Oh how I want the new Virago editions of the Holtby books (so far I've only got ‘South Riding’) they are the most beautiful and generally all round desirable paperbacks I've seen in a while but unfortunately funds are low, not even the emergency stash of five pence’s in a gin bottle was enough to make dream a reality (generally spent on more gin, shoes, or books depending on how many are in there, at the moment would stretch to a pair of flip flops. From Primark).
Still it’s a cup half full sort of situation – I’m guessing that a few people have upgraded on their old books because I’ve turned over a few of the original green covered Holtby’s recently, mostly copies of ‘Poor Caroline’ (it’s just not as pretty and for once I can see the point of buying another copy of a book you already have). Once the books open it doesn’t matter what the outside of it looks like and so I’ve finally read my first Holtby.
‘South Riding’ has been on my to read list for ages but when I pick it up it looks like such an investment of time and effort and– well I’ve still not read it, that sort of effort has been saved for Trollope’s of late. ‘Poor Caroline’, quite apart from having an inspired title it is a temptingly short novel which always feels like the best way in with an unfamiliar writer.
On the back of ‘Poor Caroline’ I foresee a happy relationship with Holtby for books and books to come. I’m not sure what I expected but she was drier, spikier even, than I expected. The ‘Poor Caroline’ of the title is Caroline Denton-Smyth an elderly spinster living in straightened circumstances in deepest Kensington. She is a woman with a mission, and the mission is the Christian Cinema Company (British Cinema will be cleaned up!) Perhaps unluckily her grand idea captures the attention of Basil St Denis (vaguely aristocratic dilettante living of his wife’s money and vitality). Basil has charisma and makes the company, or at least a board happen and that’s enough to feed Caroline’s fantasies.
The board in question is a rag tag bunch of misfits and crooks – more misfit than criminal, but the odd rogue in the pack adds both colour and humour as the story unfolds through each member in turn. Each and every one of them has a particular motivation for being there, and all with the exception of Caroline are in it to get something back out, without exception they all despise and pity Caroline.
Caroline herself has the final chapter tying everything together and slightly upsetting the reader’s preconceived ideas of her. She is both more and less deserving of sympathy than I expected in the end. Truthfully Caroline is very human – in that she’s not always a very nice woman, she’s an incorrigible fantasist and scrounger with no qualms about taking advantage of the generosity of anyone she comes across. On the other hand she’s had a full life and despite the many setbacks and genuine causes for grievance that she’s met she still manages to find things to believe in, and she still manages to carry on.
It’s the complexity of all the characters here that make me look forward to more Holtby. Every one of them is beautifully complete and believable (for good and bad) even ridiculous situations are carried off with aplomb underpinned as they are by good solid motivation. This felt like a minor work, an exercise in style as much as anything, so how good will her masterwork be? I’m guessing it’ll be good.