Review: Poor Caroline, by Winifred Holtby

They had little use for truth, even though they paid lip service to it. Those facts which failed to support their own particular vision of the perfect world, they tacitly ignored They spoke of scientific research, meaning the exploration of phenomena advantageous to their cause. They inquired if  men or women were ‘sound,’ with the intention of discovering not their habitual rectitude or sanity, but the degree of their devotion to a particular point of view. … They sought to mould society according to some well-designed pattern of good, to impose their wills upon the shifting wills of men, their ideals upon the mobile framework of the universe.  (p. 126)

In her fourth novel, Winifred Holtby pokes fun at earnest souls who labor tirelessly for a cause.  In this case, the “cause” is the Christian Cinema Company, founded by Caroline Denton-Smyth to advocate for better morals in cinema, and produce “pure” films made in Britain.  Caroline is in her 70s, rather dotty, prone to wearing feathers and beads and viewing the world through her lorgnette.  She’s convinced the company’s success is just around the corner.  But the truth is, they are sorely lacking in funds, and without a single film to their name.  One of the board members is a scientist with a breakthrough film-making process, but he demands capital and Caroline is determined to raise it.  Her days are spent in the fruitless pursuit of funds, writing letters and speaking at women’s institute meetings.

The plot is rather sparse; its characters make this book a delight.  Holtby tells Caroline’s story, and that of the Christian Cinema Company, through the eyes of each board member in turn.  Holtby manages to draw each character as both an authentic person and a caricature. Basil Reginald Anthony St Denis is persuaded by his partner to give up his leisurely lifestyle to become the company’s chairman.  Joseph Isenbaum joins the board in hopes of making connections that will benefit his son.  Eleanor de la Roux is Caroline’s cousin. Recently arrived in London, she joins the board out of sympathy and because she needs something to do.  Hugh McAfee invented the “Tona Perfecta Film,” which threatened to revolutionize the industry until color techniques came along.  Roger Mortimer is a minister, and the object of Caroline’s affections.  And Clifton Johnson is a swindler and sole proprietor of the Anglo-American School of Scenario Writing.  Chapters devoted to each character provide context, fill in background details, and advance the storyline. They also portray other characters through new lenses, showing traits and motivation that had not emerged in their personal chapter.

Holtby’s earlier novels were more strident, beating the drum of social activism and causes she was personally committed to.  In Poor Caroline, her tongue is firmly in cheek.  She mines familiar philanthropic territory, satirizing the causes themselves while poking fun at human nature and our motivations for doing charitable work.  Anyone who has ever been involved in charitable fund-raising will enjoy her rich wit.

* FTC Disclosure: This e-book was sent to me by the US distributor, Independent Publishers Group, for review on my blog.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Poor Caroline, by Winifred Holtby

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this one too Laura. I appreciated the satire and the tounge in cheek element. Holtby is marvelous! I am planning on re-reading The Crowded Street later this month – still saving The land of Green Ginger – which I have never read as I like having it to look forward to.

    • Ali, I have only one Holtby left to read (Mandoa, Mandoa) and I’ll be so sad when there are no more left to enjoy. So I agree — save it and savor it!

  2. Whatever I had been expecting (perhaps another South Riding?!) I hadn’t expected the kind of story that I found in Poor Caroline, but I really really liked it. I still vividly remember chuckling and snortling at parts of it while I reading in mornings and evenings on the subway!

    • BIP, I was definitely expecting something along the South Riding / Anderby Wold lines and this was not it! These new editions lack the introductions common to earlier VMCs, and I found myself running to my older copy which confirmed that yes, this was a different Winifred. Once I understood that, I could relax and enjoy. And yes, snort from time to time!

  3. Pingback: The ever-eternal reading list gets amended. Again. | white pebble

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