Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

‘Poor Caroline’ was the fourth of Winifred Holtby’s six novel to be published and it is a little gem, quite unlike the three novels that came before but recognizably the work of the same author; and another book that made me think what a distinguished and era defining author she might have become, had she only been given more years to live and to write.

The novel opens with two of Caroline Audrey Denton-Smith’s young cousins coming home to Yorkshire, after attending her funeral in London. They had felt no great grief for the woman they had never really known or understood, the woman their family had always regarded as a figure of fun; but they had enjoyed their trip to the big city and they had come home with a lovely new winter coat.

Their attitude was sad, but it was understandable.

The Caroline they had known had been a small, plump elderly spinster who dressed eccentrically, who had lived in the poorest of London bedsits, who borrowed money that she had no hope of paying back; because, though she had many grand plans that she was sure would make her rich and successful, they had all been hopelessly impractical.

She wrote a will full of generous legacies, but when she left this life she had not a single penny to her name.

Her last enterprise was the Christian Cinema Company, through which she planned to make British films that would be a corrective to the immoral offerings of Hollywood. She found some support, she was able to assemble a  board of directors and a little financial backing, but of course that wasn’t enough and the project – and Caroline – were doomed.

Each person who sat on the board of directors each had their own reason for being involved with the company.

The chairman was a minor aristocrat who was quite unqualified, but his wife had pushed him towards the position as she thought he would be happier if he had something to keep him busy.

A single-minded young inventor signed up because he was sure that the company would want his new type of film; and not realising that while he had been beavering away in his laboratory the film industry had developed something much better.

A Jewish businessman agreed join the board and agreed to provide some initial finance, in the hope that the chairman would arrange entrance to Eton for his son.

The proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing had put himself forward knowing that the company had no chance of success but quite certain that he could make himself a profit from a bunch of amateurs ….

Caroline was blind to all of this, she worked hard as secretary to move things forward, and two well meaning individuals helped to keep things going.

Eleanor de la Roux, a distant relative of Caroline’s, came to London from South Africa after her father had been killed in a car accident. She was an independent young woman who wanted a career, and she was inspired to invest most of her inheritance to to help the one relation who had welcomed her by a sermon …

Father Roger Mortimer, Caroline’s young and earnest parish priest, preached that sermon, and he was drawn into the Christian Cinema Company by his concern for a vulnerable parishioner and by his growing love for her young relation.

Each chapter is devoted to the story of one of these characters. The story-telling is immaculate, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Winifred Holtby had considered every detail of the different people, lives and relationships. They were beautifully observed, they were gently satirised, and the different stories spoke about so many things: class, race, faith, prejudice, family, loss, philanthropy, ambition ….

Each chapter was absorbing, and could have been the foundation of a different novel.

The ongoing consequences of the Great War were very well considered; and the many serious points were perfectly balanced by a rich vein of humour.

Every chapter ends with the words ‘Poor Caroline’ Each character sees Caroline in a different light but whether they are contemptuous, frustrated, infuriated or bemused, they all see her as a woman to be pitied.

But consider her words to a younger woman:

‘My dear child, when you’ve lived as long as I have, fighting and striving for what seems impossible, you’ll know there are some questions best left unasked. It will be. It must be. Faith. I will have faith until the heavens fall. Don’t you see, dear, that for people like us, who step off the beaten track and dare to scale the heights, there is no retreat, no turning back. There is no ‘If not’. It must be.’

‘What do you know about the worst? Wait until the iron has entered your soul, Wait until you have gone down to the depths in utter loneliness and risked everything, everything, even your own self-respect. Who are you to tell me about the worst when you have always led a sheltered life, with capital behind you, and a university education? When you have accepted the conditions that lead to utter nakedness of spirit? When your relations wondered if it wouldn’t be safer and more economical to get you certified and put away quietly in a nice mental hospital? When that have told you to give up the struggle and live on an old-age pension in a home for decayed gentlewoman? When there has been nothing, nothing left except success?

This is the story of a woman who had little education, who hadn’t married, who had worked to support herself, and who when she could work no more found that society had no place for her.

The way that is threaded through this book that told me that Winifred Holtby knew that the world had to change, that she knew how and that she knew why.

The book is strongest when it is considering the character and their stories, rather than the rather improbable story of the Christian Cinema Company. In many ways, it is quite unlike anything else of Winifred Holtby’s that I have read , but I saw common threads and shared concerns, allowing it to sit very well alongside those other novels.

‘Poor Caroline’ is both thought provoking and entertaining – I loved it!