- Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership, and: Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists
Both of these books contribute to the current attempt to recuperate the work of women writers who dwindled into obscurity after initial commercial and critical success. This pattern has been so common that, although one might make a circumstantial explanation for the neglect of the novelists here discussed by citing the revitalization of traditional values in the aftermath of World War Two and the valorization of working-class culture during the fifties, one should perhaps simply be grateful that so many of the works Jean E. Kennard and Susan J. Leonardi deal with are again available and hope that all of them may become so during one's lifetime.
Kennard's book—the first extensive study of Brittain's and Holtby's work—employs a new formulation of Chodorow's hypothesis that, because of her early relationship to her mother, a woman's heterosexuality is necessarily triangular, needing a child for completion: a woman might, instead of a child, depend on a close friendship with a woman in her lifelong struggle to wrest independence from her mother. Such, Kennard believes, was the function of their friendship in both Brittain's and Holtby's psychological economy. Although their first interactions were hostile, what they valued in their relationship was similarity of interest and outlook rather than difference, so that each came to play for the other the role of second self. Thus their relationship was based on an ongoing dialogue, which, Kennard suggests, often characterizes close female friendships. Kennard draws upon reader-response theory to describe the mechanism by which "the reader of one text becomes the author of another text, which is a rewriting of what she has read." She traces this dialogue through the two oeuvres, for example reading Holtby's The Crowded Street as an answer to The Dark Tide, both of which include portrayals of Brittain and Holtby, and Honourable Estate as a reponse to South Riding, Holtby's posthumous novel, which Brittain corrected in typescript and galley proof while she was working on her own novel. The theme of each is reconciliation with the past, which for Brittain and Holtby involved coming to terms with their mothers.
Kennard sees the development of the triangular relationship of self-motherfriend reflected in three stages in Brittain's and Holtby's works: the first, where the mother's world is shown ambivalently in Anderby Wold and The Dark Tide; the second, where the stable base of their friendship allows them to look outwards and explore the public/private dichotomy in Testament of Youth and Mandoa, Mandoal; the third, where they rewrite earlier material, which they began in Testament and The Land of Green Ginger and accomplished most successfully in South Riding and Honourable Estate.
Kennard links Brittain and Holtby, together with some of their contemporaries such as Rebecca West and Storm Jameson who also wrote in a realist mode, with the fictional tradition exemplified by George Eliot, thus positing a feminist realist counter-tradition emphasizing inclusivity and reconciliation to the "dominant male modernist mode of exile and alienation." [End Page 626]
The book proper ends with Honourable Estate, the last work Brittain wrote under Holtby's direct influence, although years later she gave an account of their relationship in Testament of Friendship. Kennard believes that none of her later work, whether novel or autobiography, matches what Brittain produced under the dialogic conditions of this relationship.
Dealing with a broader topic and considering a larger number of novelists, Leonardi's argument is necessarily more diffuse. The book comprises two discrete but implicitly connected sections. The first describes the social and intellectual climate at Oxford during the post-World War One years when the Somerville novelists were enrolled there. In addition to Brittain and Holtby...