In her column Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be. This month, she looks at Inez Holden’s There’s No Story There.
In the late twenties, London’s Bright Young People were on a mission to ensure that each of their many parties was more opulent and riotous than the last. At the “Impersonation Party,” for example, guests were asked to come dressed as well-known personalities. “London’s Bright Young People have broken out again,” announced the Daily Express in July 1927, reporting on the soiree. “The treasure hunt being passé and the uninvited guest already démodé, there has been much hard thinking to find the next sensation. It was achieved last night at a dance given by Captain Neil McEachran at his Brook Street House.” There’s a famous group portrait from the evening that serves, according to the biographer D. J. Taylor, as “a kind of Bright Young Person’s symposium.” It includes the brightest of them all, the socialite Stephen Tennant; his hedonistic partner in crime, Elizabeth Ponsonby; the photographer Cecil Beaton; the writer and aesthete Harold Acton; Georgia Sitwell; and the American actress Tallulah Bankhead. Despite the obvious visual draws of the scene—Ponsonby’s wig, Sitwell’s false nose, Tennant elaborately dressed as Queen Marie of Romania—one can’t help but be intrigued by the beautiful young woman wearing a Breton top in the very middle of the tableau. Her name was Inez Holden.
Holden was a journalist and writer. Her first novel, Sweet Charlatan, was published two years after that party, in 1929, and she followed it with six more novels, a wartime diary titled It Was Different at the Time, and two collections of short stories, the first of which, Death in High Society (1933), was published in linguist Charles Kay Ogden’s experimental Basic English (which later came to be associated with the “Newspeak” in Orwell’s 1984). Only two of Holden’s works are currently in print: It Was Different at the Time and the novella Night Shift (1941), which follows workers in a London factory making camera parts for reconnaissance planes over a period of six nights during the Blitz. They appeared as a double volume, Blitz Writing, earlier this year, edited by the academic Kristin Bluemel and published by the UK-based independent publisher Handheld Press. Wartime factory life might seem like a surprising subject for a Bright Young Thing, but the story of Holden’s life is anything but predictable. In the twenties and thirties, she was at the heart of the most famous, feckless party-going set around, but by the end of World War II she had transformed herself into a writer of documentary realism with a serious socialist agenda, empathetically depicting the lives of the working classes. J. B Priestley, for example, described Night Shift as “the most truthful and most exciting account of war-time industrial Britain,” and when H. G. Wells first read it he wrote to Holden, “Your book is first-rate … I’ll admit you can write.”
With their satiric depictions of the giddy antics of the roaring twenties, Holden’s first three books—Sweet Charlatan, Born Old, Died Young (1932) and Friend of the Family (1933)—stand alongside the likes of Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat (1924) and Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930). But it’s her wartime writing, a triptych that offers windows onto three different aspects of the same world—Night Shift, It Was Different at the Time, and the novel There’s No Story There (1944)—in which she really came into her own. There’s No Story There is a particularly impressive and immersive work, and yet it is so very out of print that no images of the cover appear to exist online, and I had to read the book in the British Library. It details the lives of conscripted workers at Statedale, an enormous rural munitions factory. In fewer than two hundred pages, Holden paints a vivid and moving portrait of working-class life; the workers’ daily routines, their pleasures and pains, not to mention the peril they habitually face in their exceptionally dangerous work environment. She’s particularly brilliant when it comes to dialogue, “a very careful listener,” as the Times Literary Supplement’s review of the novel pointed out: “These snatches of conversation in canteen or pub that she sets down so shrewdly carry cumulative force and illumination.” She’s just as keen an observer of psychological states, and a sly critic of the governmental and institutionalized structures that keep the working masses in line.
Statedale, which employs an astonishing thirty thousand people, is described as “seven miles of carefully-planned human paraphernalia: the ‘contraband’ huts where all workers had to give up their cigarettes and matches, the shifting houses where they must change into asbestos suits, the workshops, the canteens, surgeries, cleanways, explosive storehouses, truck sidings, and the intricate railway line.” It is oddly quiet and still; a place devoid of both loud equipment—“humans … took the place of machines”—and frivolous chitchat: silence “guillotined down” on the workers as they entered the factory’s well-guarded gates. The making of shells and bombs is an intricate, risky process that requires the utmost concentration.
The threat of an accident hangs heavy in the air. Once in the official “Danger Area,” even the most mundane and tedious of tasks has to be undertaken with care. A worker named Julian (recently discharged from the forces after he was injured when his ship was torpedoed) is charged with wheeling trucks loaded with explosives between workshop—“surface-sunk, mounded-up [and] blast-proof”—and storage facility. “Supposing one of them tipped over and fell to the ground?” he thinks, assessing the boxes awaiting his attention. “What would happen—well, you know! A small speck of powder spilled, some sort of friction, what they call a ‘blow,’ and I should disappear instantly.” His fear is no idle exaggeration. Halfway through the book, a young female worker trips while carrying a papier-mâché boat of “Powder K” (the stuff the detonators are filled with). There’s a sudden flash, “as if we were being photographed at the seaside, or something,” and her hands fly up to her face, blood pouring down between her fingers. In the time it takes to stretcher her to the Rest Room, she dies.
Whereas the factory life described in Night Shift—from the noise of the machinery to the Blitz city setting—is more familiar terrain, the world of There’s No Story There is no less real. Holden herself worked in both an aircraft factory in North London and an ordnance factory in Wales, so she’s writing from firsthand experience. And yet it is decidedly alien. There’s something especially eerie about the image of the workers, wearing rubber-soled “sneaker” shoes and dressed in white flannel suits “impregnated with asbestos,” their faces covered with the “protective cream and powder” they’re obliged to apply before they enter a workshop. It’s an image that seems to belong in a sci-fi novel—“scientific, robotic, serious and aseptic”—a far cry from the turbaned, overalls-wearing factory girls with their red lipstick that Laura Knight painted. There’s also something discombobulating in the way in which Holden, for all the authenticity of her documentary-style writing, doesn’t use traditional exposition. Instead, she forces the reader to slowly piece together the details of this strange world she’s describing. We’re like the workers themselves, people “whose war-time job had jerked them out of their own surrounding and brought them down suddenly into a strange unfamiliar setting.”
“The cloud of humanity approached the first factory gates,” writes Holden in the opening scene—workers disembarking from the bus that brings them from the nearby purpose-built hostel, a “big place, almost like a small town,” where most of them live—“and broke up into individuals.” Of these thirty thousand workers, Holden’s novel follows only a handful by name, each of whom is both representative and personalized. Among them, the Austrian chef who everyone knows was in a concentration camp, though he himself never speaks of it. “Must be sad for him living amongst a lot of strangers,” writes nineteen-year-old Mary Smith, a new arrival at the factory, in a letter home to her sister, which makes up the novel’s final chapter. But the reader gathers that, in a way, everyone there is an outsider.
One of the most interesting characters is a man who serves the purpose of being Holden’s fictional alter ego: Geoffrey Doran, a bespectacled, brown-suited intellectual and “One-Man-Mass-Observation Centre,” who carries a notebook with him wherever he goes, in which he obsessively records the conversations and routines of those around him. Not that Holden takes him (or herself) too seriously: after he loses his precious notebook in a blizzard, he’s left scrabbling around trying to find it much to everyone’s else’s bemusement.
In Mary’s letter home she also tells her sister about the “cinema girl” Nordie, who used to be a journalist but is now in charge of screening films in the canteen to entertain the workers. “I asked her once why she didn’t write about the factory,” Mary relates, “but she said, ‘There’s no story there.’ I don’t suppose there is, neither. The way you know people at work is different to ordinary life. It is jagged and uneven, not just straightforward like in a storybook.” And yet the fragmented nature of this supposedly un-writeable novel makes it no less engaging. There’s No Story There challenged the prevailing notion that the lives of ordinary working-class people weren’t a suitable topic for fiction.
So how did a Bright Young Thing become a socialist champion of the working class? As D. J. Taylor points out, “Holden’s ability to move seamlessly from high bohemia to a political position that may have included membership of the Communist Party was comparatively rare.” Holden was a woman between worlds and classes, equally comfortable with privilege and plenty as she was with privation and hard scramble. Despite rather grand beginnings—her father’s family was landed gentry in Warwickshire, her mother an Edwardian beauty and famed horsewoman—Holden was working poor most of her life. To describe her parents as neglectful is something of an understatement—she didn’t know whether she’d been born in 1903 or 1904, for example, because they hadn’t bothered to register her birth. They favored her older brother, Bill, and sent their daughter to a school for poor tradespeople. Holden severed ties with her family when she left home at fifteen, going first to Paris and then to London. According to her literary executor, Ariane Bankes, Holden’s “crossing of boundaries is entirely explicable in terms of her early rejection by her family and her subsequent rejection of all that her family stood for—class values and all.” So, too, Holden’s friend, the novelist Anthony Powell, believed that her political opinions were a “sharp reaction … against the hardness and selfishness of Edwardian smart life.”
As Bluemel observes, Holden’s immersion in and writing about the world of the working-class wasn’t without precedent. Orwell, Isherwood, and Henry Green were all doing something similar during this period. But what was different about Holden’s situation was that this was no poverty tourism; she was “motivated as much by financial desperation as literary ambition or socialist commitment.” She had no safety net to fall back on. Her “hold on the privileges that distinguish the typical writer’s life—food, paper, books, a room (or desk) of one’s own, and time to write—was unstable.” Many of those who knew her note how often she was desperately short of money, living hand to mouth from her writing.
There is no account of Holden’s intriguing life, nor, unfortunately, did she pen her own memoirs, yet one can piece together a fascinating portrait of her from the mentions she receives in those written about and by her more famous friends: namely Stevie Smith, Powell, and Orwell. Powell remembers her as “a torrential talker, an accomplished mimic” whose gossip was “of a high and fantastical category.” She was the model for Roberta Payne, the female lead of his fifth novel, What’s Become of Waring? (1939), and for Lopez in Smith’s novel The Holiday (1949).
Her long, close friendship with Orwell was the most significant. It began with a brief affair, Orwell having “pounced” on Holden one afternoon in May 1941 after they’d been for lunch at the zoo. “I was surprised by this, by the intensity and urgency,” she wrote in her diary. Three years later, in June 1944, she offered him and his wife use of her London flat when they were bombed out of their own. It Was Different at the Time originally began life as joint project between Orwell and Holden. She was also a friend of H. G. Wells, and lived in the mews flat of his London home until Wells fell out with Orwell in 1941, taking his anger out on their mutual friend by unceremoniously evicting her. While such anecdotes are entertaining, Holden deserves a primary, not a supporting, role in her own story. With the publication of Blitz Writing and the recent news, which I discovered while writing this piece, that Handheld Press plans to add There’s No Story There to their list, I’m hopeful that her resurgence might be just around the corner.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.