Neglected women writers: this is a class issue

Middle-class writers such as Sylvia Townsend Warner have enough champions. What about Ethel Carnie Holdsworth?

For about four decades now, rediscovering and promoting the work of women writers deemed to have been “abandoned” by readers has been a staple of the literary feminist. It is the raison d’être of the publishing house Virago, which has brought us many books that would have otherwise been long forgotten. So it was interesting to read Sarah Waters’s piece lamenting the “neglect” of Sylvia Townsend Warner – but it annoyed me, too. Townsend Warner, who has had six of her novels republished by Virago, hardly qualifies for inclusion on the “missing” list.

There are many other women writers who remain entirely overlooked, and whom present readers would doubtless enjoy and learn from. And one candidate worthy of being fished from the seas of oblivion and dragged into the literary lifeboat is Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.

I fear the reason why Carnie Holdsworth hasn’t yet proved an attractive prospect for the missionary feminist is that she was trenchantly working class. Carnie Holdsworth wrote stories for and about other working-class women; women who, like herself, were already working long hours in factories and at home. With no allowance to free up her time, nor a high level of education, she had an urgent need to show how it was for herself and women like her. It’s a very old plough, this; the absence of, and then, when she is there, the neglect of, the working-class woman. One of the reasons I am championing Carnie Holdsworth is because we share class origins; origins that make one only too aware of how hard it is to even realise that one could have a voice through the pen. But that’s not all: a survey of Carnie Holdsworth’s work makes all too clear her struggle and her significant achievements, which, in the end, wore her out…

What we need more than ever in our current climate are works that reflect these levels of inequality – not just between men and women, but between women and women – and north and south. I have often found it ironic that the feminists who cry foul at patriarchal cultural imperialism and the championing of male writers at the expense of better women, then go on to repeat the process among women along class lines, whether they know it or not.

I’d like to expand her article’s scope to issues of including women of different races and sexual orientations as well.

When women are “rediscovered” from history, it often starts with the most privileged women, because they are the easiest to find records about — the less privileged women were often less documented had to struggle much more against their background as both underprivileged AND a woman.