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The Crowded Street

by Winifred Holtby
Persephone book no:

75 76 77

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155660

The theme of The Crowded Street, 1924, is one that is familiar from other Persephone novels: it was then assumed that young women would stay at home while looking for a husband. Muriel, who believes that ‘men do as they like’ whereas women ‘wait to see what they will do’, lives in a town in Yorkshire waiting – for what? She tries to conform to the values of her snobbish, socially ambitious mother; she tries to be ‘attractive’ to men; eventually she is rescued, by her friend Delia, a young woman who is in some ways a portrait of Vera Brittain.

Throughout the description of life in small-town ‘Marshington’, Winifred Holtby expressed her conviction that young women should be allowed to live away from home, to work, to develop as personalities away from their families, to shake off the ties that many mothers seemed to think it was their prerogative to impose on their daughters. There are other themes, too, which make the novel fascinating: parts of it are set during the First World War (in 1918 Winifred had left Oxford to serve with the WAACs in France) and it was with first-hand knowledge of war that she spent much of her short life writing and lecturing about pacifism. Then there are the pre-Cold Comfort Farm scenes: Muriel’s sister marries a farmer’s son and lives in circumstances that would, perhaps, contribute to Stella Gibbons’s satirical gaze a few years hence.

Although Muriel goes away to school, most of the novel describes her life waiting for life to begin, waiting for a husband.The Crowded Street is thus about the need to withstand the tyranny of ‘sex success. Turn and twist how you will, it comes to that in the end.’ The book’s conclusion is that ‘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 schemes should fail and they despise you for the failure.’


1920 printed dress silk fabric designed by George Sheringham for Seftons

Picture Caption

North Riding Landscape near Ganthorpe by Lawrence Toynbee 1922-2002 © Government Art Collection

Read What Readers Say

Matthew Dennison, 'The Spectator’

‘The Crowded Street’ contains moments of terrific comedy and is punctuated by a quietly mordant wit that ruthlessly exposes the pretensions of Marshington’s intensely snobbish provincial society. The novel is well-crafted, elegant, intelligent and persuasive.

Categories: North of England Woman and Home

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