|Mine's the Persephone edition, but you know what that looks like|
In the Persephone preface, Marion Shaw writes:
Yet Muriel is not quite right in saying that nobody wrote about someone to whom 'nothing ever happens'. That kind of novel, usually featuring spinsters, had been popular from Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1853) through George Gissing's The Odd Women (1893) to contemporary examples such as FM Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (1924). And waiting in the wings, of course, is that most formidable of post-war spinsters, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who will first appear in The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. The Crowded Street thus joins these and other similar novels in making the life of the woman who does not marry of interest; sad, amusing, daunting or mystical, these spinsters are made significant to the reading public.Assuming that we can take the character's comment as reflecting something on the book she's in -- and granted that I haven't read any of these other books (except the Christie) -- I think this somewhat misses the point. Muriel isn't just a spinster; she's someone who doesn't manage to develop social skills in her marriage-oriented environment. It's not just that she doesn't get married. She doesn't get asked to dance; she doesn't have a romance; she's even hesitant about referring to her best friend from school as her "friend" because, well, Clare never said they were friends in so many words. When she finally escapes to London, Muriel discovers that she has "tastes and inclinations and a personality" -- as long as she was stuck in her home circle, trying to figure out and follow the rules, she was stuck being a kind of non-person in every way, not just a non-wife.
Holtby's point seems to be that a girl like Muriel ought to be given a real education, but more importantly she ought to have opportunities to live away from her mother, to devote her labors to support and benefit herself, and to meet and mix with people outside of the marriage market. This seems very significant to me, given when the book was written; although the marriages in the book have their dark sides (sometimes very dark), Holtby isn't really saying that marriage in itself is a bad thing for women -- which is an important distinction to make, I think, when talking about interwar feminism versus the "second" wave. It's more about giving women the chance to be their own (rounded, educated, individual) person before entering a marriage, however that needs to happen.
Also interesting is that the character who ends up unmarried because her fiance dies isn't a victim of the First World War despite the time period of the novel: the man is hit by a car. I don't know if that's actually significant, but still.
I should note that the book ends on an up-note. I think that's one of the strengths of this book and South Riding: Holtby makes you feel how bad things are but not in that impossibly bleak way that turns the book into blatant polemic. At the same time, she doesn't trivialize the badness by giving an easy solution or making everything all right at the end.
In sum, I strongly recommend this book. I certainly didn't know it when I started out, but I ended up leaving the best of my Persephone purchases for last.