About the Book
This is the story of Muriel Hammond, at twenty living within the suffocating confines of Edwardian middle-class society in Marshington, a Yorkshire village. A career is forbidden to her. Pretty, but not pretty enough, she fails to achieve the one thing required of her – to find a suitable husband.
Then comes the First World War, a watershed which tragically revolutionises the lives of her generation. But for Muriel it offers work, friendship, freedom, and one last chance to find a special kind of happiness…
Format: Paperback (288 pp.) Publisher: Virago
Published: 19th November 1981  Genre: Modern Classics, Fiction
Find The Crowded Street on Goodreads
“In books things always happen to people. Why doesn’t somebody write a book about someone to whom nothing happens – like me?”
The Crowded Street follows Muriel Hammond through the years 1900 to 1920. The reader first glimpses Muriel as a nine year girl attending her first formal party and experiences with her the anguish of feeling left out and unable to understand the expected rules of behaviour, to the disappointment of her status conscious mother.
This early experience sets a pattern for Muriel throughout the book. Serious, thoughtful but timid, lacking in self-confidence and with a liking for certainty, Muriel finds herself always the one left without a partner – whether at a dance, the tennis club, even at school. ‘Was she more stupid than other people, or did everyone feel like this at first? She was travelling in a land of which she only imperfectly understood the language.’
This changes when the confident and worldly Clare Duquesne joins Muriel’s school and offers her the friendship she has always sought. Clare ignites a sort of hero worship in Muriel. Clare seems to be everything that Muriel isn’t. As time goes on it turns out others are equally in thrall to Clare.
Muriel allows herself to be persuaded by others that her academic interests, in astronomy and mathematics, are not suitable subjects for her to pursue. Her headmistress asks: “How will it help you, dear, when you, in your future life, have, as I hope, a house to look after?” No, Muriel’s duty lies in staying at home and assisting her mother until a suitable marriage can be made. Indeed, her mother’s sole ambition seems to be to manoeuvre Muriel and her sister, Connie, into a position in society where they can secure themselves husbands. This overwhelming desire will have tragic consequences and act as a stifling influence on Muriel, making her feel that life is passing her by.
The outbreak of the First World War and the renewal of an old acquaintance bring change and the possibility of a different future for Muriel if only she can find the courage to grasp it. ‘A respectable marriage had not always been the one goal of her life. She had dreamed dreams. She had seen visions, but her visions had faded before the opinion of others; she had lacked the courage of her dreams.’
Living in an age where equal opportunities are for the most part a given, I’ll admit I found it difficult at times to understand Muriel’s inability to escape from her situation and her lack of…gumption, I suppose. However, on the other hand, I’m guessing the author intended to create a sense of righteous anger in the reader, at the waste of talent and at the prevailing notion that a woman’s role was merely as an appendage or helpmeet to a man and not as a person in her own right. Like me, you may give a silent cheer at the end of the book. “The thing that matters is to take your life into your hands and live it, following the highest vision as you see it.”
The Crowded Street was the book I drew in the recent Classics Club Spin #17. You can find my full Classics Club list here.
In three words: Elegant, insightful, thought-provoking
Try something similar…Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain
About the Author
Winifred Holtby (1891 – 1935), novelist, journalist and critic, was born in Rudstone, Yorkshire. With the exception of South Riding, this is her most successful novel; powerfully tracing one woman’s search for independence and love, it echoes in fictional form the years autobiographically recorded by her close friend, Vera Brittain, in Testament of Youth.