, and Sarah Burton, the middle-aged head of a girls' school. Both women fall in love with Robert Carne, a country squire, but both women's loves are thwarted. Nevertheless, as Bishop points out: "the effects of thwarted love are seen as ultimately beneficent." A Christian Science Monitor critic eulogized: "Miss Holtby had a profound insight into human nature, a deep sympathy with a tolerance for its foibles and evidently a fund of common sense from which to draw wisdom to apply to the problems of living. With these qualities, unlimited courage and an easy prose style, she tackled an outsize canvas in South Riding." Amy Loveman, writing for the Saturday Review of Literature, declared that the story is "portrayed with delicacy and subtlety. Miss Holtby writes with force and grace, and handles her plot with certainty. Her characters are nicely discriminated and completely realized, vivacious human beings who enlist interest and sympathy. And she has something eminently worth while to say. . . . Life has a pattern and meaning as Miss Holtby depicts it, and human nature, achieving though pain and suffering not resignation or serenity but that better than either, understanding, takes on nobility."

Holtby is remembered for her generous, thoughtful novels of human interdependence. Her feminist perspective—like her anti-racist attitudes—were part of this belief in human interdependence, and she helped others to see what she saw through her kind-eyed, old-fashioned novels.



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 191: BritishNovelists between the Wars, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.

Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.

Reference Guide to English Literature, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1991.

Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1994.


Bookseller, March 29, 1936, p. 3.

Boston Transcript, September 16, 1933, p. 1.

Christian Science Monitor, July 23, 1935, p. 14; June 3, 1936, p. 15.

Nation, April 8, 1936.

New Republic, April 18, 1928; October 25, 1933.

New Statesman and Nation, April 7, 1934; March 21, 1936.

New York Times, March 11, 1928, p. 13; March 29, 1936, p. 3.

Saturday Review of Literature, September 16, 1933; January 12, 1935.

Times Literary Supplement, February 5, 1931, p. 96; February 2, 1933, p. 74.*

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