Winifred Holtby, the youngest daughter of David Holtby, a prosperous Yorkshire farmer, was born in Rudston, on 23rd June, 1898. Her mother, Alice Winn (1858-1939), was the first alderwoman in Yorkshire.
Holtby attended Queen Margaret's School (1909–16) in Scarborough (1909–16). After a year as a probationer nurse in a London nursing home, she went up to Somerville College in October 1917. Hotby's boyfriend, Harry Pearson, joined the British Army and served on the Western Front during the First World War. She later recalled: "I was sixteen when the war started. The first thing it made me do was fall in love. Brevity of life makes passion more insistent. The youngest and fittest in uniform. The erotic attraction of death."
Holtby added that: "He (Pearson) told me about all the enormities he had seen at the front - the mouthless mangled faces, the human ribs whence rats would steal, the frenzied tortured horses, with leg or quarter rent away, still living; the rotted farms, the dazed and hopeless peasants; his innumerable suffering comrades; the desert of no-man's-land; and all the thunder and moaning of war; and the reek and freezing of war; and the driving - the callous, perpetual driving by some great force which shovelled warm human hearts and bodies, warm human hopes, by the million into the furnace." Despite these stories Holtby left university in 1918 and joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and served in France. She later recalled that she had: "(a) The desire to suffer and to die - especially when suffering is associated with glory. (b) Fear of immunity from danger when our friends are suffering."
In 1919 she returned to Oxford University where she met Vera Brittain. Her new friend explained in her autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933): "I was staring gloomily at the Oxford engravings and photographs graphs of the Dolomites which clustered together so companionably upon the Dean's study wall, when Winifred Holtby burst suddenly in upon this morose atmosphere of ruminant lethargy. Superbly tall, and vigorous as the young Diana with her long straight limbs and her golden hair, her vitality smote with the effect of a blow upon my jaded nerves. Only too well aware that I had lost that youth and energy for ever, I found myself furiously resenting its possessor. Obstinately disregarding the strong-featured, sensitive face and the eager, shining blue eyes, I felt quite triumphant because - having returned from France less than a month before - she didn't appear to have read any of the books which the Dean had suggested as indispensable introductions to our Period."
Winifred and Vera graduated together in 1921 and they moved to London where they shared a flat in Doughty Street. They hoped to establish themselves as writers. Vera's first two novels, The Dark Tide (1923) and Not Without Honour (1925) sold badly and were ignored by the critics. However, Winifred had more success with Anderby Wold (1923) and The Crowded Street (1924).
In June 1925, Vera married the academic, George Edward Catlin. As Mark Bostridge has pointed out: "When Brittain and Catlin set up home in London after their marriage, Holtby joined them as the third member of the household. Catlin never overcame his resentment at his wife's friendship with the woman Vera described as her second self. He knew, in spite of all the gossip to the contrary, that the Brittain-Holtby relationship had never been a lesbian one, but its closeness still rankled."
Vera and her husband moved to the United States when her husband became a a professor at Cornell University. Vera found it difficult to settle in America and after the birth of her two children, John (1927) and Shirley (1930) she moved back to England where she lived with Winifred Holtby. The two women were extremely close and Vera once described Winifred as her "second self".
Winifred helped to bring up Vera's two children. Shirley Williams, later wrote: "She (Winifred Holtby) was tremendous fun and understood, better than any other grown-up, children's fantasies and fears. We had a dressing-up box full of discarded hats and dresses, scarves and masks and wooden necklaces from Africa. We would perform for our parents the plays Winifred wrote for us... I was a boisterous child, so Winifred, despite her frailty, joined in our rougher games as well. She would crawl around the nursery, balancing cushions on her back, while I rode on top, pretending to direct an elephant from my howdah."
Holtby was a socialist and feminist. She wrote that: "Personally, I am a feminist... because I dislike everything that feminism implies.… I want to be about the work in which my real interests lie... But while injustice is done and opportunity denied to the great majority of women, I shall have to be a feminist." Like her companion, Vera Brittain, Winifred was a pacifist and lectured extensively for the League of Nations Union. Winifred gradually became more critical of the class system and inherited privileges and by the late 1920s was active in the Independent Labour Party.
Winifred's relationship with Vera created a certain amount of gossip. Vera's daughter, Shirley Williams, argued: "Some critics and commentators have suggested that their relationship must have been a lesbian one. My mother deeply resented this. She felt that it was inspired by a subtle anti-feminism to the effect that women could never be real friends unless there was a sexual motivation, while the friendships of men had been celebrated in literature from classical times. My mother was instinctively heterosexual. But as a famous woman author holding progressive opinions, she became an icon to feminists and in particular to lesbian feminists." However, Vera's husband, George Edward Catlin, did not approve of the relationship. He wrote later: "You preferred her to me. It humiliated me and ate me up."
In 1926 Winifred Holtby became one of the directors of the feminist journal, Time and Tide. In an article published in August of that year she wrote: "Hitherto, society has drawn one prime division between two sections of people, the line of sex-differentiation, with men above and women below. The Old Feminists believe that the conception of this line, and the attempt to preserve it by political and economic laws and social traditions not only checks the development of the woman's personality, but prevents her from making that contribution to the common good which is the privilege and the obligation of every human being. While the inequality exists, while injustice is done and opportunities denied to the great majority of women, I shall have to be a feminist, and an Old Feminist, with the motto Equality First. And I shan't be happy till I get it."
Holtby took a keen interests in the struggle for equal rights in South Africa. She criticised General Jan Smuts when he failed to stop the introduction of racist legislation. Holtby argued that the reason for this was that "because for Smuts and his contemporaries, the human horizon does not yet extend to coloured races, as, for Fox and his 18th-century contemporaries, it did not extend to English women."
Vera's daughter, Shirley Williams, enjoyed living with Winifred: "What I remember above all about Winifred Holtby is her radiance. She was a ray of sunshine in the intense and preoccupied atmosphere of home life in my early years.... She was Viking-like in appearance, impressively statuesque with bright blue eyes and very pale flaxen hair."
Winifred Holtby published another novel, The Land of Green Ginger, in 1927. However, as Alan Bishop has pointed out: "Holtby's lively, stylish, witty articles and reviews soon gained her a high reputation as a journalist. She wrote for The Manchester Guardian and a regular weekly article for the trade union magazine, The Schoolmistress. Books publishing during this period included, Poor Caroline (1931), a critical study of Virginia Woolf (1932), Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933) and a volume of short stories, Truth is Not Sober (1934).
In the early 1930s Winifred began to suffer with high-blood-pressure, recurrent headaches and bouts of lassitude. According to Shirley Williams: "She was subject to bouts of serious illness, the consequence of a childhood episode of scarlet fever that led to sclerosis of the kidneys". Eventually she was diagnosed as suffering from Bright's Disease. Her doctor told her that she probably only had two years to live. Aware she was dying, Winifred put all her remaining energy into what became her most important book, South Riding.
Vera Brittain later recalled that she asked Harry Pearson to tell "Winifred he loved her and always had; that he'd like to marry her when she was better". She added that on 28th September, 1935: "At about three o'clock Hilda Reid rang up to say that Dr. Obermer had been round to the home and had already put Winifred under morphia; she was now unconscious and would never be permitted to come back to consciousness again. Later I learnt that Dr. Obermer did this because after Harry had been with Winifred she was so happy and excited that he feared a violent convulsion for her, with physical pain and mental anguish; and that he thought it best to let her go out on that moment of happiness, with the cruel realization that what she was hoping could never be fulfilled."
The following day Vera went to visit Winifred at the nursing home at 23 Devonshire Street in Marylebone: "Shortly after six o'clock I realised that she was breathing more shallowly, while her pulse was slower and weaker. After almost a quarter of an hour her pulse, which I was holding, had almost stopped, and her breathing seemed to come from her throat only... It was strange, incredible, after all the years of our friendship and all that we had shared together, to feel her life flickering out under my hand. Suddenly her pulse stopped; she had given two or three deeper breaths and then these ceased and I thought she had stopped breathing too; but after a moment came one final, lingering sigh, and then everything was at an end."
Winifred Holtby died on 29th September, 1935. Vera Brittain was Winifred's literary executor, and was determined to make sure South Riding was published. However, as Mark Bostridge has pointed out: "The major obstacle she faced was the indomitable figure of Holtby's mother, Alice, the first woman alderman of the East Riding. She feared that her daughter's depiction of local government, allied to the vein of satire and puckish mischief familiar from her earlier books, might expose her own job to criticism and ridicule... Alice Holtby remained obdurate in her opposition to the book's publication, forcing Brittain to adopt a strategy of mild subterfuge, negotiating the uncorrected typescript through probate in order to have the novel ready for publication by Collins in the spring of 1936."
Alice Holtby immediately resigned from the East Riding County Council when South Riding was published. It received excellent reviews. One critic claimed: "The most public-spirited novel of her generation." The novel was adapted for the cinema in 1938 starring Edna Best as Sarah Burton, Ralph Richardson as Robert Carne and Edmund Gwenn as Alfred Huggins.
Vera Brittain subsequently wrote about her relationship with Winifred Holtby in her book Testament of Friendship (1940). It was adapted for television by Yorkshire Television in 1974, starring Dorothy Tutin as Sarah Burton, Nigel Davenport as Robert Carne and Judi Bowker as Midge Carne. An adaptation by Andrew Davies, starring Anna Maxwell Martin, David Morrissey, Peter Firth, Penelope Wilton, Douglas Henshall and John Henshaw appeared on BBC in 2011.