Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

Along with many other readers, I first discovered Winifred Holtby through her connection with Vera Brittain, whose memoir – The Testament of Youth – is considered a classic for its depiction of the impact of the Great War on the British middle classes, particularly the women. Holtby and Brittain were at Oxford together; after graduating the pair shared a flat in London where they went on to pursue their respective literary careers. Anderby Wold was Holtby’s first novel – an absorbing story of traditional Yorkshire farming folk grappling with the challenges of financial survival in an environment poised on the brink of great social change. I enjoyed it a great deal, especially the portrayal of the novel’s central character, Mary Robson, the rather headstrong joint-owner of Anderby Wold farm, situated in the East Riding region of Yorkshire.

When her errant father, Ben, died some ten years earlier leaving a multitude of debts, Mary married her steady but desperately unexciting cousin, John Robson, in order to secure a stable future for her family’s farm. It was a union borne out of necessity rather than passion or desire, especially given the large gap in their ages – Mary was just eighteen when she married John, a placid man in his early forties at the time. Now, after ten years of hard work on the farm and much scrimping and saving, the couple have made the final payment on the mortgage; thus Anderby Wold is financially secure, at least for the moment.

Anderby was hers. The mortgage was paid. That was worth anything; worth unlovely dresses made in the village, worth the constant strain of economy, worth the ten years’ intimacy with a man whose presence roused in her alternate irritation and disappointment. (p.23)

As the novel opens, John’s older sister, the formidable Sarah Bannister and her henpecked husband, Tom, are travelling to Anderby for a celebratory tea party to be hosted by the Robsons. Sarah – initially portrayed as a bitter and twisted woman – has always resented Mary for blighting John’s life. She considers Mary a selfish and conceited individual with little regard for John’s wishes and desires, especially given the fact that John had virtually given up work on his own farm at Littledale all those years ago in order to come to her aid at the Wold. Mary makes all the major decisions concerning the farm, with mild-mannered John deferring to the better judgement of his wife in virtually all matters. There is also a sense that Mary has let John down by failing to produce a child, someone to carry on the family name and tradition – a feeling that emerges a couple of times in the story. In this scene, we are privy to Sarah’s uncensored thoughts as her cart approaches the Robsons’ estate.

In a quarter of an hour they would be at Anderby Wold. That was where Ben had died over ten years ago, and where John had called to see if he could do anything for Mary – eighteen-year-old Mary, left alone to cope with her father’s debts. Oh, but she was clever! She knew that John was capable of managing two farms as well as one. Six month’s tribute had been paid to decorum before she had married him – poor John being too guileless to understand her cleverness. And, for the hundredth time since the marriage, Sarah had to enter John’s house as his wife’s guest. It was hard. (p. 6) 

Various aunts and uncles, cousins and other family members have come together to toast the Robsons’ achievement in paying off their mortgage. Holtby does a great job in drawing out the family tensions, particularly those between Mary and her cousin, Sarah. Nothing that Mary can do will ever be good enough for Sarah, the woman who thinks she knows John better than anyone else in the family fold. Nevertheless, as the story progresses, the reader can see that Sarah cares very deeply for her rather sensitive brother – ultimately, a slightly softer side of her personality emerges as it becomes clear that she only has John’s best interests at heart.

The Robsons are conventional folk, and their families have worked the land in pretty much the same way year in year out for several centuries. They believe in traditional values and morals, treating their workers with respect and consideration, paying them a modest wage augmented by generous hospitality at the end of each harvest. While John works on the farm, Mary busies herself with a variety of charitable work in the village. She organises whist drives and social events in aid of the local school, visits the sick and infirm, and offers support where it is needed. In short, Mary likes to think of herself as absolutely indispensable to the community of Anderby.

The government of a kingdom was not always easy. Mary hated to be disliked. She loved to imagine herself the idolized champion of the poor and suffering, the serene mistress of bountiful acres, where the season was always harvest and the labourers worthy of their hire. Coast and Waite were somehow out of the picture. (p. 88)

While many of the villagers and farm workers appreciate Mary’s efforts, others remain somewhat immune to her charms. There are frequent disagreements with the local schoolteacher, Mr Coast, a man who resents Mary for having blocked his application for a more prestigious role outside of the village. The pair clash again when Mary refuses to sell a piece of land to the County Council, partly for sentimental reasons and partly to annoy Mr Coast who wishes to turn the ground into a playing field for the children. These interactions highlight a stubborn, dogmatic steak in Mary’s nature, a facet which makes her character seem all the more human and believable – naturally, we all have our own particular flaws and shortcomings, and Mary is no exception.

Perhaps above everything else, Mary is determined not to end up like the older women in the Robson family who gather together on Wednesday afternoons in nearby Market Burton, their lives revolving around banal talk of ailments, general gossip and the best methods for darning holes in socks. From one generation to the next, the elders have moved to the town after retiring from their farms, simply to wither away and die like old trees starved of a sense of life and vitality.

Then, into the relative stability of the Robsons’ world comes young David Rossitur, an enthusiastic socialist full of radical ideas for the implementation of social change in the valleys of East Riding. Rossitur favours a more generous living wage for all farm labourers over a reliance on the philanthropy or goodwill of their employers come harvest time. He stirs up everything in Mary’s world on both a professional and a personal level, encouraging her workers to join a labourers’ union to fight for their rights. Here’s a brief excerpt from one of Rossitur’s feisty but good-natured debates with Mary.

‘You stand for an ideal that is, thank Heaven, outworn. The new generation knocks at your door – a generation of men, independent, not patronized, enjoying their own rights, not the philanthropy of their exploiters, respecting themselves, not their so-called superiors. You can’t stop them, but they may stop you. You can’t shut them out, but they may shut you in.’ (p. 118)

Even though Rossitur ardently disagrees with everything Mary and her class represent – in particular, their strong beliefs in time-honoured principles and traditions – he finds himself captivated by her spirited personality. Mary, for her part, is equally attracted to Rossitur, stuck as she is in a stagnant marriage utterly devoid of any spark of excitement.

David regarded her across the table. She was maddening, with her amused complacency, her indifference to all his arguments. And yet kind, and intelligent too in a way, and not without a sense of social responsibility. Clearly a convert worth making. (p. 109)

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot. You can probably guess how the story plays out, but it’s fair to say that Holtby throws in a few surprises along the way. My only quibble relates to certain events towards the end of the novel, some of which feel a little contrived and heavy-handed – engineered to force a conclusion to the story.

The novel does a fine job of exploring various timely themes, including the balance between tradition and progression, the need to let go of the past, the rights of workers vs employers, the dynamics between the different social classes, and the tensions arising from family obligations. For a debut, it’s pretty good – well-written and engaging, with plenty of scope for further development of the relevant themes in subsequent novels. Holtby brings a strong sense of authenticity to this story, an element which stems from her knowledge and experience of the community she portrays here. For the most part, the main characters feel real and sufficiently fleshed out, their personalities are sketched in shades of grey rather than purely black or white. Mary, in particular, is fully realised on the page. While there are times when she is kind and considerate, there are occasions when another side of her character emerges, one that reveals a somewhat stubborn, selfish and self-protective streak to her nature. Nevertheless, I found it easy to warm to Mary in spite of her failings.

All in all, Anderby Wold is an interesting and convincing portrait of a community wrestling with the prospect of significant social change. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the dilemma that Mary faces as she contemplates an uncertain future ahead.

Between the generation that was passing and the one coming forward was a great gulf fixed – Mary and John were on one side. For a moment rebellion seized her. Why could she not relinquish this – the dim hills before her, the bearded figure beside her, the responsibilities that preyed upon her? Why not escape to the other side? (pp. 154-155)

Anderby Wold is published by Virago; personal copy.

33 thoughts on “Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

  1. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    This sounds like a delightful novel. I was introduced to Holtby through her novel South Riding. It is an excellent one and I think the first that I have read where the political groups that oversee a town are so elaborated upon. I think I remember reading that Holtby’s mother used to do that and hence she included it in her novel. The love story is heart breaking as well. I absolutely adored the novel and it was a favourite read that year. If you have not read it yet, I urge you to try it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, that’s great to hear. I have a copy of it to look forward to. I get the feeling that Anderby Wold (and maybe one or two of Holtby’s other early novels) was a sort of dress rehearsal for South Riding. The themes and settings do sound very similar. I wasn’t aware of Holtby’s mother’s involvement in local administration, but that certainly chimes with tensions she explores here.

      Reply
  2. clodge2013

    As always your reviews make me want to put down the book I’m reading and pick up the one you are reviewing. It’s so bad for my tbr.
    But thank you for this reminder about Anderby Wold. I made a recent visit to Yorkshire so the farm setting is easily visualised. And the issues Winifred Holtby raises in her novels are always interesting, especially the conflicts that the characters experience. Thank you.
    Caroline

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. It’s so lovely to hear this, even if it does mean that your TBR is taking a bit of a hit. Sorry! I’m glad my review revived a few memories of Anderby Wold for you. I think the author captures these characters so effectively, complete with all their preoccupations and personal beliefs – the various tensions really come through. And I can just imagine how a trip to Yorkshire would bring it to life even more – how fitting.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I didn’t catch the TV series at the time even though it sounded very good. Anna Maxwell Martin was in it, wasn’t she? I’m sure I’ve seen her face on a tv tie-in edition. (Not that I’m a fan of those tie-in covers – I’d much rather have one in this ‘landscape style instead. I agree, they’re very appealing.)

      On the strength of Anderby, I’d say it well worth considering Holtby. It’s pretty solid for a debut, good old-fashioned storytelling in the most positive sense of the phrase. Probably not up there with the best of her novels, but a very enjoyable read nonetheless.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s great. I’ll be interested to see what you think of her, especially compared to some of the other Virago authors you’ve been reading recently.

          Reply
  3. Guy Savage

    I bought this after watching the miniseries of South Riding. Holtby sounded interesting.
    I often chew over choices/sacrifices people make to hang onto a home or a piece of land. These situations can be a sort of prison, and it seems as though that issue is examined here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I latched onto her via the connection with Vera Brittain. She was writing about an interesting period in history, especially for these small rural communities where time-honoured traditions run deep. It’s not the most gripping of novels, but the sense of authenticity really shines through. I think you’d like it, especially given your interest in the choices people make to maintain some kind of holding. That’s very much a central theme here – it drives almost all of Mary’s actions and decisions in life.

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent and very perceptive review Jacqui. I confess to owning several Holtbys and never having got round to them but I really must. I like it when my characters are nuanced and the fact that Mary is allowed to have faults sounds like it adds to the novel. The extracts you quote are very appealing!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’m glad you like the feel of the quotes. Hopefully they will tempt you to pluck one of Holtby’s novels from your collection to give her a go! I doubt whether she is in the same league as Elizabeth Taylor or Mollie Panter-Downes when it comes to subtlety or nuance, but she is worth reading. Her themes are interesting and relevant, and there’s an honesty/authenticity to this novel that really shines through.

      I like the fact that Mary isn’t painted as a saintly heroine here as those natural human failings make her all the more believable. We all have our own individual shortcomings and rough edges, so it’s good to see these reflected in the characters we read about in fiction.

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary as always Jacqui.

    This sounds very good. Change in society can create the backdrop for so many good stories. Final Mortgage Payments also often mark milestones in a lot of fictional stories.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, indeed. In some ways, it reads like a classic novel from the 19th century. I think you’d find it interesting, especially when viewed alongside some of the other British classics you’ve been reading recently.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I really enjoyed this too. It was just what I needed to read at the time, something straightforward and well-written with believable characters and relevant themes. Nothing too flashy, just good old-fashioned storytelling (and I mean that in the most positive sense of the phrase).

      Thank you for encouraging me to read her – I know she’s a great favourite of yours. South Riding Is on the list for sure – luckily I have copy to look forward to. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think she wrote about a very interesting period for these rural communities, clearly a time of great social change. It must have been very hard for these farming families to move on from the old time-honoured traditions in order to make way for new ideas and ways of working. It’s a theme that still feels fairly relevant today – even though the context is different, the challenges and principles remain the same.

      Reply
  6. Sarah

    I’ve only read one Holtby novel, ‘The Land of Green Ginger’, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I do have a copy of ‘Anderby Wold’ lurking on my shelves somewhere, and your compelling review has made me want to abandon my current book and get stuck in!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely. There’s something very engaging about her writing. I really enjoyed this one, in a low-key kind of way. It’s definitely worth digging out.

      Reply
  7. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock

    A lovely review. I think that ‘South Riding’ was Hotlby’s masterpiece and noting else she wrote is as good, but I haven’t read a book of hers I haven’t liked, and all of them have had something interesting to say.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. That’s great to hear. Everyone seems to love South Riding, but it’s good to know that her others have something interesting to offer too. I’m hoping to read more of her in the future.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      For you, I would definitely recommend One Fine Day ahead of this. It’s more your type of thing – well, as far as I can tell from your responses to other writers such as Woolf and Taylor. I think you’d find MPD’s style very interesting, more so than Holtby’s which is pretty straight down the line. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there a time and a place for everything.)

      Yes, I seem to be on a semi-permanent post-WW2 kick these days – or maybe an early-mid 20th-century kick, just to stretch it out a bit! With the exception of books I have to read for book group (The Loney, The Sellout, Dodgers etc.), I can’t recall the last time I picked up a contemporary novel. That may well change at some point, but probably not in the immediate future. There are too many older books on my shelves right now.

      Actually, I should have made this clear in my review, but Anderby seems to be set in the early 1900s. It was written in 1923, but the setting is earlier – pre-WW1, I think. :)

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    Though women writers have often been unfairly treated when it comes to being taken seriously (and therefore prizes) at least many of them were published, which always allows for them to be rediscovered – as you seem to be doing these days! I often wish I could find some coherence in my own reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very true. I have discovered some wonderful women writers over the past few years, mostly via recommendations from other readers and bloggers. This seems to have become my ‘heartland’ area of reading, certainly in terms of character-driven fiction. (Mind you, I’ll still be reading the occasional noir/hard-boiled novel or two – they’re so hard to resist!)

      Reply
  9. bookbii

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I’ve only ever come across South Riding by Hotlby, which is probably her most famous novel, and to my shame I have a copy sitting on the shelf which, as usual, remains unread. I must get around to it. This sounds like a very humane and accomplished novel, centred on lives which might otherwise go unnoticed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. As a means of describing this novel, humane is spot-on. There’s something very honest and authentic about it. In spite of the moments of drama, it’s gentle and unshowy in a positive way. I think you’re right to point out that Holtby writes about the challenges and small dramas in lives that might otherwise go unnoticed – that’s a great way of summarising it.

      Reply
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