Sunday, September 23, 2018

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby is Poorly Titled


I only have one book left to finish for the TBR Pile Challenge, a massive omnibus of short stories by Katherine Anne Porter. (I keep buying short story collections but find them really overwhelming and unwieldy to read in omnibus collections; also, I never know how to review them.) So I thought I would take the easy way out and read an alternate, Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby, a mere 266 pages in paperback. However, it took me nearly three weeks to finish this book, compared to a mere five days to zip through the nearly 500 pages of South Riding, Holtby's most famous work.

Published in 1931, Poor Caroline is Winifred Holtby's fourth novel, and was an instant success. Unlike her other novels centered around life in Yorkshire, Poor Caroline is a satire set in London, and follows the lives of several people who become attached to the fictional Christian Cinema Company, devised to create "clean" British cinema for the masses (this is just before color films became popular; I can't remember if the films in question are talkies or not). 

Nevertheless. The corporation is basically started by a Caroline Denton-Smythe, a 70-ish spinster living in genteel poverty who has decided it his her lot in life to find causes. She is joined in this endeavor by Basil Reginald Anthony St. Denis, a dilettante war veteran and minor aristocrat; Joseph Isenbaum, Jewish businessman looking to get his young son enrolled at Eton; Hugh Macafee, a curmudgeonly film inventor; Eleanor de la Roux, a distant cousin from South Africa who's inherited a little nest egg. Other side characters include Caroline's vicar, Roger Mortimer, and Clifton Johnson, a somewhat shady scriptwriter. 

The book begins and ends with two cousins who have just returned from Caroline's funeral. The rest of the chapters alternate between the characters, giving the reader back story about how each of them become involved in the project. Every chapter ends with someone saying, "Poor Caroline," from whence the title came, but I think it's a terrible title. 

This book seemed to take forever -- I almost felt like the chapters were short stories, rather than a single narrative. It also didn't help that I kept putting the book down because I really wasn't that interested in the characters, or quite frankly, the idea of Christian cinema. (As a former librarian, I'm not a big fan of public censorship). Taking so long to read the book really made it hard to keep the characters straight, and I found Caroline herself to be really depressing -- my favorite characters were the South African cousin and the vicar. The cranky film scientist was interesting, but he was such a sexist jerk that I wanted to throw the book across the room. 

I so wanted to like this because I loved South Riding and really enjoyed the other Yorkshire novels.  Overall I think it was just OK -- maybe I just didn't get the satire. I just have one more of her novels unread, Mandoa, Mandoa! which is another satire, set in a fictional African country. I'm a little hesitant because I think I prefer the Yorkshire novels. Well, it's one more Virago crossed off the list. 

4 comments:

  1. I think I read that nothing else that Holtby wrote can compete with South Riding, which I loved. Poor Caroline sounds awfully dated and hasn't withstood the test of time.

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    1. I think that's exactly it, it doesn't seem to have held up. Now I'm hesitant about Mandoa because I wonder if it's going to be horribly tasteless. It's supposed to be satire but that's really tricky. I did like the other Yorkshire novels though.

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  2. I loved South Riding but have yet to read anything else by Winifred Holtby. It doesn't sound like this should be one I rush to pick up anytime soon. I have high hopes for The Crowded Street though!

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    1. I remember really liking The Crowded Street -- I'll have to reread it when I get my books out of storage next year!

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