It’s back to the re-reading after a brief foray into the world of e-books and review copies, and what a pair of excellent books with which to continue! Neither of these disappointed, and I loved the tie-ins with previous Month of Re-Reading posts, as Winifred Holtby was of course Vera Brittain’s great friend, and I’ve been reading a Jane Austen novel during each Month of Re-Reading so far. Both of these books treat unconventional women; Holtby’s is almost as strictured as Austen’s through much of the book, but she manages to make her escape from the clutches of conventional society in a more modern and – perhaps to the modern reader – satisfying way.
Winifred Holtby – “The Crowded Street” (Persephone Books)
(25 December 2013 – From Ali)
A brilliant novel, full of stories and ideas and a careful consideration of what is really meant by society, duty, family, morality, love and women’s place in the home and wider world.
A quiet, Jane Eyre-like central character is contrasted with her more impulsive, emotional sister and the one emancipated woman in the village, who she feels is a version of herself that she could never hope to be, as well as her glamorous half-French school friend, who has all the worldliness there could be but does not understand English small-town life in the years around the First World War. Can she achieve escape from the stultifying half-life of helping her mother run a house that doesn’t need that much running and offer herself – still in service – in a more meaningful way? Dare she develop a ‘temperament’ and a personality of her own? Will she just go from one form of subjugation to another?
Holtby does seem here to value the quiet virtue of home-making and service as a way of life, as we will see that Austen values the quiet, timid goodness of her heroine. But will Muriel speak out and speak up, even flourish on the lecture platform, as she needs to? And then, when offered what she has been conditioned to believe she has always wanted, will she make the right decision? It’s a heart-in-the-mouth moment when she does that, and a very satisfying ending.
A novel of ideas and one that depicts some important times in the development of the women’s movement, charting the state of flux that always seems to exist between the sides of the home-maker and the non-domesticated activist.
I last seem to have read and reviewed this in July 1997, although I was at pains to point out then that it was already a re-read:
“(Library) Read before. Story of woman’s realisation of her own needs away from family and community. A bit over-metaphorical, but told with good plot and character.”
Hm, not sure what to make of that. Onwards …
Jane Austen – “Mansfield Park”
(1988, School Form Prize)
A re-read of perhaps the Austen I know least well. And of course, many people seem to cite it as their least favourite, especially given the ‘prim’ heroine, Fanny. Well, maybe it’s the quietness of age, or maybe it’s the influence of lovely Muriel in the Holtby, but I found a lot to like in quiet Fanny, trying to do the best she could, trying to stick by her morals and those of the age, in the face of the rather dodgy influences that come into play around her.
We all know the story, of course – Fanny is taken in by her uncle and aunt, raised to feel inferior to her cousins and to be a support to her aunt. She observes the wickednesses that ensue when Mary and Henry Crawford enter the vicinity, with their play-acting and flirtatiousness, takes refuge in her little room full of books but no fire, is flirted with herself, has a difficult trip ‘home’, loves her one decent cousin, witnesses further wickednesses (at one step removed) and finally prevails.
There is a lot in the Penguin Classics introduction about how Fanny represents the status quo of the old order before war and money broke in and changed society, and in showing her quiet, decent heroine winning through, she reminds me of Hardy’s promotion of the good, gentle and quiet above the passionate and those who seek to break society’s mores. She does stand up for herself, quietly and firmly and, while the younger or more lively reader, keen on the wittiness and reversals of “Pride and Prejudice” and the like, might find her boring, I found her intriguing. It’s so clever to write a novel with such a quiet, almost non-existent heart, and the foreshadowing of more concrete events in plays, trips to a park and seemingly innocuous card games is so masterfully done.
Although I was heard to complain that things were going a bit slowly in the first half of the book, I will remember next time to look out for those small, revealing moments.
I have to include a photo of the bookplate and bookmark in this copy; I took this photo to contrast the school prize bookplates in my copy of “Mansfield Park” and a book that I hoped was published in 1914 (but proves to be from 1908, with a bit of research):
Currently reading: I’ve really finished the Month of Re-Reading now, I’m going to have to get on with the rather large history of post-punk music that I started in December, but I am about to start re-reading “Jude the Obscure” for the Hardy project, so one more, even if I am unlikely to finish it this month …