Friday, March 25, 2011

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

'She saw in front of her the young faces of the children, round, fresh and eager, unscarred by experience.  She saw the lined faces of the women, their swollen hands reddened by work, the wedding rings embedded deep in the rheumatic flesh.  She saw the bent shoulders of her pilgrimage, faced life without the consolation of triumph, the stimulus of success.  Their sturdy endurance in obscurity made her ashamed.'

It is probably not a very good idea to write about a book when you've just turned the last page and feel utterly bereft.  But the house is quiet and the time just feels right.

South Riding opens at Maythorpe Hall, an imposing manor that was once the beacon of a community for hundreds of years.  Now its crumbling exterior houses Councillor Robert Carne, his teenage daughter, Midge, and a portrait of her mentally ill mother, Muriel, who is cared for at the County Mental Hospital.

Sarah Burton arrives at the village to fill the position of head mistress at Kiplington High School.  At forty and unmarried it would be a typical assumption to label her a virginal schoolmarm but Sarah has progressive views and strives to reach the students who seek more from life than husbands and babies.  Watching a school concert where these young ladies exhibit their talents in a less than academic manner has her cringing in shame and feeling sorrow for girls taught things better left unlearned.

The cast of over one hundred characters in this book is vast and varied.  I found that in taking notes it was difficult to know which characters would remain throughout and which would be peripheral.  Like a stroll though a village on a bright summer day you just never knew who was going to come around a corner.  Some left more of a mark than others such as the martyr, Lily Sawdon, who hides a terminal illness from her husband when he suddenly buys a pub.  Her struggle to work each day through immense pain kept reminding me that Holtby herself was dying from a kidney ailment during the writing of this book. 

The Holly family, with their brood of children and barely enough to go around pulled at my heartstrings.  Watching the eldest daughter, Lydia, resign herself to changing nappies and wiping noses when she had such potential in the classroom was extremely frustrating.  But it was clear from many of the storylines in this book that Holtby was a great supporter of women's rights and I kept faith that all was not lost for Lydia.

Readers also have the displeasure of cringe-worthy characters such as Alderman Snaith who doesn't miss an opportunity to gain from someone else's misfortune and Councillor Huggins.  A lay preacher who gets himself into a bind trying to cover up some dirty tracks.

Naturally there is a romantic storyline since we have a handsome fellow living in a lonely manor and a head mistress turns up.  But you won't find the writing soppy and formulaic here, far from it.  In fact, considering the era this story was written in, it's rather daring.

As some of the storylines were coming to their conclusion I felt quite sad as not everything ends well or tied with a bow but there were also reasons to cheer.  The rousing description of the 1935 Silver Jubilee celebration at the end was beautifully written and would have had me enthusiastically waving an English flag if I had one.  And I would highly recommend having a tissue at hand for the epitaph written for Holtby by her dear friend, Vera Brittain.  Not only do I now want to read more of Holtby's work but I am intrigued to know more about her background and how she came to be so wonderfully progressive.

Hopefully the mini-series will air on television over here soon but I certainly have quite the images in my head to last me until then.  And now there are those Queen's cakes that I wrote about last time to bake...


  1. I think I read this as a teenager, I read some Vera Brittain at the time too. Shirley Williams writes a bit about the friendship between Holtby and Brittain in her autobiography.

  2. I absolutely loved South Riding (my Virago edition had a list of the characters so that I could keep checking who was who!) By present day standards it does require editing, some of the passages are over-long, but even that said, it's a cracker of a novel, the social problems are even the same ones we have today: the injustice of the lack of education (in the main) for girls, poverity, social deprivation, the huge gulf between the haves and the have-nots, and shady council dealings. Listing all those things it might sound to those who have not read this as a thoroughly miserable read, but it's not, it's a book of exceptional quality.
    Margaret P

  3. SO glad you loved this Darlene! I can't wait to read it now!

    I loved The Crowded Street - have you got that? Very progressive and made me love Winifred Holtby as a person as well as a novelist. So passionate!

    Please make some of those cakes and show us a photo. If you show me you can bake in a teacup and not break it then I will have the courage to try myself!

  4. She always sounds a much nicer, warmer person than Vera Brittain.

  5. Isn't this a fabulous book?! I know what you mean about feeling bereft at the end; for me the story could have gone on forever. I've since read her first book, Anderby Wold which isn't quite as good but you see shades of the genius to come. I have a couple of her other works and of course must now collect them all. In Virago editions, of course.

    If you live in the US, South Riding will air on PBS Masterpiece on Sunday evenings in May !!!!

  6. I do hope I can find this - have noted it down for the future.

  7. I need to read this before the TV series comes out. I have an old Virago copy but then Virago sent me a beautiful new edition like the one you have as a thank you. Now I don't know which one to keep. I feel like sharing the love.

  8. So glad you loved it, but now even madder that R wouldn't let me buy that 'one last book'...

  9. Joanne, Shirley Williams is a new name to me so thank you!

    galant, Holtby set the mood perfectly in every instance, an exceptional book indeed.

    bookssnob, Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity, Rachel! The Crowded Street is indeed on my shelf...surprise, surprise, and I'm very interested to see how it compares.
    A post on my Queen's cakes will be next...stay tuned!

    mary, Wouldn't it have been interesting to be a fly on the wall at their place?

    Laura, Hahaha...Viragos, of course! Thank you so much for letting me know when this will be airing here! May can not get here soon enough.

    Mystica, One day I hope you walk into a bookshop and every book you have ever wanted is there waiting for you. Sri Lanka needs an English Lit second-hand bookshop!

    Thomas, That was my thinking. I really wanted my own visual before watching the series, it sounds like you have until May. You are such a generous person, best of luck with your decision on old vs new...that would be a tough one.

    JoAnn, I bet you are! It's not like one more book would have been a Seinfeld episode or anything, bursting your carry-on and leaving contents everywhere! There is always The Book Depository...

  10. Wanting to know more about Winifred Holtby, you say?

    First, read Testment of Friendship, by Vera Brittain.

    Watch, if you can, the miniseries (1979) Testament of Youth, which is one of the best and most moving film adapations of a book ever made. I believe it's recently been reissued on DVD. Winifred appears only in the last segment, but the whole thing is brilliant.

    And of course read Testament of Youth, too.

    That should keep you busy for a bit.

  11. Susan, Thank you very much! I'm kicking myself for leaving a copy of Testament of Youth behind at Eliot's Books on my last trip to Toronto. Hopefully it will still be there the next time I visit. Now off to see about that DVD...

  12. Just to give you a bit more information, Shirley Williams was a British MP. I think that she is now in the House of Lords. But she is the daughter of Vera Brittain. Her autobiography is called Climbing the Bookshelves.

  13. Darlene, I'm so glad you loved South Riding. I read it a few years ago & loved it. I have the DVD on its way to me right now, can't wait to watch it. I agree with Susan about Testament of Friendship. It's Vera Brittain's biography of Winifred but it's really a tribute to their friendship. Winifred helped Vera to recover from her losses duting WWI. They met at Oxford after the war. TOF is probably best read after Testament of Youth. As Susan also said, the book & TV series of TOY are just wonderful. TOY is one of my favourite books. One book does lead to another!

  14. Thanks, Joanne, for that suggestion about Shirley Williams's autobiography. I must track it down.

  15. Wonderful book! I can't understand why it's not better known. I was watching the dramatisation with John (DH), but he found it too depressing (probably because of our own money worries!) and so I'll be watching the last episode (recorded) on my own!

    The afterword was very touching wasn't it? Such a sad (and too early) end to her life. I have A Crowded Street and plan to read it soon.

    Thanks for a great review! I blogged about it recently, but not nearly as fully as you have. :)

  16. Joanne, There was a podcast that I listened to recently and this book was discussed. I had no idea the author was Vera's daughter!

    lyn, Books do have a way of cascading into others and I just keep learning along the way. These women accomplished so much during their lifetimes, it's hard not to feel inadequate in my little sheltered life.

    Penny, The series should help get the book more recognition and of course we're doing our bit aren't we. I could barely see the words for tears at the end!

  17. What a lovely post. I'm a little leery to start as it is looks like quite an undertaking, but you tempt me more and more! It's on PBS-Masterpiece theater starting May 1. Do you get that in Canada? I should start reading soon!

  18. We have just finished watching this on TV. For the most part it was entertaining and certainly showed how things were back then, my only gripe was that it seemed very rushed at the end. It is worth watching though if you get the chance and if you're also read the book then maybe you will enjoy it even more.

  19. This is one of my all-time favorite books. It's one of those books that's simply perfect, and no amount of rereading can alter that fact.

    I happen to know of an, erm, source to watch the version that just showed on British TV. Give me a shout if you want the link.

  20. Darlene, Virago are reprinting 3 more of Holtby's novels soon. Land of green Ginger, Anderby Wold & Poor Caroline. All with lovely railway poster covers like SR.

  21. Hello - I just bought South Riding (TV tie-in edition, nothing like as lovely as the cover in your post). I really enjoyed your review, and am looking forward to reading the book - thanks.