Only the last section of The Crowded Street – a mere 16.5 pages – is named for the novel’s protagonist, Muriel Hammond. Each of the other sections is named for another woman whose life preoccupies and dominates Muriel’s: first her schoolmate Clare, then Muriel’s mother, then her sister Connie, then her friend Delia. Structurally, then, The Crowded Street reflects the central problem of Muriel’s life: that she has never been its main character, never lived according to her own values, never pursued-much less fulfilled-her own dreams, never known-much less got-what she wanted.
It’s a risky premise and a risky structure. It’s not, in practice, very interesting to read about someone whose life is so lacking in individual motivation and agency. “All books are the same,” Muriel reflects bitterly, late in the novel; “In books things always happen to people. Why doesn’t somebody write a book about someone to whom nothing ever happens–like me?” If we hadn’t already seen it, this assures us that Holtby has made a deliberate choice to write just such a book. She has risked boring us, alienating us, in order to drive home the point, not that there is something redemptive about a life in which nothing of note happens, but that young women should be liberated from the conventions and expectations that trap them in such a meaningless existence.
The Crowded Street is relentlessly, satirically critical about the stultifying provincial society in which Muriel is raised. Though as a young girl she dreams of studying “Higher Mathematics and the Stars,” such radical ideas are promptly crushed:
Mrs Hancock [her teacher] explained how there were some things that it was not suitable for girls to learn. Astronomy, the science of the stars, was a very instructive pursuit for astronomers [I love the circular logic!], and professors (these latter evidently being a race apart), but it was not one of those things necessary for a girl to learn. ‘How will it help you, dear, when you, in your future life, have, as I hope, a house to look after?’
“Her initial failure sapped her courage,” and Muriel never really tries again. Her passivity in the face of discouragement is frustrating (if, as seems plausible, Holtby had The Mill on the Floss in mind, we get none of Maggie’s rebellion against these gender-specific barriers to knowledge). But Muriel’s passivity is part of her character and stems, sadly, from her better qualities, including a strong sense of duty and loyalty to her family and a desire to help others. Though her grown-up life offers her no personal fulfillment, as long as she feels useful she can at least accept it.
In Muriel’s home community of Marshington, the only recognized for women is marriage (or “sex success,” as the vicar’s outspoken daughter Delia calls it). Holtby chronicles with painful acuteness the maneuverings of Muriel’s mother (who herself made a questionable marriage) to get her girls accepted into the highest levels of Marshington society and land suitable husbands. Holtby balances satire with poignancy in some of the scenes of Mrs Hammond’s disappointments: the trick, when hearing another girl has caught the young man she thought might choose Connie or Muriel, is to rejoice in her good fortune and wish the new couple every happiness, to regroup, and to try, try again. But as the years go by her desperation increases.
Her daughters react somewhat differently to the pressure. Connie, the wild one, goes off to work as a “land girl” during the war, takes the risk (fairly calculated, it seems) of getting pregnant, and ends up in a loveless marriage when her parents coerce the child’s presumed father into agreeing. Muriel goes to live with her and tries to help her improve her situation a bit, but Muriel is ineffectual and Connie’s story ends miserably. It’s hard not to think that at least Connie screams and fights and runs, but there’s really nothing admirable about her except that emotional rebellion, and that’s not much, especially when she pays for it with her life. This is the price, we see, of respectability, which is the only value recognized by Marshington society.
The price Muriel pays is almost as high, though less literal. As the years go on, it starts to seem inevitable to her that she will never achieve that “sex success” but dwindle into the life of an unappreciated spinster. Her aunt gives her a chilling picture of what lies ahead:
‘Marriage is the–the crown and joy of woman’s life–what we were born for–to have a husband and children, and a little home of her own. Of course there are some of us to whom the Lord has not pleased to give this. I’m sure I’m not complaining. There may be many compensations, and of course He knows best. But–it’s all right when you’re young, Muriel, and there’s always a chance–and when my dear mother was alive and I had someone to look after I am sure no girl could have been happier. It’s when you grow older and the people who needed you are dead. And you haven’t a home nor anyone who wants you–and you hate to stay too long in a house in case someone else should want to come–and of course it’s quite right. Somebody had to look after Mother. Everybody can’t marry. I’m not complaining. I’m sure they’re very kind to me, but I sometimes pray that the good Lord won’t make me wait here very long–that I can die before everyone gets tired of me, and of having me stay around–’
Now that’s a fate worse than death, isn’t it? And it’s hard to see any alternative, in Marshington. Muriel thought she might have a way out, once: for years she has loved (or at least admired and yearned after) Godfrey Neale, handsome, popular, endearingly stuttering, and once, in the dark, under the impetus of a war-time crisis, Godfrey kissed her. Does the kiss mean nothing or everything? Her answer finally comes with the news of his engagement to the flamboyant Clare. No other prospective suitor appears, and Muriel’s resignation becomes bitter passivity.
But marriage is not the only alternative; other people are not the only means to the end of self-actualization and worth. Muriel finally learns this lesson from Delia, who has left Marshington for London where she work for the Twentieth Century Reform League. “Things happen against our will,” Muriel says to her morosely, when Delia is back visiting Marshington.
We listen, we think, that we are moving on towards some strange, rich carnival, and follow, follow, follow. Then suddenly we find ourselves left alone in a dull crowded street with no one caring and our lives unneeded, and all the fine things that we meant to do, like toys that a child has laid aside.
Delia is impatient with this renunciation of agency. “You can’t wriggle out of responsibility with a metaphor,” she tells Muriel; “Your life is your own, Muriel, nobody can take it from you.” She insists that Muriel recognize that she has been making choices, that society and other people’s expectations are not, in themselves, determining factors. She invites Muriel to move with her to London–which, somewhat unexpectedly, Muriel finds the courage to do. In her new independent life, she begins to discover and use her own strengths and to define her self-worth on her own terms.
Muriel flourishes, but the portion of the novel dedicated to that flourishing is tiny. Did we need to see so clearly, in so much detail, how dull and destructive the world of Marshington (and everything it stands for) is, in order to welcome the alternative? Does that world really need such a long exposé? Not now, but maybe in 1924, when The Crowded Street was first published, it was harder to explain what was wrong with it, or harder to justify Delia and Muriel’s new life (which was very close to Brittain and Holtby’s, of course). Maybe, too, it was important to thoroughly defamiliarize that world, to take its perfectly ordinary tennis parties and dances and committee meetings and visits for tea and wear us out with them so that we would end up unable to accept them as ordinary, unable to stand it for one more minute. “If ever I had a child,” Muriel tells Delia before her rescue, “and it was born a girl and not beautiful, I believe I’d strangle it rather than think that it should suffer as I’ve suffered!” To understand that shocking statement as anything but hyperbole, we have to have felt the weight and especially the duration of Muriel’s suffering through “the awfulness of a life where nothing ever happens.”
The first graphic is the elegant endpaper from the handsome Persephone edition of The Crowded Street.