Once again, I’ve finished a book from my Somerville cluster feeling, paradoxically, both engaged and adrift: it’s as if these novels have their own idiolect, their own set of terms and meanings and tropes that are related to the ones I know from my other reading, or from the general ideas I’ve picked up from reading literary history, but are somehow not quite of them. This one, The Land of Green Ginger, is Holtby’s third novel, published in 1927, after Anderby Wold (1923) and The Crowded Street (1924). It centers on Joanna Burton, a young woman full of a kind of coltish ungainly enthusiasm and romantic dreams of foreign lands and fairy tales. She’s an unlikely heroine: she’s foolish, impulsive, naive, socially awkward. But she’s also loving, with an unquenchable thirst for life and hope for better things. It takes all the dreary events of the novel (and they do rather pile up) to crush her spirit.
Joanna’s fantasies of travel and adventure come to nothing when she falls for Teddy Leigh, a handsome young man who seems as fanciful as she. Teddy comes back from the trenches of the First World War flattened by tuberculosis, a medical history he had suppressed well enough to pass as fit and be accepted into the army but which now returns with a vengeance. He and Joanna take up farming but are spectacularly unsuccessful: the work is relentless, the money is poor, and Teddy’s health gets worse and worse. They have two children, one of whom is sickly. Joanna can barely manage: she was never particularly competent before, and now all she has going for her is dogged persistence.
Like Anderby Wold and South Riding, The Land of Green Ginger offers no pastoral idyll: it shows us country life full of grime, blood, and sweat. Joanna tries to compensate for her real life by sustaining her fantasy life, but I think the novel shows this as ultimately disabling: until she faces up to the life she’s actually living, she can never be in control of it. Her tendency to live in her own head also makes her oblivious to the interpretations of her life that are made by those around her, a problem that becomes a crisis when rumours begin to circulate that she is having an affair with a Hungarian laborer, a dispossessed nobleman named Paul Szermai, who rooms with the Leighs. It’s true that she sees him as the embodiment of one of her fairy tales: in her eyes he’s “Young Tam Lin,” and he brings not only welcome help and money to the household but a different and disruptive energy. She feels only kindness for him, though, and it’s her interference with his mental life that causes a crisis between them: her sympathy inspires him to tell her the story of his suffering and loss at the hands of the Bolsheviks, culminating in the death of his fiancée. Paul becomes obsessed with Joanna, despite (as he tells her with painful bluntness) her lack of beauty, grace, or wit: in his mind, she has come between him and his beloved, and he feels that only by possessing Joanna can he recover that lost intimacy. In the meantime, Teddy is miserably aware of his own decrepitude: his doctor has ordered him to avoid exertion or excitement, so he and Joanna are no longer sleeping together, and he’s sure she and Paul are lovers.
Of course things come to a crisis, but the oddity of the novel seems to me to be Joanna’s role in all of this. She is not attracted by Paul, not tempted to infidelity, annoyingly tolerant and forgiving of Teddy’s bellicosity and paranoia. She’s too awkward and confused herself to drive the plot forward, even though she’s at its center: for her, what that means is being beset on all sides by demands and expectations. After Paul tells her his horrific tale, she can’t even lose herself in dreams any more:
Always she saw that horror. Whenever she dared to dream and to seek her kingdom, she found Paul Szermai waiting there, bearing with him his unbearable memories.
They pressed about her. They besieged her, the miseries of these men, they entered with their incessant demands the secret fortresses of her mind. She had no place of refuge from their clamorous sorrows.
‘Oh, must I bear it all for you? I have made your beds and cooked your meals for you. I have born your children and nursed your bodies in sickness. Is there no end, no end? Must you take my dreams? Will you leave me nothing, not even the untouched privacy of my imagination?’
If there is a common thread among the Holtby novels I’ve read, I think it’s visible here in that plea by a woman for room to create her own story, especially without deference to, or even reference to, the imperatives of men. For most of the novel, Joanna is hardly conscious of this longing, or at least can hardly articulate it. She seems to be blundering around, intellectually and ideologically, wanting to experience something good and beautiful more than she wants to achieve anything in particular or stand up for anything at all. She just keeps trying to do the right thing–and, as she finally realizes, she just keeps failing, over and over, at least by any external measures.
Towards the end of the novel she finally realizes that her life is in complete chaos. The precipitating events are closely connected: Teddy, enraged beyond reason by his suspicions and his hatred of his own weakness, rapes her, and she can only protest but not fight back, afraid “of his treacherous heart.” For her this is a moment of belated revelation: “She had thought her mind free to create its own enchanting world. . . . And all the time reality had imprisoned her.” She cannot escape the life of the flesh for the life of the mind. But even as she comes at last to “face the facts” of her captivity, Teddy dies of a hemorrhage brought on by his violent exertion.
Freed of Teddy, Joanna still cannot create a good life for herself: pregnant from the rape, she learns that everyone in the village assumes the child is Paul’s, and that because of her reputation nobody will work for her in the house or on the farm. At this point the distinction between reality and fantasy is irrelevant, she thinks: “It was not the truth but people’s idea of the truth which made it possible for one to live in society.” Having faced up to the real world with innocent courage, she finds that it offers her “no safety”:
She had lost hold on its essential code of manners. She did not know how to behave. She did not feel that she was the right person to be live here. . . . She had known pain before, the enriching pain of love, the futile pain of anxiety, the dragging pain of impotence before the suffering of others. But this knowledge of desolation which made her feel that the ground upon which she trod was hollow, that the world she saw was only a phantasm, that she was lost in an alien place where neither her courage nor her love could guide her, this brought the horror of defeat.
Bereft of fantasy, defeated by reality, Joanna somehow finds the strength to start all over, taking the children and returning to South Africa, where she was born but has never lived. The novel ends with her on the voyage, poised on the brink of a future that just might be better than the past. It seems a fragile, lonely hope, but there’s something unexpectedly inspiring about it. “It is true, you know,” she says to her daughter about their dreams of their new life. “If nothing nice ever happens again, this is true”–that is, as I read it, truth lies, paradoxically, in that unrealized moment of expectation.It lies in the moment of discovering a street named “The Land of Green Ginger” when you’re looking for “Commercial Lane,” as little Joanna does early in the novel when out walking with her aunts in prosaic Kingsport. The aunts won’t turn down that street, but in that moment, at least you can be sure it’s there, and who knows where it might lead: “to Heaven, to Fairy Land, to anywhere, anywhere, even to South Africa.”