Thursday, May 10, 2012

Holtby Week, the thrilling conclusion (it's a two-day week)

This is very probably the best feminist novel I've ever read. I wanted to assign it to a group of students, although that's impractical (I prefer the term "ambitious") on several levels.

Mine's the Persephone edition, but you know what that looks like

How can I describe what I loved about this book? It manages to convey what it would actually mean for a girl's whole life to be aimed at marriage, and it does so in such a way as to present several different possible paths. Muriel is a shy, dull girl, socially incompetent, who spends most of her life "at home" on the straight-and-narrow which is supposed to culminate in marriage. It's her mother who drives this, and yet Holtby manages to convey the mother's motivations and mindset in such a way that even as you see how awful and destructive her ideas and actions are, you can understand why she does them. You get a wonderful sense of how Muriel passes her time and how her life progresses; it would be ideal for students. Just like South Riding, this book has wonderful characters and beautiful writing, and it's therefore engrossing even though the heroine is so much less lively than Sarah Burton or the other South Riding main characters.

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.

7 comments:

  1. I just bought a copy of this book for my bookstore. Now maybe I'll have to pick it up for myself!

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    1. I would approve that plan of action.

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  2. I want to read this too. Damnit, Julie.

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    1. Yessss, read all the books I liked, yesssss.

      It's possible -- possible -- that maybe this book isn't as great as I thought. I didn't want to get all psychological, but the thought that having friends and developing interests and all of those apparently effortless parts of being a normal person could potentially pass you by is sort of a deep dark fear of mine. I was exactly that kid who would worry about whether or not so-and-so was really my friend, or if I referred to her as my friend would she be offended. Once in high school someone asked me what I liked to do in my free time and I couldn't think of a way to answer that question and it was horrible, horrible. So I found this book really engrossing since it deals with exactly that sort of situation. I can imagine that people who don't emphasize with that possibility might find Muriel infuriatingly stupid.

      Psychological time over now. No time for analyzing why I feel the need to contradict my own recommendations.

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  3. Wow, this sounds really great. Even when I take into consideration your comment above :-) I didn't face the same fears that you did growing up, but I do have this really morbid fear these days of dying alone and no one knowing or finding me until I start to smell in my apartment or something. I am not sure where I get this fear, as I have two siblings heavily involved in my life, but it's there.

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    1. See, we all have our special little nonsensical fears :) I really do recommend trying to get a hold of it. Maybe library systems might still have their copies from the 1930s? When I put it into WorldCat it comes up with a lot of university libraries in the States. Or else I dare say it's worth buying new or used.

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  4. This sounds very good. I am interested in spinster stories, especially as a burgeoning spinster myself. Cranford is great by the way. Another book very similar to Cranford is Sarah Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs.

    - Christy

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