Winifred Holtby

by Jennifer Bryce

I hadn’t heard of Winifred Holtby until recently when I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Experience and saw a film of Testament of Youth. The two women met at Oxford University immediately after World War I, when Brittain was numbed by the loss of her fiancé and her dear brother. She said she felt directionless and alone. We’ve read the statistics of the huge number of men killed in ‘the Great War’, but the reality of this – the impact on the lives of young women in the 1920s – becomes meaningful when we think about young women such as these. They were intelligent women who most surely would have believed in equality and ‘liberation’ even if there had been no war. But in the circumstances, women were compelled to take up the causes of the suffragettes of the 1890s and 1900s even though, to some, they may have seemed to be remote and unlikely to be achieved. Vera Brittain did marry – it was an unconventional marriage, particularly for those times, with husband and wife living apart for a lot of the time so that they could pursue their respective careers. They had two children, and Winifred played a significant role in their upbringing. Indeed, there was an interesting living arrangement where, without seeming to intrude, Winfred spent several years living with Vera, her children and sometimes-at-home husband.


I read what is perhaps Winifred’s best known novel, South Riding. I plan to read more. Although she said she wrote ‘like a leaking tap’ [Marion Shaw: The Clear Stream. A Life of Winifred Holtby, p.104] for a woman who was to die in her thirties, her collection of works is prolific.

Winifred Holtby: South Riding

This book was published after Winifred Holtby’s death in the 1930s from Bright’s Disease. Vera Brittain, who was her literary executor, had some difficulty negotiating its publication against the wishes of Holtby’s mother, who was an alderman, and a model for Mrs Beddows, one of the main characters in this novel,

The prose is dense, but nevertheless fascinating as we are taken into the lives of people in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire (Yorkshire actually has North, East and West Ridings). Who would have thought that the workings of local government could be so enticing?

Through vividly drawn characters – particularly vivacious school headmistress Sarah Burton – we live through the workings of local government and commentary is made on social issues such as education, unemployment, local building programs, poor relief and mental health. On the one hand we are drawn into fights for women’s rights – such as the right of the clever Lydia Holly from the slums to continue her education rather than care for a large family left when her mother dies of childbirth. Yet we also participate in the conflict faced when the independent Sarah Burton (one of the ‘Surplus Women left bereft after the war) falls inextricably in love with the squire of a decaying manor, whose views are totally at odds with hers. What might have eventuated from this? She was prepared to totally abandon herself to him. We poignantly feel the love that Winifred may have experienced when Sarah declares that she would have been content even to love him for just one hour. Tragically, yet perhaps fortunately, he dies. Some think it was suicide because of an impossible financial situation, although those close to him – including Sarah – consider him to be too honorable to die in that way. This love, which must have echoed the losses of so many young women in 1920s Britain, drives the novel.

Marion Shaw: The Clear Stream. A Life of Winifred Holtby


After reading South Riding, I wanted to know more about Winifred Holtby. This book’s title comes from a comment made by Holtby. She said she didn’t think she could write an autobiography: ‘My existence seems to me like a clear stream which has simply reflected other people’s stories and problems.’ [p.4] She packed a great deal into her tragically shortened life – as mentioned above, she died of Bright’s disease in her thirties. She wrote a great deal – journalism, particularly in Time and Tide, as well as fiction. She threw herself into work, into causes and spent some time working in South Africa. She also seemed to spend a lot of time – even when quite ill – looking after Vera Brittain’s children. Although there was a man whom she may have loved, Winifred seemed intent on being a spinster. ‘I was born to be a spinster and by God, I’m going to spin.’ [p.291] She seems to have had a staggering amount of energy and maybe it was her selflessness that had her reflecting other people’s stories rather than making more of her own.