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, 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.