Winifred Holtby

(1898-1935) – Writer

Born in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Winifred Holtby was educated at home and then at school in Scarborough. She came to Somerville in 1917 to read Modern History, having spent a year working in a private nursing home in London. Holtby was one of three students to suspend her studies the following academic year so that she could enlist with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). She returned to the college in 1919 and was a contemporary of Vera Brittain, who became her closest friend (Brittain called Holtby her ‘second self’).

After graduation, the two women moved to London to begin their writing careers, renting a flat together in Bloomsbury (82 Doughty Street, where there is now a blue plaque bearing both their names). Holtby’s early novels were fairly successful, although she was better known for her journalism, writing for Time and Tide and the Manchester Guardian. An ardent feminist, socialist and pacifist, she lectured for the League of Nations and was active in the Independent Labour Party.

Holtby continued to share a home with Vera Brittain after Brittain’s marriage to George Catlin, and she become an adoptive aunt to their two children. One of those children was Somervillian Shirley Williams, who described Holtby as being ‘incandescent with the radiance of her short and concentrated life’. Holtby died from kidney disease at the age of 37. Her best-known novel, South Riding, was published posthumously in 1936, and has never been out of print.

Did you know? The royalties from the publication of South Riding were bequeathed to Somerville in Winifred Holtby’s will and are still used to help fund teaching in History.

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