South Riding has been a prime example for me of the influence fellow bloggers can have over your reading habits. Hype generally puts me off a book, that and BBC screen adaptations (with the exception, of course, of The Crimson Petal and the White) however, I ended up reading so many glowing reviews of both the novel and the absorbing personal life of its author that I was blindsided into purchasing the highly attractive Virago reprint – apparently based on an old Yorkshire Railways poster, which is just superbly apt I think.
Being a Northerner, if not a Yorkshire-woman, myself and desperate to acquaint myself with all the real classics I have yet to read, this tale of a feisty, London headmistress landing in a remote part of Yorkshire to inspire the young, and often very poor local women, seemed right up my street. As I’m sure any of you acquainted with the author are aware, Winifred Holtby led an exceedingly interesting, highly politicised life but sadly died in her late thirties, with this novel published posthumously by intimate friend and author Vera Brittain.
Her portrait of an imagined portion of West Yorkshire, sorely suffering from the Depression and mammoth hangover of the first World War, seems largely considered to be her finest work and contains a cast of characters so large that, although many of you I’m sure will be disappointed with me saying this, my attention span began to waver as I was introduced to wave after wave of local government busybodies to get to grips with. Although headmistress Sarah Burton plays a key role in the shape and thrust of Holtby’s narrative, it seems that the central character in this novel is the community itself, with people appearing to represent certain ideologies and types rather than the focus lying on the personal stories of the individuals themselves (I can practically hear everyone clamouring to disagree with me on this!) Although the backgrounds of Robert Carne, Sarah Burton, Lydia Holly and other, considerably less prominent personages are explored, I felt so overwhelmed by the minutiae of local politics and the ideologies at war (e.g Carne vs Burton = reactionary vs progressive) that my reading slightly suffered at its expense. Characters I felt I barely knew (e.g. Joe Astell and Sarah Burton) suddenly became the closest of friends with me left having little understanding of how their relationship reached such a point.
The politicised element to this book made complete sense once I found the time to read up on Holtby’s own life and that of her mother; who was, unsurprisingly, the first female alderman in East Riding and a woman who was a model for the warmhearted yet influential Mrs Beddows, close friend and confidant of Robert Carne; a man for whom both she and Sarah Burton fall heavily (one more reluctantly and revealingly than the other.)
Putting my confusion and easily distracted reading of this book to one side; when Winifred Holtby chooses to zoom in on one particular event or person she does so beautifully, leaving me hungry for more. Her portrait of Lily Sawdon; a young, innkeeper’s wife who is slowly and very quietly dying of cancer, is extremely moving and her stoicism and love for her husband touched me very deeply. These wonderful snippets left me desperate to know what giving them more room to breathe could have meant for characters such as Lydia Holly; so enticing yet, all the same, kept at arms length.
Despite my misgivings (probably not helped by the fact that I took this book on holiday – hardly a sun lounger read) there is no doubt that Holtby has succeeded in creating a remarkable and worthy portrait of hardy, humble yet stunning region of the country – a love letter to Yorkshire and its people if you don’t mind that terrible cliché. It is easy when walking in the foothills and along the coasts of this region to fall into some kind of romance, but Holtby easily does away with this; speaking for plain, honest folk, some of whom (quite shockingly) lived in conditions akin to those in the slums of great industrial cities. With a strong female character at its centre, South Riding is worth a look, but, unlike me, I beg you do it in the right mood, in the right place and at the right time. What a travesty that this lady didn’t hang around long enough on this earth to give us more…