Winifred Holtby, although herself a successful novelist, was very afraid of Virginia Woolf. So much so that when she began to write her memoir she talked to everyone but Virginia, until she received a royal command to appear at Hogarth House to take tea. Holtby was right to be nervous. Virginia Woolf’s first impressions of her were typically caustic; ‘a Yorkshire farmer's daughter, rather uncouth, and shapeless’. In a letter to a friend Woolf called her ‘an amiable donkey’. But if Woolf had ever troubled to read what Holtby wrote, she might have been very surprised indeed at the way her contemporary had understood what she was trying to achieve in her novels, as well as the contradictions of her character.
Woolf lived her life at the centre of the literary hub - Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin were among the formidable old men who sat in the parlour. Later she was a contemporary of TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey - the Bloomsberries, as Mansfield called them. For Woolf, literary legends were people you met at dinner alongside Cabinet Ministers, judges and titled aristocrats. It was a world apart, but it was also an education - as Holtby says, Woolf ‘lived among people before whom the whole range of European literature is spread like a familiar map’.
But Holtby, writing in 1931, is quick to point out their underlying prejudices - ‘Every second Englishman reads French’, was a ridiculous thing to say, at a time when only 15% of the English were educated beyond the age of 14. Woolf didn’t understand the uneducated. Whenever she tries to draw a working class character, Holtby writes, ‘she loses her way. They are more foreign to her than princes were to Jane Austen.’
Holtby also writes about Woolf’s complex relationship with suffragism. Many women involved in the Suffrage movement were her friends. They appear in her novels and their ideals are expressed in Woolf’s non-fiction. Characters like Orlando in the novel of the same name change gender, revealing prejudice and hypocrisy. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf coined the expression ‘reflecting men at twice their normal size’. But she did not take part in the campaign herself and, in most of her essays and reviews, she uses the male pronoun as convention demanded. The artist/writer is always ‘he’.
Winifred Holtby not only discusses Woolf as a woman and a writer, but also Woolf as a reader - the author of pithy reviews and essays of writerly instruction. Even though her own books were consumed by a literary elite, Woolf knew who the ‘Common Reader’ was, though she erred on the gender. ‘The Common Reader differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge.’ This is the person that we are all writing for - someone of only average education, neither a scholar nor a critic, reading for pleasure, and sometimes also a woman. (Statistically more often than not)
According to Woolf there are strict rules. Ideas, morality, historical lessons, can only be presented in terms of character and plot. Any research has to be invisible. ‘Whatever facts, emotions and experiences the artist tastes, he must digest completely . . . There must be no foreign matter unconsumed.’ And she hates novels with a message that seem to encourage people to ‘join a society’ or ‘write a cheque’. The ‘business of the artist’, Woolf says, ‘is to provide one with a vivid and complete experience’. There must be a reality - and reality is ‘what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of the past time and of our loves and hates ... It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us.’
Form must always serve the material - and here Woolf was extremely subversive. ‘Mrs Woolf does not really like plots’, Holtby observes. Nor does she like traditional ways of establishing character by description. Woolf asks the Edwardian novelists how she should present her character Mrs Brown and gets this answer:
‘”Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate. Ascertain the rent. Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878. Discover what her mother died of. Describe cancer. Describe calico. Describe . . .” But I cried “Stop! Stop!” And I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico, my Mrs Brown, that vision to which I cling . . . would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.’
Woolf threw plot and narrative out of the window too and explored new ways of telling stories, taking ideas from Katherine Mansfield and adopting the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique developed by Dorothy Richardson. The rest, as they say, is history.
Winifred Holtby’s short memoir is a real delight (which is probably why it’s been re-issued) and, if I had my way, I’d put it on the list for every creative writing student in the country. It’s one brilliant writer’s take on another - illuminating and useful. Woolf apparently told her friends that it had made her ‘scream with laughter’, but there’s no evidence that she ever read it.