Move over Thomas Hardy, Winifred Holtby really knows suffering!
Last weekend, we watched Testament of Youth on Netflix, a film based on the WW1 memoir of Vera Brittain. It was powerful and profoundly evocative of the sacrifice and loss that decimated a generation. Once I’d got over the fact of John Snow making an appearance, along with The Wire‘s McNulty playing Vera’s father and turning out to be English – who knew? – I was lost in the plot. Having sacrificed her hard won place at Oxford to become a nurse for the war effort, later, having experienced the very real cost of war first hand, Vera returns to Somerville College to continue her studies. A fellow student introduces herself to Vera as Winifred Holtby, at which point I shot up out of my seat, bounded over to the green bookshelf and returned to the sofa clutching a couple of her novels – South Riding and The Land of Green Ginger. It was only at that moment that I realised that the film was based on an actual memoir and I promptly burst into tears.
I was so struck by the film and my subsequent reading about the friendship between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby that I felt I had to read one of Holtby’s novels immediately. Lured by the exotic sounding title, I picked The Land of Green Ginger, leaving South Riding for another day.
After her mother dies in childbirth in a missionary station in South Africa, young Joanna Burton is sent home to England to be raised by her aunts. Even as a young child, Joanna is gripped with the idea of travelling the world when she grows up. While passing through London’s East End, a chance sighting of a road sign ‘The Land of Green Ginger’ sparks her imagination but her aunts are in a hurry and she is thwarted in her desire to investigate further.
When they receive news that her father has died, Joanna’s hope to one day travel to the land of her birth dies with him. However, rallied by her friends, Agnes and Rachel, she decides to travel anyway.
She became intoxicated by her own vague, lovely vision of a world enriched with so many curious and coloured creatures. “When I leave school I shall see all the world, and travel for ever and ever,” she crooned dreamily.
So then, it is a surprise to everyone when Joanna meets and suddenly marries the funny and unassuming Teddy Leigh.
“Good Heavens. You’re mad,” cried Rachel. “Why, you hardly know him.” “That’s the lovely part,” said Joanna. “Our marriage will be one long voyage of discovery.” “The only sort of voyage you’ll ever make then,” prophesied Rachel gloomily.
The novel then shifts forward in time. Joanna and Teddy now married with two daughters live in the crumbling Scatterthwaite farm in Yorkshire. Teddy returned home from the war after only a year due to poor health, showing the early symptoms of consumption, the very illness that killed his mother. Money is tight, Teddy is bitter, and the strain on their relationship is already beginning to show.
He began teasing her, his gentle drawling voice aiming sharp little arrows of raillery at the tender places in self-esteem, until she shivered with soreness.
Despite their dire circumstances, Joanna shows remarkable resilience and never indulges in self-pity. I loved this passage which I think shows her determined optimism
She loved dress-making, especially when she could make new garments out of old. She dyed and cut and tacked with a rare audacity of speed that brought her either astonishing success or devastating failure. Because of her poverty she wore both successes and failures with equal ostentation, so that though she frequently looked shabby, she always looked remarkable.
With Teddy requiring constant care, and Joanna having to run the farm single-handedly, the sudden ill-health of her daughter leads Joanna to send both children to stay with her aunts. She cannot allow herself the luxury of mourning their loss, as according to the doctor, their constant proximity to Teddy, could trigger the illness in them. Joanna is judged as heartless by the local community for sending her children away, and it when they take on a Hungarian lodger from the nearby forestry camp to help with their mounting bills, the local people are only too willing to think the worst of Joanna’s morals.
The novel is relentless in its unfolding misery. It is like Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm without the relief of comedy, mixed with the spiraling relationship dysfunction of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Winifred Holtby could certainly teach Thomas Hardy a thing or two about suffering! However, throughout her trials and unjust damnation by the surrounding community, Joanna is not passive in her suffering. She shows incredible strength, practicality, forbearance, and a stalwart refusal to buckle under the monumental weight of responsibility she has to carry. In the end, tragedy strikes, but Joanna turns her sorrow and rage at the hand she has been dealt into concrete steps towards making a happier life for herself and her children. As a result of its subject matter, the novel is not a comfortable read, but Holtby writes well and there are moments of beauty than glimmer among the ashes of tragedy.
After a night of rain a bright breeze blew through the gardens, shaking wet laburnum and lilac blossom on to the black shoulders of the men and the path and the coffin. A blackbird jubilated in the lilac bushes, scattering notes golden as the laburnum flowers, and in the sky blew clouds as soft as feathers over the house. A large bee blundered heavily down the path, hung over the green grass, and tumbled into a scarlet tulip. Joanna noticed all these things.
After all the interminable suffering, the novel’s ending brings hope and reflection on hard lessons learnt. I’m so glad I’ve now discovered the powerful writing of Winifred Holtby. When I’ve taken some time to recover from the trauma of The Land of Green Ginger, I look forward to exploring both more of her work and also her life. As well as writing about the war, Vera Brittain also wrote about Winifred Holtby in her memoir Testament of Friendship, which for me, is surely a must-read.
The awful thing about life is that we are really all alone in it. We can’t live for anyone else. I wanted to. I tried to. I tried to…I think that’s the worst thing there is in the world. You can’t really take someone else’s pain.
*I’m currently away, and will catch up and respond to comments when I get back next week!