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12 August 2022

The mysterious life of Inez Holden

The novelist and former Bright Young Thing ably captured Britain in the early 20th century. Her work deserves to be rehabilitated.

By DJ Taylor

Inez Holden’s diary – a mammoth undertaking, only fragments of which have ever escaped into print – carries a rueful little entry from August 1948. “I read Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh,” the diarist writes. But the tale of Charles Ryder’s dealings with the tantalising progeny of the Marquess of Marchmain, here in an unfallen world of Oxford quadrangles and stately pleasure domes, awakens a feeling of “nostalgic depression”. This, Holden decides, is simply another of “those stories of High Life of the Twenties which everyone seemed to have enjoyed but I never did”.

By this point in her career, Holden (possibly born in 1903, but more of this later) was a 20-year veteran of the London literary scene – and also of some of the more spangled redoubts beyond it. She starts turning up in magazine columns in the late Twenties: not as a writer but as an ornament of the hot-house enclosure stalked by the small group of party-goers and well-heeled socialites known as the Bright Young People. Evelyn Waugh’s diary for May 1927, written when he was briefly attached to the Daily Express, mentions “a charming girl called Inez Holden who works on the paper”.

The press photograph of the “Impersonation Party” (above), a legendary Vile Bodies-era rout in which each guest came as somebody else, depicts a throng of exotic cross-dressers. Stephen Tennant masquerades as Queen Marie of Romania. The actress Tallulah Bankhead, white-costumed with racquet in hand, imitates the tennis player Jean Borotra. In the middle of the tableau sits a small and inconspicuous girl in a Breton jersey. Of the celebrities stationed nearby, Elizabeth Ponsonby (the archetype of Waugh’s Agatha Runcible) and Harold Acton are clearly having the time of their life, but Holden looks nervous, ill at ease, a rabbit caught in the flashbulb’s intoxicating light.

The best memento of this phase of Holden’s life is Anthony Powell’s publishing caper What’s Become of Waring (1939). Holden, her scope elaborated a little in the customary Powell manner, is Roberta Payne (“a tall girl with large black eyes which had a trick of increasing in area when she looked at you”) a kind of book-world femme fatale who makes hay of the Judkins and Judkins firm’s timorous junior partner. As to how Roberta contrives to keep afloat on the listing late-Twenties tide, Powell’s narrator writes only that “she was usually so well housed and dressed that it was generally supposed that obscure rich men, too dull to be allowed to appear, contributed something to her upkeep”.

[See also: Basil Bunting’s curious life: from spy to journalist to celebrated poet]

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The young Holden, according to Powell’s memoirs, “lived fairly dangerously in a rich world of a distinctly older generation”, a thin-ice skater, getting by on handouts, existing for the most part in shabby-genteel poverty. Certainly, this is the milieu of Born Old, Died Young (1932), probably the best of her early novels. Its heroine is described as an “adventuress” and the daughter of an Edwardian beauty, but is “left homeless and penniless” and obliged to fend for herself. As a journalist, offering advice on such vital topics as “country house bridge” to the readers of Harper’s, she occupies a vantage point that could have come straight out of Thackeray: an insider view that is sending up the social detail it imparts to amuse a readership that is simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the recherché information on offer.

If all this makes her sound like a cadet version of Nancy Mitford then the reality of Holden’s early life was a great deal starker. While the senior Holdens were Warwickshire gentry – her mother, Beatrice Paget, was reputed to be “the second best woman rider in England” – they were so careless of their children’s interests that Inez’s birth went unregistered: the “1903” is guesswork. After a piecemeal education at a school for the offspring of poor tradespeople, where the fees were underwritten by a rich uncle, she escaped to Paris in her mid-teens and apparently never returned home.

By the time of What’s Become of Waring, the landscapes of her rackety upbringing were behind her. The party-going had given way to radical socialism (Powell noted that “her later passionate hatred of the Communist Party suggested close knowledge of its methods”), and the Bright Young People to friendships with HG Wells, whose lodger she briefly became, and a motley collection of war-era bohemians that included the poet Stevie Smith and the Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand. It was in her company that Powell and his wife Violet, dining at the Café Royal in 1941, were first introduced to George Orwell.

The temptation of all this high-powered affiliation-brokering is to see Holden merely in the light cast by her more famous (and predominantly male) friends: the Orwell who “pounced” on her at the end of an afternoon spent at the zoo in Regent’s Park and who paid her to attend the films he was supposed to be reviewing for Time and Tide in his place; the composer Constant Lambert who appreciated her “consumptive charm”; the Wells who, while admiring her books, never forgave her for convening the quarrelsome dinner party that produced a letter advising Orwell to “read my early works you shit”, and promptly evicted her from the Hanover Terrace mews flat in revenge.

And yet Holden was perfectly capable of holding her own in this exalted company. Her contribution to Story by Five Authors, which Orwell commissioned for the BBC’s Eastern Service during his time on its production staff is notable for containing a character who, as a posh upper-class type with bitter memories of his prep-school days and time spent serving in the Spanish Civil War, looks as if he were based on Orwell himself. Meanwhile, the fiction she produced in the early Forties, though framed in the decade’s sharp, utilitarian light, set in factories, at town hall tribunals, in troop trains lumbering through the English countryside, often transcended their origins and veered off into an imaginative space that most of the Forties realists never penetrated.

There’s No Story There, the latest Handheld Press reissue of her work, is a case in point. Set in “Statevale”, a gargantuan munitions complex in the middle of nowhere employing 30,000 workers and described as “seven miles of carefully planned human paraphernalia”, its techniques are those of the Mass Observation diarists. Just to reinforce this grounding in Holden’s wartime job of touring factories to record their working conditions, one of the characters, the “time and motion man” George Doran spends his leisure hours recording impressions of his fellow labourers in his diary.

Most of the novel’s early chapters build up to its central set-piece: the arrival of a “very distinguished personage”, thought to be King George VI, at the site. But Holden’s treatment of the royal visit is curiously and, you infer, purposely, off-kilter – faithfully recording the wide-eyed chatter of the works canteen, but at the same time emphasising the detachment of those onlookers for whom much more serious issues are at stake. Linnet, whose husband Willie is coming home that night on leave, absconds to a patch of nearby waste ground for a bunch of wild flowers to decorate the “married quarters” in which she plans to entertain him. When someone asks her if she thinks “he” will be wearing uniform, she assumes the question refers to Willie: “Depends how much time he’s got. Of course, he has to do what he’s ordered.”

Predictably, the royal visit ends in anti-climax. “King George” turns out to be pudding-faced, check-suited “George Kin”, a celebrated Lancashire comedian-turned-Hollywood film star with a nice line in homespun patter. In her excellent introduction, Lucy Scholes suggests that by the end of the Second World War, “Holden had transformed herself into a writer of documentary realism.” This is true up to a point, but it is not the only thing that can be said of There’s No Story There, which every so often cuts loose from its moorings in the tradition of war-time reportage and goes soaring off into flights of impressionist fancy. The girls in the canteen, for example, with their frothy Veronica Lake hairdos and drumming high heels, “gave the impression of a group of pretty centaurs handing out suppers in tune to hoof-sounds on kitchen tiles”.

[See also: Raymond Briggs’ genius was his understanding of loss]

Elsewhere, the buses carrying early-morning workers to the site are said to come looming through the mist “as purposeful as troop-carrying aircraft”. Orwell noted this tendency in her work, and a project to compile a volume of their war-time diaries was abandoned on the grounds of contending styles. As Kristin Bluemel notes in George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics (2004), her account of the Holden-Smith-Anand nexus, Orwell marked her journals down as “feminine impressionistic”. Full of “personal observations, character sketches and dialogues”, her cousin Celia Goodman remembered. “Musical Chairman”, “Soldiers’ Chorus” and “Exiles in Conversation”, the three short pieces included in There’s No Story There, pursue a similar line. They are full of painstaking reportage whose concentrated detail has the effect of making them almost surreal, as if the characters had wandered off the set Holden has created for them to practise their lines in solitude.

Like many a writer who came to prominence during the war – Julian MacLaren-Ross is an obvious example – Holden had trouble in sustaining a career beyond it. There were two more novels – The Owner (1952) and The Adults (1956) – but the bulk of her work form the Fifties consists of short stories commissioned by Powell in his capacity as literary editor of Punch. Her last years were spent in a flat in Lower Belgrave Square, where she died in 1974.

It would be wrong to overstate Holden’s merits – she can be erratic, and one of the great drawbacks of documentary realism is its lack of narrative punch. On the other hand, “Musical Chairman”, which sees a young administrative assistant deputed to represent the labour exchange at the local appeal board, is an extraordinary piece of work, full of bantering repartee (“Now that’s a thing you don’t often see?” “What?” “A lighter that lights”) and indignant self-justification that manages to foreground the people uttering it like figures in a medieval frieze. Of all the under-sung women writers of the Forties – Monica Dickens, say, or Mollie Panter-Downes – coming to terms with new social arrangements and new ways of living, Inez Holden is the one who most needs to be revived, to see her short stories and her diaries in print, and a full-length biography devoted to her vivid yet infinitely mysterious life.

There’s No Story There: Wartime Writing, 1944-1945 
Inez Holden
Handheld Press, 231pp, £12.99

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