Author: Winifred Holtby, 1936.
Genre: Modern Classic. 1930s Britain. Politics.
Other Details: Hardback 492 pages and 2011 TV tie-in paperback. 560 pages
South Riding was written and takes place in the first years of the 1930s. Its author, Winifred Holtby, wrote it with an awareness that she only had a short time to live and it was published posthumously in 1936, six months after her death at the age of 37. Vera Brittain celebrated the writer in her famous 1940 work Testament of Friendship.
The novel is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, which was inspired by East Riding where the author grew up and where her mother served as the first woman alderman on the local council. Its focus is upon local government during the Great Depression and charts the rise of social reform. Holtby does this through a group of memorable characters including: Sarah Burton, an idealistic headmistress newly appointed to the local girls' grammar school; Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall, a gentleman farmer on the brink of bankruptcy; Joe Astell, a socialist fighting for reform; the elderly Mrs Beddows, the first woman Alderman of the district and Lydia Holly, a bright student struggling against the extreme poverty she was born into. The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1936.
I will admit to being daunted by the 5 page list of characters that prefaced the novel. It felt over-whelming though in actuality only a handful were central to the story. It is a novel that has continued to grow on me even after finishing it both in terms of its rich characterisation and appreciating how well Holtby captured rural Yorkshire life during these years. I was also quite taken with the relationship between the conservative Robert Carne and the feminist Sarah Burton. They detest each other from their first meeting and although this is no Jane Austen romance, there is something both classic and quite realistic about how things develop between them.
One of the reasons that one of my reading groups chose this particular novel was that it was getting the 'Andrew Davies treatment' as a BBC series this spring. Davies is well known for a number of adaptations of classic novels including the 1995 Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. In his Introduction to the 2011 tie-in edition he celebrates Holtby's contribution to modern literature and the relevance of this novel especially during a time of worldwide financial troubles. He also does point out that he had only 3 hours to tell this story though it is likely that the BBC production will heighten the novel's profile.
Winifred Holtby's 'South Riding' - recent article on Holtby's forgotten masterpiece and her short life.