War or no war, provincial towns have a habit of sucking the life out of young women. Every generation of young women needs a parable to warn them to escape. Winnifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street could be the parable for her generation.
Muriel Hammond is the eldest daughter of a prominent family in the Yorkshire town of Marshington. Her father makes the money and trusts her mother spend it, and to make wise decisions about their daughters. (He would have taken more interest in a son.) The prominent women make it their duty to know everyone else’s business and to match their daughters in marriage to the best sons. A daughter’s duty is to care for her parents and to marry well.
As a business woman, Mrs Hancock knew that the parents who pay the bills are the indispensable factor of success. She also knew that, for most of her parents, the unacknowledged aim of education was to teach their children to be a comfort to them. And how could a child be a comfort to parents whom she makes uncomfortable? (p 24)
Clever? Who said that we all had to be clever? But we have to have courage. The whole position of women is what it is to-day, because so many of us have followed the line of least resistance, and have sat down placidly in a little provincial town, waiting to get married. No wonder that the men have thought that this is all that we are good for. (p 92)
Muriel’s story plays out through the women who dominate her, and a part of the book is named for each: her school friend Clare, her mother, her sister Connie, her neighbour turned reformer Delia, and finally (all too briefly) herself. Most of her time is spent waiting … waiting for what? She suppresses her interests and desires, but slowly (OMG, slowly … infuriatingly so) comes to the realization that she must live her own life. In the process, we see the dire effects of both conformity and rebellion on Muriel and the women around her.
There’s no doubt about Holtby’s message:
“Men do as they like. That’s where they’re different. We just wait to see what they will do. It’s not our fault. Things happen to us, or they don’t. We stretch out our hands and grasp nothing” … “Stuff and nonsense. A clever woman can do as she likes.” … “Some people never do as they please. They are bound by a sort of burden that they call duty” … “Duty? I’ve no patience with the pother about duty.” (p 145)
Although the action in The Crowded Room is set from 1900 to 1920, WW1 plays an oddly inconsequential role. Holtby captures the essence of small town thinking in a few short phrases:
The War came to Marshington with the bewildering irrelevance of all great catastrophes. (p 119)
Marshington wanted to feel that it was doing its bit, yet desired the merit without too great discomfort. (p 139)
The Crowded Room was published in 1924, when Holtby was 26. A thought-provoking contrast to Testament of Youth by her good friend Vera Brittain. Holtby depicts a friendship between Muriel and Delia that enables each woman to use her own talent. Delia is drawn on Brittain. Did she draw Muriel on herself? Perhaps what she might have been if she had not followed her own parable.
They promise us all sorts of things, happiness, success, adventure, don’t you know? Of course you don’t, you’re clever. But we listen, we think we are moving on towards some strange, rich carnival, and follow, follow, follow. Then suddenly we find ourselves left alone in a dull crowded street with no one caring and our lives unneeded, and all the fine things that we meant to do, like toys that a child has laid aside. (p 260)
Page references are to the Persephone edition.