Winifred Holtby
Winifred Holtby was an English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 novelist and journalist, best known for her novel South Riding
South Riding (novel)
South Riding is a novel by Winifred Holtby, published posthumously in 1936.The book is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire: the inspiration being the East Riding rather than South Yorkshire...


Life and writings

Born to a prosperous farming family in the village of Rudston
Rudston is a small village and civil parish in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England. It is situated between Driffield and Bridlington approximately to the west of Bridlington, and lies on the B1253 road....

, Yorkshire
Yorkshire is a historic county of northern England and the largest in the United Kingdom. Because of its great size in comparison to other English counties, functions have been increasingly undertaken over time by its subdivisions, which have also been subject to periodic reform...

 (her mother was Alice Holtby, afterwards the first alderwoman on the East Riding County Council). Holtby was educated at home by a governess and then at Queen Margaret's School
Queen Margaret's School, York
Queen Margaret's, York is an independent day and boarding school for girls age 11–18 in Escrick Park near York. The school was named after Queen Margaret the Queen of Scotland from c.1070–1093.-History:...

 in Scarborough. Although she passed the entrance exam for Somerville College, Oxford
Somerville College, Oxford
Somerville College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England, and was one of the first women's colleges to be founded there...

 in 1917, World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 changed her plans. In early 1918, she joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps
Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (Britain)
The UK's Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was later named Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps . Over 57,000 women served between January 1917 and November 1918. On 31 March 1917 women in the WAAC were first sent to the battlefields in France, just 14 cooks and waitresses...

 (WAAC), but soon after she arrived in France, the war came to an end.

In 1919, she returned to Somerville and met Vera Brittain
Vera Brittain
Vera Mary Brittain was a British writer, feminist and pacifist, best remembered as the author of the best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, recounting her experiences during World War I and the beginning of her journey towards pacifism.-Life:Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Brittain was the...

, later to be the author of Testament of Youth
Testament of Youth
Testament of Youth is the first installment, covering 1900–1925, in the memoir of Vera Brittain . It was published in 1933. Brittain's memoir continues with Testament of Experience, published in 1957, and encompassing the years 1925–1950...

, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship. After graduation from Oxford, in 1921 they moved to London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 hoping to establish themselves as writers (there is a blue plaque at No. 52 Doughty Street
Doughty Street
Doughty Street is a broad tree lined street in the Holborn district of the London Borough of Camden. The southern part is a continuation of the short John Street, which comes off Theobalds Road. The northern part crosses Guilford Street and ends at Mecklenburgh Square.The street contains mainly...

). Holtby's early novels - Anderby Wold (1923), The Crowded Street (1924) (re-published by Persephone Books
Persephone Books
Persephone Books is an independent publisher based in Bloomsbury, London. Founded in 1999 by Nicola Beauman, Persephone has a catalogue of 93 "neglected novels, diaries, poetry, short stories, non-fiction, biography and cookery books, mostly by women and mostly dating from the early to...

 in 2008) and The Land of Green Ginger (1927) - met with moderate success. Her novels and a collection of short stories were also reprinted by Virago Press
Virago Press
Virago is a British publishing company founded in 1973 by Carmen Callil to publish books by women writers. Both new works and reissued books by neglected authors have featured on the imprint's list....

 in the 1980s.

Holtby was also a prolific journalist and, over the next decade and a half, she wrote for more than 20 newspapers and magazines, including the feminist journal Time and Tide
Time and Tide (magazine)
Time and Tide was a British weekly political and literary review magazine founded by Margaret, Lady Rhondda in 1920. It started out as a supporter of left wing and feminist causes and the mouthpiece of the feminist Six Point Group. It later moved to the right along with the views of its owner...

and the Manchester Guardian
The Guardian
The Guardian, formerly known as The Manchester Guardian , is a British national daily newspaper in the Berliner format...


She wrote a regular weekly column for the trade union magazine The Schoolmistress. Her books during this period included a critical study of Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf
Adeline Virginia Woolf was an English author, essayist, publisher, and writer of short stories, regarded as one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century....

 and a volume of short stories, Truth is Not Sober.

Like Brittain in the twenties and early thirties, Holtby was an ardent internationalist and lectured extensively for the League of Nations Union
League of Nations Union
The League of Nations Union was an organization formed in the United Kingdom to promote international justice, collective security and a permanent peace between nations based upon the ideals of the League of Nations. The League of Nations was established by the Great Powers as part of the Paris...

. Holtby gradually became more critical of the British class system and by the late 1920s she was active in the Independent Labour Party
Independent Labour Party
The Independent Labour Party was a socialist political party in Britain established in 1893. The ILP was affiliated to the Labour Party from 1906 to 1932, when it voted to leave...


After Brittain's marriage, in 1925, to George Catlin
George Catlin (political scientist)
Sir George Edward Gordon Catlin was an English political scientist and philosopher. A strong proponent of Anglo-America cooperation, he worked for many years as a professor at Cornell University and other universities and colleges in the United States and Canada. He preached the use of a natural...

, Holtby shared her friend's homes in Nevern Place and subsequently at 19 Glebe Place, Chelsea, and became an adoptive aunt to Brittain's two children. In 1931, Holtby began to suffer from high blood pressure, recurrent headaches and bouts of lassitude. Eventually she was diagnosed as suffering from Bright's disease
Bright's disease
Bright's disease is a historical classification of kidney diseases that would be described in modern medicine as acute or chronic nephritis. The term is no longer used, as diseases are now classified according to their more fully understood causes....

. Her doctor gave her only two years to live. Aware of her impending death, Holtby put all her remaining energy into what became her most important book, South Riding
South Riding (novel)
South Riding is a novel by Winifred Holtby, published posthumously in 1936.The book is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire: the inspiration being the East Riding rather than South Yorkshire...

. Winifred Holtby died on 29 September 1935, aged 37. She never married, though she had an unsatisfactory relationship with a man called Harry Pearson, who proposed to her on her deathbed. Vera Brittain always denied that her relationship with Holtby had been a lesbian one, and certainly no evidence has ever come to light to suggest otherwise.

South Riding was published in March the following year and received high praise from the critics. The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize
James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Founded in 1919, the James Tait Black Memorial Prizes are among the oldest and most prestigious book prizes awarded for literature written in the English language and are Britain's oldest literary awards...

 for 1936. In 1938, the novel was made into a film
South Riding (film)
South Riding is a 1938 British drama film directed by Victor Saville and produced by Alexander Korda, starring Edna Best, Ralph Richardson, Edmund Gwenn and Ann Todd. A squire becomes involved in local politics. It is based on the novel South Riding by Winifred Holtby...

 directed by Victor Saville
Victor Saville
Victor Saville was an English film director, producer and screenwriter. He directed 39 films between 1927 and 1954...

. In 1974 it was adapted by Stan Barstow
Stan Barstow
Stanley "Stan" Barstow FRSL was an English novelist.-Biography:Barstow was born in Horbury, near Wakefield, Yorkshire. His father was a coal miner and he attended Ossett Grammar School, he then worked as a draftsman and salesman for an engineering firm...

 for Yorkshire Television
Yorkshire Television
Yorkshire Television, now officially known as ITV Yorkshire and sometimes unofficially abbreviated to YTV, is a British television broadcaster and the contractor for the Yorkshire franchise area on the ITV network...

, and in 2011 BBC One
BBC One is the flagship television channel of the British Broadcasting Corporation in the United Kingdom. It was launched on 2 November 1936 as the BBC Television Service, and was the world's first regular television service with a high level of image resolution...

 broadcast a three-part dramatisation
South Riding (2011 miniseries)
South Riding is a BBC serial in three parts from 2011, based on the 1936 novel South Riding by Winifred Holtby. It is directed by Diarmuid Lawrence and written by Andrew Davies...

 by Andrew Davies
Andrew Davies (writer)
Andrew Wynford Davies is a British author and screenwriter. He was made a Fellow of BAFTA in 2002.-Education and early career:...

. There have been several radio adaptations, the most recent for BBC Radio Four in 2005.

Vera Brittain
Vera Brittain
Vera Mary Brittain was a British writer, feminist and pacifist, best remembered as the author of the best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth, recounting her experiences during World War I and the beginning of her journey towards pacifism.-Life:Born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Brittain was the...

 subsequently wrote about her friendship with Holtby in her book Testament of Friendship (1940), and in 1960 published a censored edition of her correspondence with Holtby from their sixteen-year friendship. Their letters, along with many of Holtby's other papers, were donated in 1960 to Hull Central Library and are now held at the Hull History Centre
Hull History Centre
The Hull History Centre is an archive and local studies library that houses the combined collections of both the Hull City Council and Hull University archives and local studies resources...

. A biography of Holtby, entitled The Clear Stream by Marion Shaw was published in 1999.

She was buried in All Saints' Churchyard in Rudston, East Yorkshire, where the epitaph in her own words is "God give me work till my life shall end and life till my work is done"; there is a picture at

Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize

In 1967, the Royal Society of Literature
Royal Society of Literature
The Royal Society of Literature is the "senior literary organisation in Britain". It was founded in 1820 by George IV, in order to "reward literary merit and excite literary talent". The Society's first president was Thomas Burgess, who later became the Bishop of Salisbury...

 instituted the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for the best regional novel of the year. It was replaced in 2003 by the Ondaatje Prize
Ondaatje Prize
The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize is an annual literary award given by the Royal Society of Literature. The £10,000 award is given for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry which evokes the "spirit of a place", and which is written by someone who is a citizen of or who has been...


Further reading

  • Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge, Vera Brittain: A Life, Chatto & Windus 1995; Virago, 2001.
  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship, Macmillan, 1940.
  • Marion Shaw, The Clear Stream, Virago, 1999.

External links

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