I love Winifred Holtby’s writing, and I love the covers of the new Virago editions of her work so much that I pounced on a bargain copy of The Land of Green Ginger, even though I already owned the original green VMC edition.
But my feelings about this book were a little mixed – much more positive than negative, but definitely mixed.
Joanna was born in South Africa, the daughter of Edith, who had dreamed of romance and adventure, and who had married a missionary. But when her mother died she was sent home, to be raised in Yorkshire, by her three spinster aunts. They cared for her, they did their very best for her, but they didn’t understand the romance, the spirit of adventure, and the sheer joie de vivre that made their niece so very special.
Her friends shared her dreams, and their futures seemed so very full of promise.
But Joanna’s dreams of romance derailed her. She met a young man – Teddy – the man of her dreams, who had as much romance in his soul as her. They were quick to marry, before he had to had to go away to war. He survived, he came home again: but the war killed the romance his soul.
Teddy was consumptive – he hadn’t told his wife that – and the war destroyed his health too. he needed to live in the country, in the fresh air, and so the young couple took up farming.
It was a hard life, it wasn’t a life that suited them, and they had a terrible run of bad luck. Joanna struggled with practical difficulties, social expectations, financial difficulties, and of course all of that took its toll on the couple’s marriage. Taking in a dispossessed Hungarian as a paying guest seemed to be a wonderful idea, but Joanna’s head was still full of romance and dreams, and she didn’t see what her neighbours saw. A woman with a sick husband moving in another man …
Winifred Holtby brought the world that Joanna lived in to life wonderfully well. I saw that Joanna and Teddy were isolated, caught between the gentry and the working classes, and seen as outsiders, newcomers by their neighbours. I saw how small-minded villagers could be, and I saw how Joanna’s high principles were so dreadfully misunderstood.
I admired Joanna’s spirit, her willingness to do everything she could for her family. I understood her frustration with her husband, with their situation. And I loved that she held on to her hope for the future. But the best thing of all was that she was a real, fallible, three-dimensional human being, so very vividly painted.
I also appreciated that Winifred Holtby said so much about so many big things – the consequences of war, the problems of society and the class system, the problems facing women, wives and mothers – through this story. And that she said them with such passion.
I was less taken with the men in Joanna’s life – both husband and paying guest were completely wrapped up in their own problems. I understood, but it disappointed me, and I think it unbalanced the story.
That lack of balance was a problem. Sometimes I saw the shifts between storytelling, character development and points being made, and that made the book feel rather unpolished. It was heartfelt, it was heart-rending, but I couldn’t help feeling that it might have been more. That was maddening when so much was done so well.
But I could never give up on Joanna, and I was so pleased that her ending had roots way back in the story; and that it wasn’t really an ending at all, but a suggestion of future possibilities.
It left me wondering if Winifred Holtby had plans for the Burton clan – Joanna in this book and Sarah in ‘South Riding’ shared a surname – and what more stories of Burton women she might have written, if only she had not died so very young.