I can’t help but think this novel would be helped by a better title. Poor Caroline is such a negative sounding title for this, the fourth novel by Yorkshire author Winifred Holtby. From the first page, it is clear this is a fond but sharp satire of the inter-war years showing how the expectations of people can on the surface appear aligned but in reality are self-serving.
Caroline Denton-Smyth, honorary secretary of the Christian Cinema Company, works hard in the belief that her company is doing good. But the people on the board of directors each have their own reason for being involved with the company, reasons that are not admitted and which diverge hugely from Caroline’s intentions. One hopes to leverage connections with the chairman to gain entrance for his son to Eton. Another wishes to sell his new type of film. Caroline has so many ideas but little success. At the age of 72 she has no money and is dependent on loans from long-suffering relatives. But she is always hopeful. This is the story of Caroline, her fellow directors, and the Christian Cinema Company. Holtby tells the story of each person in turn so the full picture, and the extent of Caroline’s folly, becomes evident. You can’t help but feel simultaneously sorry for her and exasperated with her inability to see the truth.
It is a while before we meet the eponymous heroine. First we learn of her death, as some distant relatives return from her funeral. In her will, Caroline left bequests of money she didn’t have. “Oh, you can’t alter people like Caroline. She always thought she knew better than anyone. She was always going to do something extraordinary.”
Two scenes in particular stayed with me. The description of the odious Clifton Roderick Johnson’s screenwriting class is a classic. He spits instructions to his paltry four students. ‘They did not know, and indeed Mr Johnson hardly knew, that their lecturer who spoke so confidently of technique, cuts, drama and royalties had himself been able to sell for performance only one scenario and a set of captions.’ And the storm at film inventor Hugh Macafee’s derelict warehouse when he continues to work despite the efforts of two fellow directors to evacuate him before a wall collapses.
This novel requires patience, to allow the author time to draw the full scenario so the true manipulations, fraud, dissembling and love, can unfold.
‘Poor Caroline’ by Winifred Holtby [UK: Virago]
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