Joanna Burton was born in South Africa but raised in Yorkshire, and as a young woman had dreams of traveling around the world. But then she fell in love with Teddy Leigh, and married in haste because of the war. When Teddy returned, she realized how little she knew of him and came to understand the life that awaited her. Teddy was in poor health, and unable to follow his early dream to become a minister. The couple had a small farm but were not successful farmers. They could barely provide for themselves and their two daughters.
When a group of eastern European laborers establish a camp on the outskirts of their village, Joanna and Teddy befriend one of their leaders, Paul Szermai. They offer him lodging in their home as a way to bring in extra income. Paul’s presence is welcome at first, but then causes a rift between Joanna and Teddy. Joanna tries to meet the needs of Teddy, her daughters, and Paul, as well as keep up with the farm and household chores, but it all proves a bit much. She imagines correspondence with old school friends, who have long since stopped sending letters:
She used at first to write long letters to her friends, Agnes Darlington and Rachel Harris. But as the chickens increased and the prosperity of the farm decreased, she had less and less time somehow to answer letters. Therefore the letters which she never answered dwindled and dwindled. She seemed utterly removed from the world she had known before her marriage. (p. 38)
Winifred Holtby paints a portrait of Yorkshire village life, with a rich cast of characters from all classes. She shows the stark economic divide between the upper and lower classes, sometimes by describing them directly and sometimes through witty descriptions of a scene:
The passengers on the crowded tender living Tilbury dock buttoned their coats tightly against the keen October air. Third- and first-class passengers, huddled together, regarded each other with the suspicion that precedes the separation of sheep from goats by the unequivocal barrier of a steel railing.
Holtby also depicts most of the villagers as small-minded and cruel. Rumors about Joanna and Paul abound, especially after Teddy insists they attend a dance together when he is not well enough to go. And even though there is a scene, Joanna still doesn’t quite grasp how she is perceived by others. When Joanna is finally forced to face the reality of her situation she says to herself, “Bidgood had been right. It was not the truth but people’s idea of the truth which made it possible for one to live in society.”
Circumstances force Joanna into a dramatic decision, but one left me hopeful that she would one day realize the dreams of her youth.