Winifred Holtby - Life and Writings

Life and Writings

Born to a prosperous farming family in the village of Rudston, Yorkshire (her father was David Holtby and her mother, Alice, was afterwards the first alderwoman on the East Riding County Council) Holtby was educated at home by a governess and then at Queen Margaret's School in Scarborough. Although she passed the entrance exam for Somerville College, Oxford, in 1917, she chose to join the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in early 1918, but soon after arriving to serve in France, the First World War came to an end and she returned home.

In 1919, she returned to study at the University of Oxford where she met Vera Brittain, a fellow student and later the author of Testament of Youth, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship. After graduating from Oxford, in 1921, Winifred and Vera moved to London hoping to establish themselves as writers (the blue plaque at No. 52 Doughty Street refers).

Holtby's early novels - Anderby Wold (1923), The Crowded Street (1924) (re-published by Persephone Books in 2008) and The Land of Green Ginger (1927) - met with moderate success. Holtby's fame was derived mainly from her journalism: she was prolific, and over the next decade and a half, she wrote for more than 20 newspapers and magazines, including the feminist journal Time and Tide (also serving on the Board of Directors) and the Manchester Guardian newspaper. She also wrote a regular weekly column for the trade union magazine The Schoolmistress. Her books during this period included a critical study of Virginia Woolf and a volume of short stories, Truth is Not Sober.

Holtby was, together with Brittain, an ardent feminist, socialist and pacifist. She lectured extensively for the League of Nations Union and was a member of the feminist Six Point Group. She was active in the Independent Labour Party and was a staunch campaigner for the unionisation of black workers in South Africa, during which she had considerable contact with Leonard Woolf.

After Brittain's marriage in 1925 to George Catlin, Holtby shared her friend's homes in Nevern Place and subsequently at 19 Glebe Place, Chelsea, and became an adoptive aunt to Brittain's two children.

Holtby began to suffer from high blood pressure, recurrent headaches and bouts of lassitude and in 1931 she was diagnosed as suffering from chronic nephritis (Bright's disease). Her doctor gave her only two years to live. Aware of her impending death, Holtby put all her remaining energy into what became her most important book, South Riding. Winifred Holtby died on 29 September 1935, aged 37. She never married, though she had an unsatisfactory relationship with a man named Harry Pearson, who proposed to her on her deathbed.

As well as her journalism, Holtby wrote 14 books including six novels; two volumes of short stories; the first critical study of Virginia Woolf (1932); and "Women and a Changing Civilization" (1934), a feminist survey with opinions that are still relevant today. She also wrote poetry, including poems about Vera Brittain's dead brother, Edward.

Holtby is perhaps best remembered for her novel, South Riding, edited by Vera Brittain and published posthumously in March 1936, which received high praise from the critics. The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1936 and has never been out of print since its publication. In 1938, it was made into a film directed by Victor Saville; in 1974, it was adapted by Stan Barstow for Yorkshire Television; and in 2011, BBC One produced a three-part dramatisation by Andrew Davies. There have also been several radio adaptations, the most recent for BBC Radio Four in 2005.

Vera Brittain wrote about her friendship with Holtby in her book Testament of Friendship (1940), and, in 1960, published a censored edition of their correspondence. Their letters, along with many of Holtby's other papers, were donated in 1960 to Hull Central Library in Yorkshire and are now held at the Hull History Centre. Other papers are in Bridlington library in Yorkshire, in McMaster University Library in Canada, and in the University of Cape Town library in South Africa. A biography of Holtby, entitled The Clear Stream by Marion Shaw was published in 1999 and draws on a broad range of sources.

Holtby was buried in All Saints' churchyard in Rudston, East Yorkshire, just yards from the house in which she was born. Her epitaph in her own words is "God give me work till my life shall end and life till my work is done". A photograph of her grave can be found at

All her novels together with a collection of short stories and a collection of her journalism were reprinted by Virago Press in the early 1980s.

Read more about this topic:  Winifred Holtby

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