by Winifred Holtby
Publication Date: April 12, 1936
Genre: classic, fiction
Project: a century of women
Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Winifred Holtby's greatest novel was published posthumously
Winifred Holtby's masterpiece is a rich evocation of the lives and relationships of the characters of South Riding. Sarah Burton, the fiery young headmistress of the local girls' school; Mrs Beddows, the district's first alderwoman—based on Holtby's own mother; and Robert Carne, the conservative gentleman-farmer locked in a disastrous marriage—with whom the radical Sarah Burton falls in love. Showing how public decisions can mold the individual, this story offers a panoramic and unforgettable view of Yorkshire life.
I did struggle with this book at the beginning. There were too many characters, and I do maintain that Winifred Holtby spent far too much time on people who were not Sarah Burton, Emma Beddows or Robert Carne, most particularly Reverend Huggins, about whose hypocrisy I simply could not care, and the Sawdon storyline, with poor Lily dying of some sort of cancerous tumor. This is not a book written for the 2018 attention-span, which has been decimated by the influence of social media and our tendency to flit from one thing to the next. It’s a deep dive, not a surface treatment.
And once I let myself really get going in the book, I fell in love.
Sarah Burton, the schoolmistress of the South Riding girl’s school, is a marvelous character. Unmarried, by choice, not necessity –
She had been engaged to marry three different men. The first, a college friend, was killed on the Somme in 1916; the second, a South African farmer, irritated her with his political dogmatism until they quarrelled furiously and irreparably; the third, an English Socialist member of Parliament, withdrew in alarm when he found her feminism to be not merely academic but insistent.
– she said of herself:
“No chance of a love-affair here in the South Riding and a good thing too. I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin.
Her story was the one that I loved the most – a youngish, not especially pretty but still immensely attractive woman who has managed by sheer force of will to get a school for herself. She sees the future in her girls, a future that doesn’t require them to give up themselves for a man. As she says to them (in possibly my favorite quote of the book):
Question your government’s policy, question the arms race, question the Kingsport slums, and the economics over feeding school children, and the rule that makes women have to renounce their jobs on marriage, and why the derelict areas still are derelict. This is a great country, and we are proud of it, and it means much that is most lovable. But questioning does not mean the end of loving, and loving does not mean the abnegation of intelligence.
There are dozens of amazing quotes, like the one above, and so much truth here. Emma Beddows was my second favorite character – a seventyish woman who is also a local Alderman, who sees the role of local government as the place where things get done. She says of herself:
I’m an old woman. But when you’re seventy you don’t always feel old. I know I don’t. There are times when you find yourself thinking of yourself as a girl. “Now the girl went downstairs.” “Now the girl put her hat on.” And then you look in the glass and there’s a stiff heavy lump of an elderly person facing you, your face all wrinkles and the life gone out of your limbs. But you can still feel young.
South Riding is a book that focuses on the public and private lives of women. The men are, largely, foils to the women, especially the bankrupt gentleman farmer, Robert Carne, who ends up as the object of devoted passion by both Miss Burton and Mrs. Beddows, though that passion is quite different between the women. It’s not a love story, though, unless the love is love of independence, of purpose, of a woman’s life lived beyond hearth and home, as this exchange between Mrs. Beddows and Sarah Burton illustrates:
‘You don’t believe then in a higher Providence?’
‘Not if it means just knuckling under as soon as things grow difficult, and calling that God’s will. I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.’ . . .
We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.
“Take what you want,” says God. “Take it and pay for it.”
I think that South Riding will hold up well to rereads, and that I will likely get something new out of every reading. A story written around the activities of the local parish government is, perhaps, an odd way to tell a story about a place, but it works incredibly well here. And Winifred Holtby wasn’t wrong when she said:
‘all this local government, it’s just people working together – us ordinary people, against the troubles that afflict us all.’
Even with what seemed like a slow beginning, this was a five star read for me.