Holtby, Winifred (1898–1935)

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Holtby, Winifred (1898–1935)

English journalist, novelist, dramatist, and social reformer who, during the 1920s and early 1930s, campaigned for women's rights and pacifism and was a major orator for the unionization of black workers in South Africa. Name pronunciation: HOLT-bee. Born Winifred Holtby in Rudstone in Yorkshire, England, on June 23, 1898; died of kidney failure, aged 37, in London, England, on September 25, 1935; buried in her native Rudstone; daughter of Alice (Winn) Holtby (first woman alderman elected by the East Riding County Council) and David Holtby (a farmer); attended Queen Margaret's School, Scarborough; Somerville College, Oxford (1917–21), interrupted during the First World War by her activity in London as a Voluntary Auxiliary Nurse (VAD), 1916–17, and in France as a hostel-forewoman in the Signal Unit of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), 1918–19; never married; no children.

Wrote extensively for English newspapers and periodicals; served as director of the feminist periodical Time and Tide (1926–35); was a public speaker for equal-rights feminism, pacifism, and against imperialist exploitation of native races in South Africa; is best known for her novels, especially South Riding (1937) for which she was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; is celebrated in Vera Brittain's A Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby (1940).

Selected writings:

(juvenilia) My Garden and Other Poems (1911); Anderby Wold (1923); The Crowded Street (1924); The Land of Green Ginger (1927); Eutychus; or The Future of the Pulpit (1928); A New Voter's Guide to Party Programs (1929); Poor Caroline (1931); Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (1932); Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933); The Astonishing Island (1933); Women and a Changing Civilization (1934); Truth Is Not Sober and Other Stories (1934); (poetry) The Frozen Earth (1935); South Riding (1936); Letters to a Friend (1937); (short stories) Pavements at Anderby (1937).

In April 1932, having already suffered for a year from debilitating headaches and high blood pressure, Winifred Holtby, aged 34, learned from medical authorities that she had only two years before she would succumb to Bright's disease, a form of kidney failure. Holtby kept this diagnosis secret from friends and family residing in England—even from Vera Brittain , her companion since 1919 in a remarkable, mutually creative relationship which is chronicled in Brittain's biography of Holtby, A Testament of Friendship. Knowledge of impending death did not frighten Holtby:

This alone is to be feared—the closed mind, the sleeping imagination, the death of the spirit. The death of the body is to that, I think, a little thing. I do not know whether the spirit survives the death of the body, but I do know that the spirit can be killed while the body lives, and most men walk in the world as skeletons.

During the last year and a half of her life, she attempted, not altogether successfully, to withdraw from her arduous life in London as a speechmaker and journalist to her native Yorkshire seacoast. Holtby sought isolation to write her last novel, South Riding, which she completed just three weeks before her death. Published posthumously in 1936, it is universally considered her greatest work. While working on South Riding, she continued her responsibilities as a director and manager of the feminist periodical Time and Tide.

Holtby's activities in her final two years illustrate her endurance and intellectual commitments. She turned from satirizing imperialism and racism in Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933) to an important feminist project. In Women and a Changing Civilization (1934), a history of women, Holtby commented on a wide range of topics, including women's right to work; she expressed her recognition that racism and antifeminism spring from the same fear. In keeping with her pacifism, she contributed a chapter to Challenge to Death, edited by Storm Jameson , in which Holtby exposed commercial traffic in weapons as one impulse to war. As a champion of civil liberties, she composed an anti-dictator play, Take Back Your Freedom (posthumous publication, 1939), which examined and attacked the sort of fascism gaining strength after the First World War in Europe and in England. Winifred Holtby's death in 1935 cut short an already highly productive life; it was generally acknowledged in her obituaries that she was on the verge of even greater contributions as a novelist.

Winifred Holtby was born on June 23, 1898, in Rudstone, a small village on the east Yorkshire coast. She was the second of two children. Her father David Holtby successfully farmed 940 acres; he was from a long line of Yorkshire farmers, suggesting what Brittain was to label a "feudal tradition" as an explanation for Holtby's generosity and characteristic desire to help people. Before marriage at age 40, her mother Alice Winn Holtby , also from a Yorkshire farming family, had been a governess.

Holtby's mother was probably the more influential parent in her daughter's life. She encouraged young Winifred's play and poetry writing; she privately published a volume of the 13-year-old Holtby's poems and, three years later, circulated and sold for publication Holtby's letter describing a First World War bombardment at Queen Margaret's School, Scarborough, which she attended from 1909 to 1915. Surprisingly for a woman from provincial Yorkshire whose education was shaped by Victorian and Edwardian values, Alice Holtby insisted that Winifred attend Oxford University's Somerville College. In the 1920s, after moving from Rudstone to Cottingham, a suburb of Hull, Alice was the first woman ever elected to the East Riding County Council and later in the 1930s the first woman alderman. Winifred drew upon her mother's experience for the character of alderwoman Mrs. Beddows in South Riding.

Holtby and a number of her women classmates at Somerville College, Oxford, had actively

participated in the First World War. During the conflict in 1916 and before going to college, Holtby was a Volunteer Aid Detachment nurse (VAD) for a year in London; she witnessed great physical suffering and death. She attended Somerville for one year, interrupting her education to join the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1918; she was stationed in Hutchennville, France, until after the end of the war. While there, she became close friends with Jean McWilliams ; Holtby's lifelong correspondence with her would be collected and published posthumously in Letters to a Friend (1937). Returning to Oxford University in 1919, Holtby began her friendship with Vera Brittain, three and a half years her senior, who had left Somerville College in 1915 to become a VAD nurse following the death of her fiancé in the war. Both Holtby and Brittain consciously yearned to be writers; they were among a generation of post-suffrage English women who, according to Carolyn Heilbrun , "took their own and each other's intellectual ambitions seriously." They shared pacifist and feminist concerns, Holtby becoming conscious of gender discrimination during controversies that erupted around the decision of Oxford University to grant degrees to women in 1921. Holtby and Brittain were among the first women students to take part in the matriculation ceremony which had previously been reserved solely for men. Both took degrees in history.

I want to be about the work in which my real interests lie, the study of inter-race relationships, the writing of novels and so forth. But while the inequality exists, while injustice is done and opportunity denied to the great majority of women, I shall have to be a feminist with the motto Equality First. And I shan't be happy till I get [it].

—Winifred Holtby

After Oxford, Holtby and Brittain moved to London where they shared an apartment and continued the remarkable, supportive, work-oriented relationship they had begun in college. Their friendship, as Jean E. Kennard demonstrates in Vera Brittain & Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership, was "the strongest intellectual influence in each other's work." In the 1920s, they both were committed to the principles of peace and cooperation, lecturing for the League of Nations Union. Dale Spender notes that, in addition, both were "firm feminists intent on achieving equality for women, and both were concerned with the moral—political and economic—questions of their time." Identifying with ideologies of older feminists who had fought for suffrage, Holtby was an equal-rights advocate who participated in the Six Point Group led by Lady Margaret Rhondda . The group's objectives were to achieve pensions for widows and equal rights of guardianship for married parents, change the law covering assault of children, raise the status of unmarried mothers, and attain equal pay for teachers and equal opportunities for men and women in the Civil Service.

Holtby shared living quarters with Brittain during the remaining years of her life—save for 1925 after Brittain married George Catlin, an English social scientist who taught in the United States at Cornell University. After one year in the States, Brittain returned to live in England, thereafter to be joined by her husband for half of each year. Brittain, Catlin, and Holtby first shared a London apartment, then a house in Glebe Place, Chelsea, where they raised Brittain and Catlin's two children, John Edward and Shirley Williams . Brittain wrote of this unconventional arrangement:

With its babies, its books, its toys, its friends, and companionship of both G. and Winifred, the household in Glebe Place was the nearest thing to complete happiness that I have ever known or ever hope to know. I believe that Winifred felt the same. Even her last illness, which never destroyed her capacity for enjoyment, did not quench the gaiety of our shared home.

It seems that Holtby had given up on having a family of her own. She and the man she loved—the handsome, debonair Harry Pearson, pal of T.E. Lawrence—sustained an on-and-off relationship throughout her life. Indeed, Pearson proposed marriage to Holtby the day before she died.

Holtby and Brittain worked best when in each other's company. In a letter written during a period of convalescence in Yorkshire during 1934, Holtby would appeal for Brittain's companionship: "When, when, when shall you be able to come?… I must get on with my book. You are the only person I know in the world who does not prevent one working."

In January 1926, Holtby traveled to South Africa to visit Jean McWilliams, her WAAC friend who was now headmistress of a girls' school in Pretoria. She arrived in South Africa as a pacifist lecturing for the League of Nations; she left as a speaker for black trade unionism, thoroughly convinced that white prosperity depended unfairly on the subordination of blacks. While in Pretoria, she perceived that if one substituted the noun "women" for the noun "natives" then the "old arguments against women's enfranchisement, women's higher education, and women's entry into skilled employment" coincided with arguments used against blacks. Back in England, through the auspices of Creech Jones, then a trade-union official as well as Labor member of Parliament, Holtby paid from her literary earnings for William Ballinger to travel and live in South Africa, working to advise the black workers' union movement. During the two years before her death, Holtby took pains to find others who would contribute money to support Ballinger's work, which he continued even after the failure of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICWU). Because Ballinger's economic survival depended so much on her personal resources, he was one of two people whom she told of her terminal illness.

In 1926, soon after Holtby returned from South Africa, Lady Rhondda asked her to be a director for Time and Tide, a weekly periodical initiated when women won the right to vote after the First World War. Time and Tide had a distinctly feminist viewpoint, although, in keeping with its equal-rights stance, it also published writing by male intellectuals. Other directors in the mid-'20s included Lady Rhondda, Cicely Hamilton, E.M. Delafield , Professor Winifred Cullis , and Rebecca West . It was to be a magazine run by women, for women, which would keep a sharp eye out for national and international developments as they affected women, and an even sharper eye out for male politicians who professed support for the women's cause but who tended to backslide at the first opportunity.

During the 1920s, Holtby contributed to Time and Tide, usually one article, and sometimes as many as four, every week. Dale Spender reports that not all of Holtby's articles are didactic in tone and that some are very amusing. On occasion, Holtby deplored the fact, writes Spender:

that issues which were to her central—issues such as peace and disarmament, welfare and education for example—were often associated with women, and were marginalized or dismissed. They would not be "minor matters," she argued if women were to have an equal share in the organization of society and its values and priorities. And because she thought it was crucial that these issues should be primary issues of concern in society, she worked for equality.

Holtby's reputation at the end of the 20th century is based mainly on her novels; however, in her own lifetime she was best known as a journalist. Besides writing for Time and Tide, she contributed to the Manchester Guardian, the Yorkshire Post, and the News Chronicle, and, influencing an even wider audience, Good Housekeeping and Schoolmistress.

Her novels are firmly rooted in the realistic tradition, though, as she matured, she also became a political satirist. When at Oxford, the idea for her first novel, Anderby Wold (1923), occurred to her while studying economic history where she learned, as Brittain remembers, that new phases drive out the old, "the good of yesterday becoming the evil of to-day, the past making way for the future." She went back to her room after the lecture, and:

began at once to make notes for the novel I determined to write about it, to instruct myself in the reason for that change which had previously seemed to me unmitigated tragedy. I forced myself to read histories of agriculture, of trade unionism, of Socialism. I tried to see the drama of rural Yorkshire as I knew it, as it had filled my whole horizon until the War destroyed a small and settled world, against the background of historical change and progress, and gradually, reading and thinking, I comforted myself, and invented a story of a young woman.

In South Riding, written at the end of her short life, Holtby with infinite compassion pits feudal and chivalric values against her own progressive socialist and feminist ideals. Her woman hero, unmarried, intelligent and competent, is courageous, human, and unable to sacrifice her principles for the sake of a marriage:

[A]n English Socialist member of Parliament, withdrew in alarm when he found her feminism to be not merely academic but insistent. When he demanded that she should abandon, in his political interests, her profession gained at such considerable public cost and private effort, she offered to be his mistress instead of his wife and found he was even more shocked by this suggestion than by her previous one that she should continue her teaching after marriage. She parted from him with an anguish which amazed her.

Holtby's satires include Poor Caroline (1931) in which she lampoons idealistic women activists while presenting a sympathetic depiction of spinsterhood; Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933) in which she satirizes the travel industry, Western technology and imperialism in an imagined African country; and The Astonishing Island (1933), a dystopian commentary on British customs. As Kennard notes, "Holtby links colonization, racism, and war to British arrogance and false notions of heroism."

Winifred Holtby died in London on September 25, 1935; she was buried on October 2 in Rudstone, Yorkshire. In Holtby's will, she bequeathed her library to St. Margaret's School, Scarborough, and a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, in the name of Dorothy McCalman , a woman in her 30s whom Holtby had encouraged through a college education. The scholarship, based on the earning of her posthumous publications, was designated for women who had been obliged "as Dot was, to earn a living for several years before going to college." According to Brittain, Holtby's posthumous publications, including royalties from a successful film made of South Riding, endowed at least two scholarships by 1940. In June 1937, a library for the use of blacks was founded in Holtby's name in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Brittain, Vera. A Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby. First published 1940 (reprinted, London: Virago Press, 1980).

Catlin, John. Family Quartet. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. Introduction to Vera Brittain's A Testament of Friendship, 1940 (reprinted, NY: Wideview Books, 1981).

Holtby, Winifred. South Riding. First published 1936 (reprinted, London: Virago Press, 1988).

Kennard, Jean E. Vera Brittain & Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1989.

Spender, Dale. Time and Tide Wait for No Man. London: Pandora Press, 1984.

suggested reading:

Berry, Paul and Alan Bishop, eds. Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby. London: Virago Press, 1985.

Davidson, George. Introduction in Poor Caroline, 1931 (reprinted, London: Virago, 1985).

Delmar, Rosalind. Afterword in A Testament of Friendship, 1940 (reprinted, London: Virago, 1980).

Hardisty, Claire. Introduction in The Crowded Street, 1924 (reprinted, London: Virago, 1981).

Shaw, Marion. Introduction in Mandoa, Mandoa!, 1933 (reprinted, London: Virago, 1982).


Manuscripts and correspondence in the Holtby collection at the Hull Public Library in Yorkshire, England.

related media:

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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Holtby, Winifred (1898–1935)

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