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.