‘South Riding’ by Winifred Holtby

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Friday, January 28, 2011 - Save & Share - 14 Comments

My favourite place that I’ve ever lived is, without any hesitation, York.  I lived in a cold, dingy cellar room where I used to become trapped in the house if it rained heavily because the area between my doorstep and the stairs up towards street level used to flood with almost a foot of water, but I was in the heart of the city, I could be at the Minster within five minutes and I loved it.  The city was a revelation, with so much packed into such a small area, the modern jostling good-naturedly alongside the historical.  The people were some of the friendliest I’ve met, and the easy, casual chatter is something that I miss unexpectedly now that I’m London-based.  The countryside around the city, when I managed to escape, was so wide and open that you could see for miles, traversed only by hardy, agile sheep and the equally hardy and agile Coastliner buses (how a double decker bus navigates some of those tiny roads with their sharp bends and steep slopes still baffles me).  Reading South Ridingby Winifred Holtby was less like reading a book and more like suddenly finding myself living in Yorkshire again.  For a few days I was an inhabitant of the fictional South Riding and I absolutely loved the experience.

South Ridingis set in Yorkshire in the first half of the 1930′s, focusing on the everyday lives of the people who live there.  There is Sarah Burton, the new headmistress of the girls’ school who returns to the area armed with progressive ideas and is determined to make a difference; there is Mrs Beddows, the council’s only female alderman who is torn between her desire for progress and her personal loyalties; and there is Robert Carne, staunch proponent of the old ways, desperately trying to care for his mad wife and fragile daughter while not losing his tenuous hold on his lands.  The book chronicles their struggles, sometimes against each other, sometimes alongside one another for a common cause, and those of a whole host of other characters.

The cast of this novel is huge, with more than a hundred characters (listed handily after the introduction), but it never feels overpopulated or confusing.  In fact, they are what makes South Riding such a great read.  I felt as though I knew each and every one of those characters, even if we only had a nodding acquaintance.  It is testament to Winifred Holtby’s writing skill that she manages to create such a wide variety of characters with equal authenticity; I believe in Midge Carne, who is young, female, highly strung and unthinkingly cruel, just as much as I believe in Castle, who is an elderly, male, gentle salt of the earth type.  I particularly liked the fact that no character is as straightforward as they at first seem, and not in a gimmicky everyone-has-a-dark-secret way, but in a these-are-all-real-people-with depth way.  They aren’t defined by their quirks, but these help to gain a deeper insight into the characters and why they behave the way they do.  Councillor Snaith at home with his cats was a particular favourite of mine.

A wide range of characters means a wide range of relationships, and here too Winifred Holtby excels.  Whether two people are cooperating or at loggerheads they always act in a way that is so appropriate and well described that I experienced everything along with them.  Tom and Lily’s relationship broke my heart time and time again, and they are relatively minor characters (if there can be said to be such a thing in this novel).  Not only does she write scenes tightly focused on one individual or group, she also writes the best, most effective crowd scenes I’ve ever read.  The outside performance put on by Madam Hubbard’s girls, at which cast and audience alike spend more time focusing on their own individual thoughts and agendas than the show, is an absolute masterpiece.  Her writing reveals a wealth of life experience put to very good use.

I also appreciated the fact that, although people struggle and fight with one another, there is no cruel, cackling villain in this book.  The characters go through hard times and experience tragedy, but that is because life is hard rather than because someone is plotting against them.  Harvests fail so people lose their money.  People become sick and, because they are poor, they die.  It’s all very matter-of-fact and realistic.  This may make the novel sound rather bleak, and it’s definitely not without its bleak moments, but there is also a great deal of comedy in this book.  There is stoicism but there is also humour; the people of South Riding endure hardships and they do so with a shrug and a grin.  Despite some of the tragedies that occur, Holtby never allows characters to wallow or the tightly controlled plot to spiral into melodrama, which I find only adds to the pathos.  I’m sad to leave South Riding and it’s definitely a novel that I’ll be rereading in the future.

Unlike The Vet’s Daughter where I thought that the original cover was far superior, in this case I rather prefer the reissued cover.  I had bought myself a copy of the original green edition before Christmas as I was continually hearing good things about this novel and I wanted to have read it before the new BBC adaptation begins later this year, but last week I was surprised to receive a copy of the new edition in the post from the publishers for joining their new book club.  It was this version that I ended up reading, as I was drawn in by the lovely cover art, a reproduction of a Yorkshire Railways poster, which suited the book perfectly.  I also thought that the extra material was better in the newer edition as, while Lettice Cooper’s introduction in the earlier edition is useful, it is mostly a summary of the story and the new preface by Shirley Williams and introduction by Marion Shaw are excellent.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby.  Published by Virago, 2010, pp. 518.  Originally published in 1936.

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14 Responses to “‘South Riding’ by Winifred Holtby”

Comment from Rachel
Time January 28, 2011 at 6:28 pm

Fantastic review! I am SO DESPERATE to read this now! I love the idea of a huge cast of characters living out a variety of different yet intertwining lives…and I love Yorkshire, too, so I am sure I would adore this. It’s such a shame that Winifred Holtby died before her time. She really was a brilliant writer – The Crowded Street is excellent if you haven’t read it yet.

Comment from Virginia
Time January 28, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I really enjoyed this book when I first read it a few months back. I’ve come to love Winifred Holtby’s writing and her insights on life. I find her to be an extremely wise woman, able to realistically see life as it is but be hopeful at the same time. And I agree about the two Virago editions. Ever since I saw the new cover on Amazon, I’ve been coveting it. The only other one of her books I’ve read is The Crowded Street which I loved. I’m going to read Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain shortly, and I hope to read Anderby Wold soon. Thank you for your lovely review!

Comment from Annie
Time January 29, 2011 at 9:13 am

As you’ve enjoyed this so much you might also like to read ‘Testament of Friendship’ by Vera Brittain and ‘Testament of a Generation’ both of which were available in Virago when I bought my copies. The former is VB’s record of her friendship with Winifred Holtby and you will learn much about her life which she then fed into ‘South Riding’, the latter is a collection of Brittain and Holtby’s journalism, which give you some insight into the political and social beliefs that drove Holtby’s life and her fiction. By the way, all my family come from Yorkshire and I am definitely with you about York.

Comment from hopeinbrazil
Time January 29, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Sounds like a lovely book. It’s always a pleasure to read your reviews.

Comment from Karenlibrarian
Time January 30, 2011 at 12:33 am

Oh, I am dying to read this one — a new Virago edition comes out in the U.S. in July, but I don’t know if I can wait that long to read it. I may have to break down and order it from the UK.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 31, 2011 at 9:55 am

Thank you, Rachel. I haven’t read ‘The Crowded Street’ yet but I’ll add it to my list. It almost seems a shame that I’ve read what is widely regarded as her greates work first but I’m still looking forward to reading everything else she’s written now. According to the introductions, her mother wasn’t keen on this being published, but thank goodnees it was!

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 31, 2011 at 10:03 am

She is incredibly insightful, isn’t she? It was a completely immersive experience reading this book because it felt so real. Fingers crossed for you to find a new covered copy!

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 31, 2011 at 10:30 am

I’ll add those two titles to my list of books to read later, although I think I’ll wait until I’ve read some Vera Brittain as well. I definitely want to read more by/about Winifred Holtby, so thank you very much for the suggestions.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 31, 2011 at 10:35 am

Thank you very much! I highly recommend it.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 31, 2011 at 10:37 am

It’s definitely worth it. I’m sure the Book Depository could furnish you with a copy. Not that I’m tempting you or anything…

Comment from natasha
Time February 21, 2011 at 8:00 am

i am with you in enthusiasm. south riding bought a whole world and period to life. there was an unsentimental yet tender view of a lost world. anna maxwell martin as sarah….. fiesty yet uulnerable although i always still see her as lyra from his dark materials…. am holding out for the romance to blossom a la pride and prejudice… or maybe with an emily bronte twist as its yorkshire particular recognition for the portrayal of lydia as the bright but poor scholarship girl and midge fragile complex and motherless….. double side of all of us …. fiesty out there; alongside a more avoidant and brittle side. Winifred ; in admiration and delight; i salute you am going to buy the book today. also interesting that andrew davies also wrote the adaptation of middle march; years ago …. reminds me of my closest university friend who did her dissertation on middle march which feels similiar to south riding and went to meet andrew davies. now she i remember fondly would have been a talented school girl that anna maxwell martin/ sarah would be proud. have lost touch with her but half expected her name to come up on the credits …. had her in my mind all the way through last nights viewing.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time February 21, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I haven’t watched the television adaptation yet, but it’s encouraging that you found it enjoyable. I’m generally appreciative of Andrew Davies’ adaptations, so I have reasonable hopes for it, even if it differs from the book. I think I’ll see about watching it sometime this week.

Comment from Peter
Time April 9, 2011 at 9:29 am

South Riding recreates a whole era. I waited for the ebook. Now it is available in this form anyone can read it the moment they want to

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time April 11, 2011 at 8:53 am

It is a great and ambitious book. Ebooks hold no appeal for me whatsoever, I’m afraid. I’m too fond of my physical library!

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