British author and feminist
Born 1898 Died 1935
Winifred Holtby was born at Rudston in the Yorkshire Wolds on the 23rd June 1898, the daughter of a prosperous farmer named David Holtby, and his wife, Alice Winn. She was educated at home before being sent to Queen Margaret's School in Scarborough at the age of eleven. An early sign of her literary abilities came with the appearance of My Garden: And Other Poems, published in a private edition when she was thirteen. Three years later when Scarborough was shelled on the 6th December 1914 by German warships, Holtby wrote her own account of the attack which was published in the Bridlington Chronicle, and later reprinted as a pamphlet and sold in aid of the Red Cross.
After leaving school she spent a year working at a nursing home in London before going to Somerville College, Oxford, in October 1917 to read Modern History. She then left Oxford in July of the following year to volunteer for the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and served in France until August 1919 before returning to Somerville in October 1919 to complete her degree.
It was at Oxford that she met Vera Brittain and the two established what was to be a life-long friendship. They both graduated together in 1921 and shared a flat at Doughty Street in London, with the idea of establishing themselves as professional writers. Winifred wrote two moderately succesful novels Anderby Wold (1923) and The Crowded Street (1924) but had more success as a journalist contributing a series of articles and reviews most particularly (from 1924 onwards) to the journal Time and Tide. She became friend of its founder, editor, Margaret Haig Thomas, Viscountess Rhondda and became a director of the magazine in 1926. She also contributed a weekly column to the trade union magazine The Schoolmistress.
The close friendship between Holtby and Brittain continued throughout this time, together they joined the League of Nations Union, spoke on the lecture circuit in favour of world peace and signed up for the Labour Party. During 1926 struck off on her own and spent five months in South Africa speaking on behalf of the League of Nations Union. There she was appalled by the racism she encountered and so became a supporter to the black trade union movement.
On her return from South Africa she went to live with her old friend who was now married, and became 'Auntie Winifred' to Brittain's two young children. In the following years she produced another three novels, The Land of Green Ginger (1927), Poor Caroline (1931), and Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933). She also wrote a critical study of Virginia Woolf (1932); a satire The Astonishing Island (1933), and a feminist treatise under the title, Women and a Changing Civilisation (1934). A collection of short stories Truth is not Sober (1934), and a volume of poetry, The Frozen Earth (1935) also appeared in print.
After suffering for some time from regular headaches Holtby sought medical advice and was diagnosed as suffering from Bright's disease (that is renal sclerosis) in 1932 and told that she did not have long to live. She then threw all her energy into writing what was to be her final novel South Riding which she managed to finish in the summer of 1935.
Holtby had been in love with Harry Pearson since 1914, and while she was lying on her deathbed in a nursing home at 23 Devonshire Street in Marylebone, he was persuaded to pay her a visit on the 28th September 1935, to profess his love and propose marriage. She was so happy and excited at this turn of events that her doctor decided that it was "best to let her go out on that moment of happiness" and put her 'under the morphia'. She died on the following day and was buried at Rudston churchyard on the 2nd October 1935, after a memorial service held at St Martin-in-the-Fields.
What was to be regarded as her masterpiece South Riding was published the following year. The tale of a radical crusading schoolmistress and her love for a conservative local landowner set against the background of local politics in Yorkshire, this novel was an immediate success and proved to be the most enduring of all her work and has continually remained in print. Although released as a film in 1938, people of a certain age will think more fondly of the thirteen part adaptation made by Yorkshire Television in 1974 which featured Dorothy Tutin in the lead role of headmistress Sarah Burton and Nigel Davenport as Robert Carne.
Other posthumous works published included Take Back Your Freedom, a play that attacking the rise of fascism, and a selection from her correspondence.
Vera Brittain later wrote her own memoir of Holtby in her Testament of Friendship: the Story of Winifred Holtby (1940) and also founded the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize in her honour which was awarded between the years 1967 and 2002.