The The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby has been on my wish list for a long time. South Riding is one of my favourite books and I love the sparky independence of Sarah Burton. She walks a good middle path between Fanny Price and Becky Sharp as a heroine! I had high hopes for The Crowded Street therefore and I wasn't disappointed.
The Crowded Street is one of a long line of books from the early twentieth century that deal with middle class women with a brain trying to balance their emotional lives with their career, when merely thinking of a career was in itself pretty daring. It reminded me throughout of The New House by Lettuce Cooper but where The New House is a very emotionally controlled and contained novel (set as it is over one day) The Crowded Street is much more chaotic, and I don't necessarily mean that in the pejorative sense.
We begin with a childhood party in 1900. Poor Muriel, who is nothing like Sarah Burton from South Riding, gets it all wrong. She is too timid and doesn't get enough partners for her dance card. She suffers the humiliation of her mother's intervention and the rather patronising kindness of a popular boy who does eventually dance with her. Mortified she seeks solace in the quiet of the supper room. She is tempted by a bowl of sweets, she knows that they are for her, as one of the children, at least eventually, so she gives in and takes one. She is caught red handed committing this solecism of helping herself. Poor Muriel, "The Party was spoilt, The Party was spoilt."
This event, presented as a prologue, sets the tone for the novel. Muriel is a social failure, only in the most minor things, but this enough. We follow her through school, and though her twenties. Muriel's life is the terrible pedestrian one of the unmarried married Edwardian daughter. The defining features are relationships, good and bad, with the women around her: her mother, always focused on getting things right socially; her sister Connie, strong willed and selfish; Clare, daughter of an actress and a right little dazzling starlet; and motherless vicar's daughter's Delia, intelligent, independent, caustic and radical (and remarkably like Vera Brittain).
Where The New House is brilliant but a tad claustrophobic The Crowded Street is brilliant but a tad flat. Neither book is one to read if you are feeling down, in fact (reader response theory alert!) these are books where the version you experience will very much depend on what you bring to the reading yourself. Whether Muriel is irritating or sympathetic, for example, would I think change on different readings. She is such a self-conscious personality, a social wall-flower. In the narrative itself she remains elusive though you are looking at her all the time. It is like looking at a very faded water colour and inevitably you have to bring some definition and colour from your own mood to the book. This is not to say that this is a fault, rather it is actually, I think, a very clever handling of the characterisation, to make the central character so ethereal.
Leavening things are some nice social set pieces, dances, tennis parties and at-homes where little things matter a lot. There are also some times away from the Yorkshire village, at boarding school, in Scarborough during WWI, and a brief period staying at what seems like an Edwardian prototype of Cold Comfort Farmwhere Muriel, if she but knew it, was playing at being Flora Poste before Stella Gibbon had thought of her, amongst some rather twisted rural characters.
The Scarborough section is a great piece of historical writing. Holtby was in Scarborough during WWI when it was shelled by the Germans. The description of the bewilderment and fear of the civilians affects is very nicely caught. As the sick are moved away from the coast by the few available cars, the able-bodied take to their heels. As Muriel and her companions run away the army trucks full of raw recruits are driving past them in the other direction to deal with what was a suspected invasion. One can only imagine the disaster that would have followed if they had been required to engage in combat.
Although Muriel's life is flat the narrative can often be witty and light:
Some women take to crochet as others do to cigarettes.
All in all, The Crowded Street caught me in the right mood and I thought it was a lovely book. I can see though that it will not be for everyone, nor would it seem lovely every time. It does seem in many ways ahead of its time being published some years before either The New House or Cold Comfort Farm, and that is almost a good enough reason to read it on its own.