Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby

Along with many other readers, I first discovered Winifred Holtby through her friendship with Vera Brittain, whose memoir – The Testament of Youth – is considered a classic for its depiction of the impact of the Great War on the British middle classes, particularly the women. While I’ve previously enjoyed some of Holtby’s other novels, it’s fair to say that my feelings about Poor Caroline (1931) are somewhat mixed. More about that later once I’ve explained a little about the novel itself – an inventive satire about the failings and cruelties of human nature and one woman’s fixation with a farcical scheme.

Central to the novel is Caroline Denton-Smyth, a spirited, eccentric and rather deluded woman who dreams of establishing the Christian Cinema Company (CCC) with the aim of producing chaste British films as a counterpoint to the immoral offerings from Hollywood. At the age of seventy or thereabouts, Miss Denton-Smyth cuts a striking if somewhat absurd figure as illustrated by the following passage.

She halted in the doorway, and fumbling among the chains and beads about her neck, found a pair of lorgnettes, clicked them open,  and stood peering through them into the ante-room, turning her finger a little as she peered, so that all her chains and beads clashed softly together, like the trappings of an oriental dancer at a cheap music hall. The lorgnettes imparted to her short, plump, eccentric figure an air of comic but indomitable dignity. Her preposterous red hat, with its huge ribbon bows and sweeping pheasant’s feather, bobbed triumphantly above her frizzled hair. (pp. 41-42)

Living on her own in a down-at-heel bedsit in Kensington, Caroline has no real money of her own, so she attempts to enlist support for her virtuous venture from a range of interested parties, many of whom gain places on her Board of Directors. There is the aristocratic dilettante, Basil St. Denis, whose wife encourages his participation as a means of keeping him busy; the Jewish businessman, Joseph Isenbaum, whose only interest in the project is to establish an influential connection with St Denis; the argumentative scientist Hugh Macafee, who sees the CCC as a potential buyer for his Tona Perfecta Film technology; and the brash ‘screenwriter’, Clifton Johnson, an American scoundrel on the look-out for any opportunity to pull a swindle.

None of these thoroughly unlikeable characters has any real interest in Caroline’s vision for the CCC. Instead, they are pursuing their own self-centred endeavours, each of which is revealed in detail as the narrative progresses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Poor Caroline is blind to all these shenanigans, doggedly persisting with her own fanciful ideas for morally upstanding movies. In this scene, she reveals to the Board her plans for the cultivation of future directors, fruitlessly aiming for the top with all her fallacies and delusions.

‘[…] indeed, I hope soon to add an archbishop to our list of directors.’

‘An archbishop?’

‘An archbishop, Mr. Johnson. Do you not remember that at our last meeting we decided to invite a number of distinguished ladies and gentlemen, representing the Stage, the Church, the Schools, the Universities, Art, Music and public service, to become directors so that when we send out our appeals we may make it quite clear that we have the highest possible authority behind us? My idea was, if possible, a Cabinet Minister, even the Premier might, being so greatly interested in English culture. I confess that I should like to see Mr. Baldwin’s name upon our Board and possibly the Archbishop of Canterbury. I always say aim high and you may keep on the level.’ (p. 108)

Meanwhile, Caroline’s family in Yorkshire will have nothing to do with the project, considering it to be the latest in a string of mad ideas. The only relative willing to help Caroline is her young cousin, Eleanor, an independently minded socialist recently arrived from South Africa following the death of her father. In her desperation for support, Caroline persuades Eleanor to invest the majority of her legacy in the CCC, shamelessly taking advantage of the young woman’s generosity and sympathy.

Also in the mix is a young curate, Father Mortimer, whom Caroline takes a shine to in the course of her delusions. However, unbeknownst to Caroline, Father Mortimer only has eyes for Eleanor, a development that leads to complications and heartache as the story plays out – particularly as it becomes clear that Caroline is jealous of her cousin’s youth, intelligence and ambitions.

We learn quite early on what happens to Poor Caroline in the end, but I won’t spoil it for you here. Much of the enjoyment of the novel stems from seeing how this rather sad character meets her fate, aided but mostly abetted by others along the way.

There are some wonderful set-pieces here involving romantic entanglements, unexpected confrontations and a bizarre accident in the midst of a storm, all beautifully observed by Holtby’s satirical eye. The characters are well captured too, in a manner that lays bare all their undesirable qualities and behaviours. Caroline is painted as a rather tragic figure, an outcast from her family and society, endlessly chasing rainbows in the hope of making her fortune through altruistic efforts. Moreover, Holtby has some serious points to make about the perceptions of women – often unfavourable – who throw themselves into charitable causes, and about the difficulties in funding the arts in general.

The element that sits less comfortably with me stems from one character’s rather unfortunate comments about women’s sex lives and the potential for abuse. (I won’t quote them here; they’re far too unpleasant for that.) Satire or no satire, this feels somewhat out of place, particularly in a novel by a notable feminist such as Holtby. Maybe she is trying to hold up a mirror to society, to draw our attention to the unreasonable nature of the prevailing attitudes at the time (we’re still in the early 1930s here); but even so, this seems somewhat misjudged given the context of the remarks in question. While the character concerned is left feeling rather frustrated by the end of the novel, it does seem as if Holtby lets him off the hook to a certain extent – a more savage denouement for this individual might have been more fitting.

So, in summary, an interesting novel with some excellent scenes, but not without its problems. A very different Holtby from the others I’ve read. If they’re of interest, you can find my thoughts on them here: South Riding; Anderby Wold; and The Crowded Street. The first, in particular, comes very highly recommended indeed.

Poor Caroline is published by Virago; personal copy.

29 thoughts on “Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby

  1. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always. I have not read Holtby. Though she seems worth reading I will likely start with a different book. Even the greatest writers have books that are not up to their very best. It is too bad though because this plot of this one sounds interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      South Riding is the one to go for, Brian. It’s almost certainly her best novel, plus the overarching themes and social commentary would likely appeal to you. Well worth seeking out.

      Reply
  2. Tredynas Days

    Like Brian I haven’t read any WH. I remember seeing some of the S Riding series on TV and enjoying it, so I suppose that would be a logical starting point – especially as you seem to favour it, Jacqui. One for the future, though, as I just had a little book-buying splurge which will keep me occupied for a while. And I’m only halfway through Catch-22; hadn’t realised it was so long! But very funny. I’ll need to be in the mood for another novel about a sad, deluded lady of a certain age like this one…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I would definitely recommend South Riding. The characterisation is excellent, particularly with the feisty Sarah Burton in the central role (Anna Maxwell-Martin plays her in the TV adaptation which I have yet to see). You’d like it, I think. It has some very interesting things to say about opportunities for women, the value of education and other socialist themes. Holtby’s mother was the first female alderman on East Riding Council, so the novel’s focus on local government feels grounded in reality.

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Catch-22 once you’ve finished. It’s a book I never quite got around to reading when I was younger. (Catcher in the Rye is another one – for some reason I always get the two of them mixed up!)

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        I’ve got to page 300 (over 200 to go): it’s mostly brilliantly, savagely funny, though the casual sexism isn’t too palatable, even when showing up the crassness of the men who demonstrate it

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I can imagine. I had a feeling there was something of that nature in it! Have you been watching the Clooney adaptation on Channel 4? I wasn’t sure about it based on the look of the trailers…

          Reply
          1. Tredynas Days

            Yes, that’s what inspired me to finally get round to reading it. I’d been given a book token, so invested in the Everyman’s hardback – just a few quid more than the nastily jacketed paperback. Some of the reviews of the TV version have been pretty harsh, but I thought it ok. Now I’ve read 4/5 of it I think it captures the anarchic, anti-establishment, surreal tone pretty well. But the misogyny and dated attitude to women is getting worse the further I go on…

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Good to hear that there’s a somewhat surreal quality to the narrative. (I think that’s the impression I had formed through hearing bits and pieces about it over the years, but it’s useful to have it confirmed.) Shame about the misogyny though – perhaps not surprising given the macho environment of the setting…

              Reply
  3. anon

    I loved THE CROWDED STREET but did not like other Holtby .Not even POOR CAROLINE or SOUTH RIDING.Nobody agrees with me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked The Crowded Street, but I didn’t love it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind at the time as Holtby can clearly write. Her female characters in particular seem very well developed.

      Reply
    1. Tredynas Days

      Oh dear, I think that was aimed at me, Marina Sofia. I didn’t intend sounding patronising – My apologies. I can’t face novels about sad deluded men at the moment, either.

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        No, not just you, it doesn’t seem to have been a favourite with anyone reading Winifred Holtby. I am in fact a deluded woman of a certain age, occasionally sad and angry, so I normally shouldn’t be eager to read something like this, but somehow it still attracts me!

        Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! It’s actually pretty funny in parts, especially when Caroline’s fanciful ideas come pouring out. A tragi-comedy would be a good way of visualising it, almost like one of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel’s about failure in an insular community.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, me too! This isn’t quite in the same league as PF — let’s face it, few others are — but there are some similarities for sure.

          Reply
  4. heavenali

    I really enjoyed this one, though there are definitely some uncomfortable moments with how characters are perceived and treated, I don’t remember that particular section you refer to, though it does sound unfortunate. Overall, Holtby is such an interesting novelist, and I will probably read this again one day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. I’d love to hear your take on the section in question. Let me see if I can find the relevant page number when I have my copy to hand (assuming you’ve also got the old green Virago edition or something similar).

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      If you’re interested and have time to look at some point, it’s the section at the bottom of p.113 – top p.114 where Johnson is talking to Hugh during a gathering attended by several women (all painted as do-gooders).

      Reply
  5. Jessica Norrie

    I really enjoyed South Riding, but had the same jarring feeling as you do about some of the viewpoints expressed in The Land of Green Ginger, which I read next. Not that they wouldn’t have existed, but that she should have made her disapproval clearer. Maybe the 30s are further away in time and attitude than we think. Holtby’s writing certainly has extremes of being both ahead of its time and seeming rather Victorian.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s such a perceptive comment! In some respects, her views are very progressive – the need to embrace change not fight it, the value of education, equal opportunities for the disadvantaged — but in others they feel more antiquated. (As you say, maybe that’s a reflection of society’s attitudes at the time rather than Holtby’s own personal beliefs.) I just would have liked to see someone challenge the character in question, to push back a little more on the derogatory comments being expressed…

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Fascinating review Jacqui – I have several Holtbys I haven’t read but I’m not sure if I have this one. It’s interesting what you and other commenters are saying about the attitudes; it is rather a long time ago now and even if she was a feminist, would she still be thinking sometimes In terms that were prevalent at the time? Although a feminist might support equality, equal pay, the vote etc it might be that attitudes towards more personal matters of sexuality and the like took longer to change. Just a thought…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that may well be the case – holding up a mirror to society, particularly certain types of men and their outmoded attitudes. It’s just that I would have liked to see the character in question (Johnson) being pulled up more strongly for his abhorrent views. To give you a feel for the text, this is Johnson talking to Hugh Macafee during a gathering attended by several women, mostly those with connections to charitable causes:

      ‘D’you know what they all need?’
      Hugh shook his head. ‘Who?’
      ‘These women. ‘Smy belief it would be the salvation of half of ’em to be raped by the butcher’s boy.’
      Hugh was shocked.
      ‘My dear fellow,’ muttered Johnson, squeezing his arm with the familiarity which Hugh detested. ‘Don’t you see what’s wrong with ’em all? Sex-starved. Sex-starved. Must use their energy somehow. Good works. Purity and social welfare…’

      It goes on in this vein for quite a bit.
      While Hugh is initially shocked by Johnson’s comments, half a page later we get this:

      Hugh grunted. He thought it possible that Johnson was right. He was prepared to believe any evil or stupidity of women. But he wished Johnson would stop talking.

      While Johnson doesn’t get quite the outcome he’s hoping for at the end of the novel, he does manage to make a hasty escape at an opportune moment. I think Holtby let’s him off the hook somewhat, but maybe there’s reason for that. She could be trying to draw attention to the injustice of all this, but it’s a little hard to tell…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, this is a bit of curio. Very funny in parts (in a rather tragic way) but also somewhat disturbing. South Riding is excellent though, full of all the good stuff.. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be on safe ground there.

      Reply

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