Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby

Holtby's 1924 novel is the story of Muriel Hammond, brought up in Edwardian Marshington and Kingsport (a disguised Hull) to marry well and help maintain her family's social status. Muriel, however, is not a success in the marriage-market, but her sense of duty to her family keeps her at home, unlike the Vicar's dynamic daughter Delia Vaughan, headed for Newnham. Muriel is no iconoclast, and accepts the limitations of her environment: when, at school, her request for teaching in astronomy is diverted into extra dressmaking classes, much more suitable for married life, she is disappointed, but not enough to rebel. Rebellion is left to her younger sister Connie, who pays a heavy cost for it, but her sufferings teach Muriel to follow her duty to herself, which leads her to new pleasures and opportunities.

The characterisation in the novel is, for the most part, very subtle. Dutiful Muriel could be dull, but the depth of character Holtby achieves renders her interesting and three-dimensional. Her mother could be a cardboard tyrant, but Holtby gives us her back-story and some explanation for her obsession with social status and its maintenance. Mr Hammond, a sack-manufacturer made good with philandering habits, could be straight out of Brass, but surprises us often enough in his brief appearances to avoid stereotype. The only failure in this respect is probably William Todd, the crippled and pious patriarch of the farming family into which Connie marries. The failure isn't really Holtby's fault, but he is so reminiscent of Amos Starkadder that he cannot avoid being humorous. The Persephone catalogue suggests this novel might have been an influence on Cold Comfort Farm. There are episodes where Holtby's novel is funny enough in its own right: Muriel's triumph after a tennis match evaporating thanks to an exposed safety-pin, for example, and Connie's escapade with a bolting horse, as well as Muriel's faux pas at the party described in the opening Prologue.

I found this a profoundly feminist novel, although it contains little obvious polemic. Delia and Muriel debate woman's proper duty, but neither of them is clearly presented as either right or wrong. The narrative gradually leads Muriel, and with her the reader, to an understanding of the constraints on women's lives and how they are maintained - and also how they can be effectively challenged. This allows moving insights into the lives of antifeminist women and men as well as those who attack the status quo. The end of the novel makes it clear that freedom of choice for women improves the lot of men as well. Muriel's journey from hapless wallflower to a woman confident enough to make her own choices (albeit backed by money settled on her by her father, and stimulated by Delia's need of her) is moving.

I find the title a bit perplexing. There is as epigraph a poem by Vera Brittain, which goes:

You met two travellers in the town
Who promised you that they would take you down
The valley far away
To some strange carnival this summer's day.
Take care,
Lest in the crowded street
They hurry past you with forgetting feet,
And leave you standing there."

So we see how the title arises, but the "strange carnival" that Muriel is in danger of missing sounds faintly sinister, and the strongest theme of the novel is the development of agency from within, even if Muriel's agency is based on her need to be needed. There is a Longfellow quote, "Not in the clamour of the crowded street, not in the shouts and plaudits of the throng, but in ourselves, are triumph and defeat" (from "The Poets") which fits the theme better. I assume that this text inspired the title, and the VB poem was added afterwards, but would love to know if this is really how it happened.