Friday, March 25, 2011
South Riding by Winifred Holtby
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...