Tag Archives: Winifred Holtby

Recent Reads – Elaine Dundy, John Le Carré, Cesare Pavese and Winifred Holtby

There are times when I don’t want or feel the need to write a full review of a book I’ve been reading, when I’d just rather experience it without analysing it too much. Nevertheless, there are still things I might want to say about it, even it’s just to capture an overall feeling or response before it disappears into the ether. So, with this in mind, here are a few brief thoughts on four books I’ve read recently – mainly for my own benefit, but some of you might find them of interest too.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)

I really loved this novel of the young, adventurous American innocent abroad. It’s smart, witty and utterly engaging from start to finish, a rare delight.

When we first meet the book’s heroine, the wonderful Sally Jay Gorce, she is walking down a Parisian boulevard on her way to meet her Italian lover when she runs into Larry, an old friend from home in the States. The fact that she’s still wearing last night’s evening dress in the middle of the morning does not go unnoticed by Larry – nor does her hair which has recently been dyed a rather striking shade of pink.

What follows is a series of exploits for Sally Jay as she mixes with the bohemian artists, writers and creative directors of Paris. There are various parties, romantic dilemmas and the occasional encounter with a gendarme or two along the way, all conveyed through Dundy’s sparkling prose.

This is a book which eschews plot in favour of tone and mood. Instead, it’s more about the experience of living, of self-discovery and adventure, of making mistakes and wising up from the consequences. Above all, it’s a pleasure to read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes – the first two are archetypal Sally Jay.

The vehemence of my moral indignation surprised me. Was I beginning to have standards and principles, and, oh dear, scruples? What were they, and what would I do with them, and how much were they going to get in my way? (p. 180)

It’s amazing how right you can sometimes be about a person you don’t know; it’s only the people you do know who confuse you.

While the whole novel is eminently quotable, I couldn’t resist including this final piece from the closing section of the story when Sally Jay returns to New York. Dundy has a wonderful way of describing things, a skill which I hope you can see from the following passage.

We went into a cocktail bar just off Fifth Avenue on Eighth Street. One of those suave, sexy bars, dead dark, with popcorn and air-conditioning and those divine cheese things.

“What’ll you have?” he asked. “Champagne? Have anything. Money’s no object. Look. Wads of it. Ceylon. Can’t spend it fast enough. We photographers are the New Rich.”

We had dry martinis; great wing-shaped glasses of perfumed fire, tangy as the early morning air. (p. 244)

Finally, for those of you who might be thinking that The Dud Avocado is too ditzy or sugary, let me try to reassure you that it’s not. There are touches of darkness and jeopardy running underneath the surface of some of Sally Jay’s adventures, especially towards the end. Moreover, Dundy’s writing is so sharp and on the money that it elevates the novel into something with real zing. Highly recommended – in retrospect, I actually preferred it to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Simon has reviewed this book here.

The Spy Who Came into the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

Another brilliant book that has been languishing on my shelves for far too long.

What can I say about this classic spy novel that hasn’t been said before? Probably not a lot, other than to reiterate that it’s a masterclass in how to tell a complex, gripping story without having to rely on lots on clunky exposition along the way. While the narrative may appear to be rather confusing at first, everything becomes much clearer by the end. Crucially, Le Carré trusts in the intelligence of his readers, knowing that their perseverance will be rewarded as the action draws to a close.

It’s also a book that seems to perfectly capture the political distrust and uncertainty that must have been prevalent during the Cold War years of the early ‘60s – the tense and gritty atmosphere of Berlin is beautifully conveyed.

There was only one light in the checkpoint, a reading lamp with a green shade, but the glow of the arclights, like artificial moonlight, filled the cabin. Darkness had fallen, and with it silence. They spoke as if they were afraid of being overheard. Leamas went to the window and waited. In front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war. (pp. 6-7)

While the first two Smiley novels are good, The Spy Came in from the Cold is in a totally different league. A thoroughly engrossing book from start to finish.

The Beautiful Summer by Cesare Pavese (tr. by W.J. Strachan, 1955)

This is a slightly curious one – not entirely successful for me, but an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Set in 1930s Italy in the heady days of summer, this short novel focuses on the life of Ginia, a rather sheltered sixteen-year-old girl on the cusp of adulthood.

When she meets the more sophisticated, self-assured Amelia, Ginia is quickly drawn into an intriguing milieu of bohemian artists and everything this new culture represents, including some brushes with the opposite sex. It’s not long before Ginia falls in love with Guido, an attractive young painter who responds to her innocence and youth while remaining somewhat emotionally detached. What follows is a fairly painful introduction to the fickle nature of human emotions and the duplicities of the adult world, at least as far as Ginia is concerned.

In short, this is a delicate story of a young girl’s loss of innocence and sexual awakening, themes which usually hold a great deal of appeal for me, especially in translated literature. However, while I really liked the overall mood of this novel and Pavese’s depiction of the conflicted emotions of youth, I wasn’t quite as taken with the writing, some of which felt a bit flat or clunky to me. (The following quote is intended to convey something of the novel’s tone and mood as opposed to the quality of the prose.)

Ginia slept little that night; the bed-clothes seemed a dead weight on her. But her mind ran on many things that became more and more fantastic as the time passed by. She imagined herself alone in the unmade bed in that corner of the studio, listening to Guido moving about on the other side of the curtain, living with him, kissing him and cooking for him. She had no idea where Guido had his meals when he was not in the army. (p. 49)

Overall, I was left wishing that Penguin had commissioned a fresh translation of Pavese’s text instead of running with the original from 1955. Others may have a different view on this, so I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has read the book, particularly in the original Italian. Grant and Max have also written about it here and here.

For a sharper, more insightful take on the loss of a teenager’s innocence, albeit from a male character’s perspective, try Alberto Moravia’s Agostino, also set in the heat of an Italian summer – this time in the early 1940s.

The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby (1924)

(Don’t worry, my comments on this last novel are going to be relatively brief!)

While I liked this novel, I didn’t love it. It’s a perfectly enjoyable story of Muriel, a young girl struggling to find her place within the confines of a restrictive Edwardian society in a small Yorkshire village, a world where marriage seems to be the only option available to ladies of her class. That said, it lacks some of the bite of other stories I’ve been reading lately, particularly those by women writers from the mid-20th century, a favourite period of literature for me.

The latter stages of the novel are the most interesting, mainly because the advent of WW1 provides new opportunities for women like Muriel, encouraging them to spread their wings by gaining some much-needed independence.

Holtby’s prose is good but not particularly spectacular. That said, I loved this next passage from the end of the book – it really stood out for me.

I used to think of life as a dance, where the girls had to wait for men to ask them, and if nobody came – they still must wait, smiling and hoping and pretending not to mind.

How tragic is that?

The Dud Avocado is published by NYRB Classics, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Beautiful Summer by Penguin, and The Crowded Street by Virago; personal copies.

Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

Along with many other readers, I first discovered Winifred Holtby through her connection 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. Holtby and Brittain were at Oxford together; after graduating the pair shared a flat in London where they went on to pursue their respective literary careers. Anderby Wold was Holtby’s first novel – an absorbing story of traditional Yorkshire farming folk grappling with the challenges of financial survival in an environment poised on the brink of great social change. I enjoyed it a great deal, especially the portrayal of the novel’s central character, Mary Robson, the rather headstrong joint-owner of Anderby Wold farm, situated in the East Riding region of Yorkshire.

When her errant father, Ben, died some ten years earlier leaving a multitude of debts, Mary married her steady but desperately unexciting cousin, John Robson, in order to secure a stable future for her family’s farm. It was a union borne out of necessity rather than passion or desire, especially given the large gap in their ages – Mary was just eighteen when she married John, a placid man in his early forties at the time. Now, after ten years of hard work on the farm and much scrimping and saving, the couple have made the final payment on the mortgage; thus Anderby Wold is financially secure, at least for the moment.

Anderby was hers. The mortgage was paid. That was worth anything; worth unlovely dresses made in the village, worth the constant strain of economy, worth the ten years’ intimacy with a man whose presence roused in her alternate irritation and disappointment. (p.23)

As the novel opens, John’s older sister, the formidable Sarah Bannister and her henpecked husband, Tom, are travelling to Anderby for a celebratory tea party to be hosted by the Robsons. Sarah – initially portrayed as a bitter and twisted woman – has always resented Mary for blighting John’s life. She considers Mary a selfish and conceited individual with little regard for John’s wishes and desires, especially given the fact that John had virtually given up work on his own farm at Littledale all those years ago in order to come to her aid at the Wold. Mary makes all the major decisions concerning the farm, with mild-mannered John deferring to the better judgement of his wife in virtually all matters. There is also a sense that Mary has let John down by failing to produce a child, someone to carry on the family name and tradition – a feeling that emerges a couple of times in the story. In this scene, we are privy to Sarah’s uncensored thoughts as her cart approaches the Robsons’ estate.

In a quarter of an hour they would be at Anderby Wold. That was where Ben had died over ten years ago, and where John had called to see if he could do anything for Mary – eighteen-year-old Mary, left alone to cope with her father’s debts. Oh, but she was clever! She knew that John was capable of managing two farms as well as one. Six month’s tribute had been paid to decorum before she had married him – poor John being too guileless to understand her cleverness. And, for the hundredth time since the marriage, Sarah had to enter John’s house as his wife’s guest. It was hard. (p. 6) 

Various aunts and uncles, cousins and other family members have come together to toast the Robsons’ achievement in paying off their mortgage. Holtby does a great job in drawing out the family tensions, particularly those between Mary and her cousin, Sarah. Nothing that Mary can do will ever be good enough for Sarah, the woman who thinks she knows John better than anyone else in the family fold. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, the reader can see that Sarah cares very deeply for her rather sensitive brother – ultimately, a slightly softer side of her personality emerges as it becomes clear that she only has John’s best interests at heart.

The Robsons are conventional folk, and their families have worked the land in pretty much the same way year in year out for several centuries. They believe in traditional values and morals, treating their workers with respect and consideration, paying them a modest wage augmented by generous hospitality at the end of each harvest. While John works on the farm, Mary busies herself with a variety of charitable work in the village. She organises whist drives and social events in aid of the local school, visits the sick and infirm, and offers support where it is needed. In short, Mary likes to think of herself as absolutely indispensable to the community of Anderby.

The government of a kingdom was not always easy. Mary hated to be disliked. She loved to imagine herself the idolized champion of the poor and suffering, the serene mistress of bountiful acres, where the season was always harvest and the labourers worthy of their hire. Coast and Waite were somehow out of the picture. (p. 88)

While many of the villagers and farm workers appreciate Mary’s efforts, others remain somewhat immune to her charms. There are frequent disagreements with the local schoolteacher, Mr Coast, a man who resents Mary for having blocked his application for a more prestigious role outside of the village. The pair clash again when Mary refuses to sell a piece of land to the County Council, partly for sentimental reasons and partly to annoy Mr Coast who wishes to turn the ground into a playing field for the children. These interactions highlight a stubborn, dogmatic steak in Mary’s nature, a facet which makes her character seem all the more human and believable – naturally, we all have our own particular flaws and shortcomings, and Mary is no exception.

Perhaps above everything else, Mary is determined not to end up like the older women in the Robson family who gather together on Wednesday afternoons in nearby Market Burton, their lives revolving around banal talk of ailments, general gossip and the best methods for darning holes in socks. From one generation to the next, the elders have moved to the town after retiring from their farms, simply to wither away and die like old trees starved of a sense of life and vitality.

Then, into the relative stability of the Robsons’ world comes young David Rossitur, an enthusiastic socialist full of radical ideas for the implementation of social change in the valleys of East Riding. Rossitur favours a more generous living wage for all farm labourers over a reliance on the philanthropy or goodwill of their employers come harvest time. He stirs up everything in Mary’s world on both a professional and a personal level, encouraging her workers to join a labourers’ union to fight for their rights. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of Rossitur’s feisty but good-natured debates with Mary.

‘You stand for an ideal that is, thank Heaven, outworn. The new generation knocks at your door – a generation of men, independent, not patronized, enjoying their own rights, not the philanthropy of their exploiters, respecting themselves, not their so-called superiors. You can’t stop them, but they may stop you. You can’t shut them out, but they may shut you in.’ (p. 118)

Even though Rossitur ardently disagrees with everything Mary and her class represent – in particular, their strong beliefs in time-honoured principles and traditions – he finds himself captivated by her spirited personality. Mary, for her part, is equally attracted to Rossitur, stuck as she is in a stagnant marriage utterly devoid of any spark of excitement.

David regarded her across the table. She was maddening, with her amused complacency, her indifference to all his arguments. And yet kind, and intelligent too in a way, and not without a sense of social responsibility. Clearly a convert worth making. (p. 109)

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. You can probably guess how the story plays out, but it’s fair to say that Holtby throws in a few surprises along the way. My only quibble relates to certain events towards the end of the novel, some of which feel a little contrived and heavy-handed – engineered to force a conclusion to the story.

The novel does a fine job of exploring various timely themes, including the balance between tradition and progression, the need to let go of the past, the rights of workers vs employers, the dynamics between the different social classes, and the tensions arising from family obligations. For a debut, it’s pretty good – well-written and engaging, with plenty of scope for further development of the relevant themes in subsequent novels. Holtby brings a strong sense of authenticity to this story, an element which stems from her knowledge and experience of the community she portrays here. For the most part, the main characters feel real and sufficiently fleshed out, their personalities are sketched in shades of grey rather than purely black or white. Mary, in particular, is fully realised on the page. While there are times when she is kind and considerate, there are occasions when another side of her character emerges, one that reveals a somewhat stubborn, selfish and self-protective streak to her nature. Nevertheless, I found it easy to warm to Mary in spite of her failings.

All in all, Anderby Wold is an interesting and convincing portrait of a community wrestling with the prospect of significant social change. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the dilemma that Mary faces as she contemplates an uncertain future ahead.

Between the generation that was passing and the one coming forward was a great gulf fixed – Mary and John were on one side. For a moment rebellion seized her. Why could she not relinquish this – the dim hills before her, the bearded figure beside her, the responsibilities that preyed upon her? Why not escape to the other side? (pp. 154-155)

Anderby Wold is published by Virago; personal copy.