Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The Crowded Street


Are you ever exposed to a book that you know you have to buy there and then and will subsequently make a special trip to a bookstore to obtain it so that you don't have to wait for online postage? I'm sure it's not just me...

I listened to the first installment of the BBC Radio 7 dramatisation of The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby last week and in the opening few minutes I knew that this was a book that I had to purchase and devour and instantly made plans to visit Persephone Books that day for a copy.

The Crowded Street is one of those rare but wonderful books that is both a Virago Modern Classic and a Persephone (#76), meaning that it once was published in bottle-green and fell out of print but was rescued by Persephone and now appears in dove-grey (another title for which this is the case is A Very Great Profession by Persephone founder, Nicola Beauman). I collect both VMCs and Persephones but as there are a number of Holtby titles that were published by Virago I intended to track all of them down but needing to read it now (and coveting Persephones just the same) I made an outing to the Bloomsbury shop and had the book in my hands that afternoon, along with a beautiful Bloomsbury postcard that coincidentally has something in common with the book (ahem, answers on a postcard will take place during Persephone Reading Week).

I began to read the book on the train journey home (temporarily laying aside my current book) and once home settled down to read it. I was lucky enough to do so with tea and M&S naughty strawberry tarts; why they are branded "naughty" I couldn't tell you as they are petite p√Ętisseries... perhaps having one is indulgent but both is sheer decadence. Indeed the afternoon of tea, pastries, and this book were a naughty delight.

Very much a Persephone book, The Crowded Street is an inter-war novel about women and their relationships with one another. The central protagonist is Muriel Hammond and her relationships with her socially aspiring mother; her impetuous sister, Connie; her socialite childhood friend, Claire Duquesne; and her idealist, social reformer friend, Delia Vaughan, all of whom are "types". The novel is about what is expected from life and what is expected of us -the pressure to please and to conform- and ultimately freedom from these personal and societal constraints. It is a bildungsroman and also a roman à clef, as the conflict Muriel feels between duty to her family and public service is what Holtby experienced herself. It is also a feminist novel about the emphasis on "sex success" in snobbish, gossippy Marshington, the suffocating home that Muriel later rejects. In many ways The Crowded Street appears to be ahead of its time with women choosing not to marry and railing against the stigma of spinsterhood as well as the subplot of sex outwith marriage and pregnancy out of wedlock, although ultimately those events result in forced marriage and tragedy.

The structure of the novel is divided into four sections (after the prologue concerning Muriel's first dance): entitled Clare, Connie, Delia, Muriel and revolve around the former three women's influence on Muriel. More time could have been spent on the latter two narratives, I thought, as they were to me the most interesting (and autobriographical). Connie's section was melodramatic and there is speculation that her time at Thraile Farm with the odd Todds is the inspiration for Stella Gibbon's satire, Cold Comfort Farm. There is however no sign of the something nasty in the woodshed.

Winifred Holtby lived with fellow Virago author, Vera Brittain, in 1920s London and their life-long friendship is the focus of the latter's autobiographical novel , Testament of Friendship. Moreover, I had the impression that Muriel's friend, Delia, was based upon Vera Brittain and this was confirmed in reading the preface after finishing the novel.

Favourite and central quotes:

"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."

"The thing that matters is to take your life into your own hands and live it, accepting responsibility for failure or success. The really fatal thing to do is to let other people make your choices for you, and then to blame them if your scheme should fail and they despise you for the failure.

I now want to read more Winifred Holtby and add to my burgeoning Virago collection but I am attempting (woefully) to curb buying any more until I have read more of the ones that I already have. Verity's Virago Venture is weakening my resolve however and more Winifred Holtby may feature in the near future!

Reading The Crowded Street has also whetted my appetite for Persephone Reading Week and will inspire one challenge, hinted to above.



27 comments:

verity said...

What a wonderful post.

I loved thst book and definitely need my own Persephone copy.

Thank you for the lovely green link :)

farmlanebooks said...

I would love to listen to this, but just clicked on the link and the first 2 episodes are no longer available. I really need to pay more attention to what is on BBC radio 7!

Rachel said...

I loved this too! I read it after Virginia Nicholson's 'Singled Out' and it very much summed up the feeling of women being 'surplus' if they were unmarried. I thought she was very brave to choose the ending she did, and show that marriage wasn't always the answer to the question of how women were to have fulfilling lives.

I have a nice green copy of Anderby Wold on my to be read pile, and I'm really looking forward to it. I hope it's not as sad as The Crowded Street though.

Lezlie said...

Oh, yeah. Been there, done that! :-) Even though there are books I could get at a significant discount if I order them online, some just can't wait and are worth that extra few $$!

Lezlie

Paperback Reader said...

Thank you, Verity, and you're welcome :).

It does make a welcome addition to the Persephones; at first I thought it may become my favourite but that place is still reserved for the enchanting Lady Rose & Mrs Memmary.

Apologies, Jackie; if my review had been a bit quicker off the mark you would have caught it. Any future adaptations (likely to be Virago) that I listen to, I'll be sure to link to in time.

Rachel, 'Singled Out' was mentioned in the preface and I was intrigued. I agree that both Holtby and Muriel were brave to make the decision that they did and not fall into the trap of the conventionally happily ever after. In parts the novel actually reminded me of Jane Austen but I'm glad that there wasn't a marriage in the end.

I'm looking forward to finding and reading some green Winifred Holtby and also to read your review of AW once you've read it.

Lezlie, it's completely worth the extra money at times!

verity said...

I've got Anderby Wold on my VVVTBR...

*feels slightly overwhelmed at number of books I want to read and relieved that I have at least read this one*

Must look out for Radio 7...

Darlene said...

Magnificent post and timely too! For something to do last night I grabbed my Persephone catalogue and planned my next order, The Crowded Street made the list. It's fascinating to discover that certain authors have friendships, or share flats, with other authors of the day. Can you imagine the dinner table banter?

Paperback Reader said...

Darlene, that's quite the way to kill time! Hee. What else are you purchasing? Are you going to make it before Persephone Reading Week?
I love inter-literary relationships too and my ideal dinner party would consist of lots of dead writers (alive for the night, not decomposing).

Darlene said...

Mrs Woolf & the Servants was terrific for reading about the cultural who's who getting together. I digress. There are several unread Persephone titles to choose from on my shelf for the challenge so no worries at all. The titles that I'm thinking I would love to order next are They Were Sisters (which I wanted before but was being reprinted), House-Bound, The Crowded Street, Minnie's Room and I think that I'm brave enough for Little Boy Lost. There have been so many sobbing reviews of that one so I've steered clear before. Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary seems to be quite a favourite as well...lists can change!

Paperback Reader said...

Lists are always subject to change!
I find the best thing for me to do when ordering Persephones is to do it on a whim. I really liked They Were Sisters (I reviewed it a couple of months back; you can find it under the Persephone tag). Lady Rose & Mrs Memmary though is my personal favourite.

Nymeth said...

lol, it's not just you, no :P I wish I could just leave the house and go to Persephone Books! I love the sound of this, and I love the sound of an afternoon of books and pastries :)

I have a question for you: reading The Night Watch has made me want to read more novels about women's lives during WW2. I've read some non-fiction, but there's nothing like fiction to actually take you there. What are your top recommendations?

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, it was a little trip and afternoon :). I love having the opportunity now to just pop to Persephone.

Persephone publish a number of WW11 set books (including non fiction) but I would say Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes.

A big influence on Sarah Waters was Elizabeth Bowen. One of her books, The Heat of the Day, is very good and from a male perspective there is Nigel Balchin. Hope that helps some!

Samantha said...

Great post - I have now added it to my Persephone wishlist! I also have Singled out in the tbr pile too. I wonder when Persephone will do another 3-for-2 deal ;-)

verity said...

Ana - how about All the nice girls (it's just out by Jean Bakewell).

I'd agree with Heat of the day too.

And from the Persephone list - a House in the country is really worth reading.

Paperback Reader said...

Samantha, if only they would do another soon ;). So many Persephones to covet...

Nymeth said...

Thank you for the recommendations, Claire and Verity!

StuckInABook said...

I've got this but not read it yet... maybe I should save it for the Persephone week...

Paperback Reader said...

Perhaps you should, Simon!

claire said...

You are so tempting me with all your Persephone reads. I might just read more than one, but will probably pick the one you said was your favourite over this for now. Or just get Little Boy Lost as it intrigues me.

Paperback Reader said...

Persephone always tempts me too. I can't believe my restraint just now when it comes to Mrs Buncle's Book. I am also intrigued by Little Boy Lost and considering it for PSW; I've heard that it is devastating though.

claire said...

It does seem devastating, but I don't chicken out on those type of reads as long as they're good.. oohh should I? Should I read more than one?? I'm off to check and see.. lol!

claire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paperback Reader said...

Heehee, it's all about what you would like to make of the week! One or ten, it doesn't matter.

I don't shy away from devastation either but I do have to be in the right frame of mind and who knows what that week will bring? Hopefully I'll be in a calm, happy place from so much indulgence.

claire said...

Okay, I've decided to read two. NOt very sure, but will try to get another one by the first week of August. I'm opting for Lady Rose because it's your fave. :) ANd because it seems like a good companion to Miss Pettigrew, you think?

Also looking ahead. If and when you plan on another Persephone Reading Week in the future, will be getting The Wise Virgins and The Fortnight in September. I've decided to leave Little Boy Lost for now, as a lot of other titles have surpassed my interest in it. :D

Paperback Reader said...

Claire, Miss Pettigrew and Lady Rose are quite different from one another but both are exceptionally charming and enchanting and each are exceedingly memorable heroines. Great choices!

I think it will definitely be more a case of "when" we host the next Persephone Reading Week as it's been so much fun already! I guarantee though that by then there will be other Persephones that you'll want to buy instead- every time I go to the shop or on the website something else takes my fancy and I end up choosing at random, knowing I'll be satisfied either way.

claire said...

So I've gone ahead and done it, ordered Lady Rose, couldn't wait till August, lol.

I haven't even read any and already am excited about the next event!

Paperback Reader said...

Claire, I so hope you love it as much as I do! I am hoping to do a post-read review of it during PRW.

I too am most excited about future Persephone indulgences!