Emily Greenaway, our High Streets Heritage Action Zones Project Officer for the North East and Yorkshire, explores the story of this overlooked writer.
Many have heard of the Brontë sisters, but are you familiar with Winifred Holtby, one of Yorkshire’s lesser-known literary daughters?
Born in 1898 on the cusp of the 20th-century, Winifred Holtby was a thoroughly modern woman. Hailing from Rudston in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Holtby was a feminist campaigner, a civil rights supporter and a socialist – as well as a highly regarded journalist and author.
Rudston and East Riding
Rudston is a typical Yorkshire Wolds village in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where farmers have worked the arable land for generations.
Holtby grew up in a prosperous farming family, under the shadow of the Neolithic Rudston Monolith. She would have walked through fields littered with barrows, villas and earthworks, and witnessed centuries-held local farming traditions.
“…I lean against that gate in the ivied wall under the ash tree, and hear the clump of farm horse hoofs coming from the drinking pond, and see the sunset beyond the horse pasture and the sixty-acre stretch that lies, dark plough-land, up to the flaming sky.”Winifred Holtby, 1934
Influenced throughout her life by the landscape and traditions of her youth, her novels, short stories and journalism often evoked the people and culture of the Yorkshire Wolds.
In her short story, The Legend of Rudston, Holtby has a sexton explain a local legend – that the devil threw the churchyard monolith to halt the building of All Saints church.
Scarborough and the First World War
While at school in Scarborough, Holtby witnessed first-hand the impact of the First World War with the December 1914 naval bombardment. She included a fictionalised account in her novel, The Crowded Street.
“As the door opened, and Muriel saw the blank wall of fog along the Esplanade, she felt as though she were standing on the world’s edge, staring into the din of chaos.”.Winifred Holtby, The Crowded Street, 1924
Holtby passed the entrance exam for Oxford’s Somerville College in 1917 but, deeply influenced by her experiences and personal beliefs, chose to take up war work instead.
She worked in a nursing home with wounded soldiers returning from the front, before joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, with a post as a forewoman at a hostel on the frontline, near Abbeville, France.
These experiences during the First World War would only strengthen Holtby’s lifelong beliefs in pacifism and civil rights.
Oxford and London
Holtby returned to her studies at Oxford in 1919. Somerville College Library now has an extension block named in commemoration of her time as a student and tutor at the University.
At Oxford, Holtby met Vera Brittain, and it is through this friendship that she is probably best known.
As two of the first generation of women to graduate from Oxford University, and both profoundly affected by their experiences in the First World War, they became inseparable, lifelong friends.
The two moved to London and shared a house on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, now marked with a Blue Plaque.
Living in London with Vera, Holtby built a career as a writer and a journalist, writing for feminist journals and trade union magazines that reflected her pacifist and socialist beliefs.
Writing and the Wolds
Although she never returned to Yorkshire to live, Holtby’s flourishing writing career explored the impact of the inter-war period on its rural and agricultural society.
In her first novel, Anderby Wold, she explores the impact of radical politics and social change on a traditional farming community. Describing the fictional Wolds village of Anderby in winter, Winifred takes inspiration from the landscape of her youth.
“In its cold clarity the sweeping curves of the Wolds, the filigree tracery of the black branches against the sky, and the sturdy outline of the Norman church on the hill were as boldly defined as an etching.”.Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold, 1924
Subsequent works were set in the suburbs of Hull and the Yorkshire Dales, and her semi-autobiographical novel The Crowded Street would bring to life her childhood in the Wolds and school days in Scarborough.
Holtby’s novel, The Land of Green Ginger, is named after an area of the Old Town in Hull – and the real-life Land of Green Ginger sits within the Hull Heritage Action Zone.
Death and legacy
Having suffered from poor health for several years, Holtby was diagnosed with Bright’s disease in 1932 and died in London in 1935, aged just 37.
She was buried in October 1935 in All Saints churchyard in the village where she had been born, below the rolling fields of the Wolds which had so inspired her life and her writing. Today the church has a memorial to the writer.
Winifred’s last novel, South Riding, is her most famous, set in a fictional county. She even drew her own map of the area! It was posthumously published in 1936 and went on to become the writer’s most popular novel, with subsequent film and TV adaptations.
As with much of her writing, it depicts a rural community’s struggle against the hardship of the 1930s economic depression and brings to life the people and places Winifred had known best, in the Yorkshire Wolds of her childhood.
If you’d like to read more about Winifred Holtby, this blog is indebted to Marion Shaw’s The Clear Stream: A Life of Winifred Holtby and John Markham’s Guide to Winifred Holtby Country.
In 2018, we commissioned the York Archaeological Trust to carry out ‘Food for Thought’, a project exploring the history and archaeological landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds. Find out more in our Research Magazine.
Really enjoyed this article. Have always loved the works of Winifred Holtby and now would like to visit the area. Thank you
The 2014 film Testament of Youth is excellent and features Alexandra Roach as Holtby and Alicia Vikander as Brittain, and the story of Edward Brittain has been well documented movingly by Mark Bostridge.
A very interesting article. Despite having been a fan of her writings I knew little of Winifred Holtby’s background. Many thanks. Shirley
Well worth reading Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Friendship’, which is about Winifred Holtby’s life and writing.
Fascinating to hear more of Winifred Holtby. She was known to my fathers’ family and held up to us as a fine example of East Yorkshire’s strong women characters.
Ms Harker how wonderful to have your family connection with Winifred Holtby: now a big interest for me after reading much about Vera Brittain & how through her love, devotion, and sheer kindness for VB’s became her salvation in the aftermath of WW1 ”Thank you for posting.”
This was both a very interesting and touching article about Winifred Holtby. The accompanying pictures are wonderful. Well done!
See also ‘Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby’ published in 1985. Holtby also maintained a friendship with the wood engraver Clare Leighton (the sister of Vera Brittain’s fiance) and stayed at the house Leighton and her partner built at Monks Risborough in the Chilterns, immortalised in Leighton’s book ‘Four Hedges’.
I thought this was very thought provoking. She sounded wonderful and I loved her I tired.
I thought this was very thought provoking . Clearly very astute and I loved her pictures.
A lovely article. My mother used to do her hair when she was living in Hornsea whilst writing South Riding. I frequently go to Rudston and visit the churchyard and I have been to visit Rudston Hall on one occasion, for a private tour.
Did your Mother form her own impressions of her and tell you ? She was a generous giving woman if as you read about her states especially where Vera Brittain was concerned…