Endpaper design from the Persephone edition
Winifred Holtby grew up in Yorkshire and set The Crowded Street there, in fictional Marshington. The principal characters are the Hammonds: rich, kindly but slightly vulgar Father, better-born and social climbing Mother and their daughters Muriel and Connie. Mrs Hammond is ambitious, wanting to be known to the ‘best’ families and to marry off her daughters well. As Delia, the vicar’s daughter, later tells Muriel, ‘sex success’ is the only thing that matters in Marshington. Delia is clever and manages to get away to college. Sadly for Mrs Hammond, her daughters don’t play up to her. Muriel seems a perpetual bystander, letting things happen to her and failing to attract swains. Connie is tougher and bolder; she gets her own way but at a terrible cost.
We see the Hammonds first in 1900, with shy little Muriel failing socially at a dance, and follow their lives through to 1920. When war comes Muriel stays at home ‘helping Mother’ and working for the Red Cross, while Connie goes off to be a land girl. The place she works at is so like Cold Comfort Farm that events there seem ludicrously melodramatic compared with the rest of the book. Throughout the book Muriel nurses a hopeless passion for the local squire, dashing Godfrey Kneale, apparently losing him for good when he falls for her fascinating school friend Clare. Connie tends to chase men if they don’t chase her. Muriel is eventually rescued by being given an income by her father and then going to look after Delia in London. Only away from home can she become herself. I read this book fast, enjoying the social comedy of provincial life, wanting to shake Muriel and feeling a grudging respect for Mrs Hammond’s steely self-control and determination. I felt it didn’t quite come off. You can’t argue with Holtby’s dislike of the idea that only marriage and children can fulfil a woman and her belief that a spinster can also lead a useful life. Unfortunately, Muriel isn’t a strong enough character to carry these ideas and her transformation at the end of the book is too rushed to be believable.