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.
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.
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.
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.