South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Set in a fictional district of Yorkshire in the early 1930s, South Riding is an epic, life-affirming novel which explores issues of poverty, social mobility and the value of education. On one level, it is an ensemble piece structured around the workings of local government, their impact on the district of South Riding and the people who live there. It is also a feminist book, one concerned with the destinies of women from different points along the social spectrum, both young and old. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I loved this thoroughly absorbing novel, a definite five-star read for me.

Central to Holtby’s story is Sarah Burton, a forty-year-old unmarried woman, newly appointed to the role of headmistress at the local girls’ school. With her flaming red hair and forthright nature, Sarah is far from the archetypal mousy spinster; instead she is bright, optimistic and fiercely committed to the development of young women. Having seen something of the world and life in London, Sarah is returning to Yorkshire, the county of her birth, intent on preparing her girls for life and the challenges it will present to them.

Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by a still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies, and to inoculate their spirit with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight. She knew how to teach; she knew how to awaken interest. (p. 49)

While Sarah’s appointment to the school receives significant support, one governor votes against the motion which passes nonetheless. The opponent is Robert Carne, a rather conservative farmer who remains wedded to the values and traditions of the past. In truth, Carne bears a bit of a grudge against Sarah following a run-in with her drunken father many years earlier – an incident from the past which he recalls on learning of Sarah’s former ties to the area.

There is something of the Jane Eyre-Mr Rochester dynamic about Sarah’s relationship with Carne, especially as the novel unfolds. While Carne appears formal and proud, there is a softer, more humane side to his personality too – one that Sarah discovers as she gets to know him better. In truth, Crane is a tortured soul, a man damaged by a difficult marriage. As his farm continues to struggle, Carne must find a way of paying for the care of his troubled wife in a private mental institution, a commitment that represents a major drain on his resources. Plus, there is the Carnes’ fourteen-year-old daughter Midge, a somewhat wayward child who is need of a steadying influence in her life, ideally a feminine one.

Also pivotal to the novel’s themes are the impoverished Holly family who live a cluster of old railway carriages known as ‘the shacks’. Fourteen-year-old Lydia Holly is the eldest girl in a family of seven children, a fiercely intelligent individual burdened by the weight of an ailing mother and a useless but good-natured father. Sarah knows that Lydia Holly is by far the best prospect the school has to offer – pupils like Lydia only come along once in a lifetime – but she is also aware that family responsibilities may scupper the girl’s future. When circumstances conspire to force Lydia to leave school, Sarah must find a way of enabling her to come back. A good education is the best route out of poverty for Lydia, just as it proved to be the making of Sarah herself.

[Mrs Beddows] ‘My dear, you know there are other things in life besides book-learning. What if she does give up her scholarship and doesn’t go to college? There’ll be one school teacher less, and perhaps one fine woman and wife the more. Is that such a tragedy?’

[Sarah Burton] ‘Yes, yes. All waste is tragedy. To waste deliberately a rare, a unique capacity, that’s downright wicked. It’s treason to the human stock. We need trained intelligence.’

‘What about trained character?’

‘Oh, that too, yes. I believe in discipline – but not frustration.’

‘You believe very much in having your own way, don’t you?’

Sarah looked up in surprise. The room was twilit. The alderman’s face was turned away from the window.

‘I believe,’ said Sarah gravely, ‘in being used to the furthest limit of one’s capacity.’ (pp. 196-197)

Alongside the domestic concerns of the likes of Hollys, Holtby is also keen to delve into the workings of local government – both as a catalyst for social improvement and a vehicle for abuse and corruption. The proposal to build a new road through an area of land in South Riding acts as a focal point here, a thread that runs through the narrative like a spine. While the project offers opportunities for development – improvements to transport, new housing, more jobs – the scheme is also open to abuse, particularly by the likes of Alderman Snaith, a slippery man who preys on the vulnerabilities of others. There are examples of misinformation, manipulation and personal gain, all of which serve to illustrate that local government decisions may not always be made for purely altruistic reasons.

We also meet Alderman Emma Beddows, a seventy-year-old woman almost certainly inspired in part by the author’s own mother, Alice Holtby. A supporter of Sarah’s, Emma Beddows appears to hold something of a candle for Robert Crane, viewing him as a potential partner in spite of their differences in age. In time, however, Mrs Beddows recognises her feeling towards Carne are more akin to that of a mother for her son-in-law, particularly once she assumes the role of surrogate grandmother to Midge.

Also worthy of a mention is Miss Sigglesthwaite, the hopelessly ineffective science teacher, a rather tragic creature who finds herself the object of ridicule at the hands of Midge Carne and her fellow classmates. In truth, Sarah Burton would like to replace Miss Sigglesthwaite with a better role model for her pupils; her only hope is that the Sig will resign, freeing up the position for a more dynamic teacher to join the staff.

While Holtby’s canvas is broad and ambitious, the characters themselves feel deeply personal and convincing. We gain such insights into their lives – their hopes and fears, their dreams and preoccupations. While the book is ultimately inspiring and life-affirming, it is also underscored by a sense of mortality. At The Nag’s Head, Lily Sawdon knows she is dying of cancer, too frightened to confide in her husband for fear of his reaction; at the Carnes’ farm, foreman Castle is very poorly, unlikely to see another season in the fields of the estate; in the council, Jo Astell, Sarah’s altruistic socialist ally, is battling with tuberculosis. Meanwhile, the spectre of war seems to be everywhere – not only the fallout following WW1 but the threat of another conflict just hovering on the horizon.

In writing the novel, Holtby – an ardent feminist, socialist and pacifist – drew on the experiences of her mother, Alice Holtby, the first woman to be appointed to the position of alderman on East Riding County Council. While Alice Holtby initially opposed the book, Vera Brittain – Winifred’s great friend and literary executor – ensured it was published posthumously following Winifred’s untimely death in 1935 (she was just 37 at the time).

There is an unmistakable sense of authenticity here, an author writing about a place she knows intimately and the heartbreak of the people who inhabit it. It’s a brilliant achievement – a novel rich with progressive values and a strong emotional heart. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it in this piece. Very highly recommended, particularly for readers with an interest in social change.

South Riding is published by Virago; personal copy.

60 thoughts on “South Riding by Winifred Holtby

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. I would like to watch the TV series, especially as I enjoyed the book so much. It’s Anna Maxwell-Martin, isn’t it? She’s always great value in these things, spirited enough to bring a bit of feistiness to the role.

      Reply
  1. MarinaSofia

    I don’t know how I never quite got around to reading this one, because it is precisely the sort of thing I would love, a combination of strong characterisation and description of social change. Will try and find it at the library.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great – I’ll think you’ll like it. The feminist themes are nicely done and delivered with a real sense of energy – much of which stems from Sarah’s natural drive for advancement. It’s the sort of novel I wish I’d come across as a teenager, an inspirational read to stimulate the mind.

      Reply
      1. BookerTalk

        I could not finish The Librarian and most of our book club thought it was poor despite many good reviews on line. It’s nowhere like as good as South Riding.

        Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui. I’ve yet to read Holtby, like so many of the classic Viragos, and yet I do want to – particularly with its focus on social change and the lives of women. Must try to move it up the pile…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely my favourite of the three I’ve read so far – so if you’re thinking of tackling any of them, this would be the one I’d recommend you try. In some ways, Holtby’s debut novel, Anderby Wold, could be considered as a kind of ‘rehearsal’ for South Riding as some of the central themes are similar (e.g the dynamic between tradition and progression; the need/desire for women to be more than wives and mothers; the hardships of rural life in the early 20th century…etc. etc.)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d definitely like to see the TV series, particularly as this was my favourite of the three. Anderby Wold was good, especially for a debut, but this is in a different league – it’s broader and more ambitious.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Wonderful review, you have really brought this novel back to me, easily my favourite Holtby novel. I loved Sarah and the Holly family, and found the description of local government fascinating and realistic.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great. Thank you. It’s easily my favourite of the three I’ve read so far. I was just saying to Karen how Anderby Wold could almost be seen as a kind of rehearsal for some of the themes Holtby chose to explore here, particularly the rate of social change and its impact of the role of women. Like you, I loved the characterisation – individuals you can believe and invest in, drawn in such a way to elicit the reader’s sympathies in spite of their individual flaws and failings.

      Reply
  4. bookbii

    Lovely review, Jacqui. My copy of South RIding is mouldering on the shelf (like so many others) but you’ve definitely inspired me to bump it up the queue. I love those quotes, how evocative and sharp they are. So much is revealed in those little character snap-shots. If the rest of the book is as perceptive, I am sure I will love it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, do bump it up the tbr pile! I genuinely think you’d enjoy this one, Belinda. It’s passionate and inspirational, rich in progressive values and ideals. And yet it’s also very readable – the sort of classic you can sink into and enjoy as the characters’ lives unfold. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
  5. buriedinprint

    Oh, I just loved this one too. And, despite the length, it’s one I often think of rereading. You are in for a treat with the series as well: enjoy! (I loved Poor Caroline too, but it’s so much shorter.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it too. It certainly feels rich and detailed enough to stand up to a second reading. In some ways I wish I’d discovered it as a young girl, closer in age to Lydia Holly than I am these days. :)

      Reply
  6. Nat

    I love this book and very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on it, especially as it’s been quite some time since I read it. In addition to the miniseries mentioned by others, there is a 1938 film directed by Victor Saville with Ralph Richardson as Carne. I remember quite enjoying it, though it might be harder to find.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Nat. That means a lot coming from you, particularly as you’re such a fan of the book! I recall you recommending it very highly when I posted a pic of my TBR on Twitter a few months ago, so thank you for the nudge – that definitely helped to bump it up the pile.

      Thanks, also for the tip about the earlier adaptation – I wasn’t aware of that at all. Worth seeking out by the sound of things, especially with Ralph Richardson in a key role…I’ll have a look for it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, possibly…I know she features briefly in the recent film adaptation of a Testament of Youth, the one with Alicia Vikander in the lead role. Is that the one you’re thinking of or something different?

      Reply
        1. gina in alabama

          Yes, i remember it being a British production, shown on US tv by PBS as part of the Masterpiece Theater series, back in the 80s. I recall it was quite well done.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s more of an ensemble piece than the synopsis suggests. In many ways, that illustrates Holtby’s strength in storytelling and characterisation, touching on different members of the community as the narrative unfolds. Glad to hear you enjoyed it too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I need to revisit The Crowded Street at some point, maybe once I’ve read one or two of her others. It’s a novel I probably undervalued at the time…

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    I’ve not read Holtby yet but I feel I’ve read a lot about her – I’m glad she is getting more attention. The story of Lydia is repeated in many Scottish novels – though the teacher and pupil are generally male!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I did wonder if there might be some similarities with certain Scottish writers, Lewis Grassic Gibbon perhaps? Particularly in terms of the rural setting and focus on the local community. My knowledge of Scottish lit is woefully inadequate, so you might have to point me in the right direction here!

      Reply
  8. Simon T

    Rachel and I are planning to do this on our podcast soon, as I’ve been meaning to read it since forever. Glad it struck such a chord with you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I shall look forward to that episode. It’s an excellent book, full of progressive thoughts and ideals. Plenty to get your teeth into there…

      Reply
  9. hopewellslibraryoflife

    Excellent review. I’m guessing Julian Fellowes pulled from this a bit for the one love interest he gave Tom after Sybil died on Downton Abbey. Interesting. I’ve known of this book forever ut haven’t given it a go. Maybe I will now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I haven’t been watching Downtown Abbey, so it’s difficult for me to comment on that. I’ll take your word for it though; I’m sure it’s been an influence on other works over the years. :)

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    Lucky me. It’s on my piles. I know I will like it. The characters sound like they are drawn really well. I came across Holtby when I read Vera Brittain. So sad that she lost her friend so early.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes, of course! I recall your posts about Vera Brittain, her life and various letters from the First World War. I think you’ll love this book, especially given the connection between Holtby and Vera Brittain. As you say, it’s a tragedy that this author died at such a young age, at the height of her powers with South Riding. The loss must have been heartbreaking for Vera Brittain, particularly in light what happened to her loved ones during the war.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          It’s hard to imagine how she ever came to terms with those losses. I don’t think you can ever fully recover from something as devastating as that, only try to live life as best you can…

          Reply
  11. robinandian2013

    I don’t know of any other book about local government. It’s a rare topic – but made a good book in Holtby’s hands.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it sounds like a very dry topic, doesn’t it? But not in Winifred Holtby’s hands – it’s a novel with a real sense of passion, a desire to make a difference.

      Reply
  12. clodge2013

    Great review. I loved this book, including it in the older women in fiction series on Bookword, for the alderman. You have identified its positive post-war optimism and I think that’s a strong theme despite all the poverty. And Winifred Holtby was such a strong believer, with Vera Brittain, in the power of women.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I’m glad you loved it too. It’s an excellent book, rich with the stuff of life both positive and negative. I think it’s that optimism in the face of poverty and adversity that makes it such an inspirational read. Alderman Beddows is an interesting character, particularly in light of the link to Holtby’s own mother, Alice. I must take a look at your review…just adding it to my list of things to read next week.

      Reply
  13. madamebibilophile

    This sounds wonderful Jacqui. I have it in the TBR and I was keen to read it anyway, but you’ve made me move it to the top of the pile! Like Susan, I also enjoyed the BBC series, but having not read the book I don’t know how faithful it was.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s really good, so involving and inspirational – the sort of book you can sink into and enjoy as the story develops. I think Holtby does a great job in treating these characters sympathetically without shying away from their individual faults and failings. In many ways, it feels as if she was working up to this novel by mapping out some of the groundwork in her debut, Anderby Wold. I’ve put the BBC adaptation of South Riding on my DVD rental list, so hopefully it’ll turn up in the next month or two. Glad to hear you enjoyed it too!

      Reply
  14. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. realthog

    I somehow managed to miss out on Holtby when she was in vogue (I think I read one of them, but now haven’t the first clue which it was, if indeed I did.) Another author I really ought to try to get back to. Your stirring review of this one encourages me!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I only came across her through her link with Vera Brittain (as depicted in the relatively recent film adaptation of Testament of Youth). South Riding is widely considered to be her masterpiece, so if you’re thinking of trying any of her books this is the one to go for! It’s definitely very compelling.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Cool! It’s a good book to have at hand. One for a dull weekend or a few dark winter nights. I’m hoping to watch the BBC mini series at some point, whenever it moves to the top of the rental list.

          Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Yes. Nat was saying earlier that he’s seen the Ralph Richardson one, although it might be difficult to track down these days. The Dorothy Tutin version sounds interesting too. I see a little mini season coming on…

              Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, do dig it out. I think you’ll find it a really interesting and inspiring read, especially given the connection with Vera Brittain. I must get around to reading Testament of Youth at some point as it’s definitively my kind of era. My only worry is that I might find it too sad and poignant to read…

      Reply
  16. Pingback: Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby | JacquiWine's Journal

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