Ursula Holden Essay - Critical Essays

Holden, Ursula


Holden, Ursula 1921–

Holden is an English novelist whose work has been compared favorably with that of Muriel Spark, Beryl Bainbridge, and Jean Rhys. Like her other novels, her most recent book, The Cloud Catchers, describes a woman's search for love and direction in life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 101.)

Jonathan Keates

Endless Race introduces Ursula Holden, a writer of … finesse, whose chosen theme is the unsteady and retarded progress towards adulthood of nervous Pauline, condemned to a curious, apparently perpetual rivalry with her brother Godfrey. The officer-class world in which they are reared … is brilliantly sketched, and heightened, what is more, by Miss Holden's telling sense of period. Excellent, too, is the way in which she contrives to make such callous circumstances as her flat catching fire turn Pauline away from the sort of aimless naïveté her life at first encourages.

Jonathan Keates, "Talent Spot," in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 90, No. 2313, July 18, 1975, p. 88.∗

Jane Miller

Ursula Holden's first novel [Endless Race] is the story of a woman who has been damaged by childhood rejection….

It is easy to deplore what is done to Pauline and what she, as a consequence, does to herself. It is not easy, though, to feel for her or even to understand her sufficiently to do more than wince at her experiencing of pain and error. Victims may be bereft of speech, but this victim had seemed able to fight her battles, at least in an underhand way. Her capitulation deprives her of interest. Miss Holden is, however, a clever mimic, good at the habits and speech of some broadly seen types…. The theme of incest is invoked rather than examined, and Pauline's brother is sketched in as her desirable opposite, capable where she is incapable, but as opaque and mysterious, finally, as she is.

Jane Miller, "Ugly Sister," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3830, August 8, 1975, p. 902.

Susannah Clapp

Ursula Holden's first novel [Endless Race] was about the gruesomeness of a jealous sister. String Horses shows how nice and how necessary a sister can be. A combination of nasty events and vigorous detail is characteristic of some of the novels of Muriel Spark and most of Beryl Bainbridge's. It is a mixture which is used here with great effect….

There are many dire events and surprises. None of them are incidental to the main action and none of them are summarily dismissed, but all are tempered and made credible by the busy network of other observations which surround them: Hope gets married in a church whose cemetery has a special line in animal graves; flying to join her in Dublin Joanna is uneasily aware of the air hostess's "papist teeth". Among such quick-eyed notings there is neither room nor need for authorial gasps or hectorings.

At times the sisters seem to have stumbled into the wrong kind of setting; a sort of witchy wood in which they are isolated, partly by their own wish to be apart and together, but also by the strangeness of nearly everyone around them: characters whose names—Miss Delicate, Parson Shake—smack of Restoration drama, or who cultivate a peculiar fondness for aphoristic or oracular habits of speech and thought….

Good humour and clear-sightedness enable Ursula Holden to avoid that enshrining of oddity which leads to whimsicality….

Shrillness sounds when attention is drawn to what is going on: when we are told, for example, that the sisters' bickering is a "cover for a spiritual embrace" or that by continuing her "work of preventing life" and leaving her children alone, their mother has "evaded emotional responsibility". Such spelling out is unnecessary in a novel which demonstrates its despairs and pleasures with ease and wit.

Susannah Clapp, "Such Devoted Sisters," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3862, March 19, 1976, p. 311.

Neil Hepburn

Ursula Holden is hard on the Irish, superstition, sentimentality and Dublin; but nice to the two sisters, Hope and Joanna, who are the heroines of String Horses….

Miss Holden is splendid, and I mean only respect, even adulation, when I say that I was at once reminded of Muriel Spark: terrible things happen, but they are recounted with such bubblings of wit, such charming eccentricities of detail, such greedy fascination for bizarreries that it is all like very good gossip. It is only when you finish her admirable novel that you become aware of how serious she really is, about dependence, of course, and about birth, and copulation, and death. (p. 422)

Neil Hepburn, "Prisoners" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), in The Listener, Vol. 95, No. 2451, April 1, 1976, pp. 421-22.

James Brockway

Art should disturb, it should elate, excite the participant, affect the outlook of onlookers.

These are the thoughts of Logan, ill-fated character in Ursula Holden's third novel, Turnstiles—not that many of her characters are anything other than ill-fated, for that matter. 'Birth, and tribulation, and death'—with copulation by no means overlooked on the way—could have stood as the epigraph in the latest work of this most extraordinary artist…. It would have been appropriate to all three of her novels so far, and perhaps even more apt for this one than the quotation she has indeed chosen for it from Eliot: 'For us, there is only the trying. / The rest is not our business'. Yet these last words are fitting enough for Ruth Cash, 'a natural slob', who is the central character of Turnstiles and who goes, dolefully, through many symbolic turnstiles during the course of the novel.

Although 'art should disturb' does not imply that all that disturbs is art, there can be no doubt that [all of Ursula Holden's] writing is highly disturbing…. (p. 47)

What is Turnstiles about?… [It is] based on the psychological premise that 'isolation acquired in childhood soon becomes habit'—a thought which passes through Ruth Cash's mind towards the close of the novel, when she is recalling her childhood for her psychiatrist, Dr. Greanbach.

It is a childhood several of Ursula Holden's characters have known: selfish or useless parents, absent parents, parents who meet violent deaths in...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

John Naughton

Like many people who have lived in Dublin at one time or another in their lives, Ursula Holden seems to have become more Irish than the Irish themselves. At any rate she has mastered the fictional genre which so annoys critics of Edna O'Brien, Desmond Hogan and their romantic ilk. [The Cloud Catchers] is exclusively preoccupied with the hackneyed themes of rural squalor, sex, religion and what the blurb calls 'the passage of untested innocence to the darker world of experience'. It tells of an Irish girl's childhood on a farm, her journey to London in search of romantic fulfilment, her subsequent enlightenment at the hands of a cad, and eventual return to the farm where it all began. In other words, The...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

John Mellors

The Cloud Catchers exploits several Irish stereotypes. There is the uncomfortable, dingy house, where nothing is ever repaired or replaced, a house where the nearest one can get to having a bath is to climb up and squat in the sink in a cold and gloomy outhouse. Then there are the two 'country girls', of the sort made famous by Edna O'Brien. (p. 130)

The rest of the book is a tragicomedy of errors….

The book is saved from being irritatingly Oirish by Ursula Holden's attractively brisk style. She writes at a sort of hop, skip and jump, moving quickly from one aspect of an event or person to another or swerving to an entirely different subject without signalling any change of...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Victoria Glendinning

"I longed to be dependent always, on somebody dependable," says Eve in the "The Cloud Catchers." This unrealizable longing echoes through the four very English novels of Ursula Holden…—her most recent, "The Cloud Catchers," and a stouter volume, "Fallen Angels," which comprises three short earlier novels, "Endless Race" (1975), "String Horses" (1977) and "Turnstiles" (1979). All have been received with almost unqualified praise by British critics, who have repeatedly compared the author with Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge. If Ursula Holden is like anyone, however, it is Jean Rhys. ("I don't write like Jean Rhys," she has said, "but I feel like her.") These are "women's books" in the old-fashioned sense that...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Anita Brookner

If you are a former artist's model who wears shawls, never washes her feet, and is indifferent to the mice tracking through the fat in her frying-pan; if you prefer sleeping on the floor to sharing your husband's timid penchant for clean sheets; if your best friend is a mad palmist called Lady Podesta Doge; if you really love your brother-in-law, a creator of constructivist sculptures composed of dismembered dolls and fruit machines and given names like "Fruition" and "Pulse"; and if you call your baby Tangerine, you will feel an initial sympathy with the heroine of [Turnstiles]. But be warned. Your husband will decamp to Dorset to write his autobiographical masterpiece, having vomited over the branch library...

(The entire section is 421 words.)