Joan Lindsey

Gone Girls, 1900 Edition

Title: Picnic at Hanging Rock
Author: Joan Lindsey
Published in 1967

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .

Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a small book, only 224 pages, that packs an outsize punch. I can’t remember where I stumbled on it – if it was through blogging or goodreads, or just by following one of the bookish rabbit trails that I find myself chasing when I start looking at books. It’s set in Australia, written by an Australian writer, so it fulfills the category “Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania” for my Back to the Classics Challenge.

It is set up as a mystery – in 1900, three girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies, Miranda, Marion and Irma, and one of their instructors, Miss McCraw, disappear on a Valentine’s Day picnic in the Australian countryside, at a place called Hanging Rock. Hanging Rock is a real place, a volcanic rock formation in central Victoria.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is not a true story, but Lindsey presents it as though it is, with newspaper clippings and other bits of ephemera that lend verisimilitude to the story. The book takes off from the disappearance, and follows the ramifications to the school, the headmistress, and the other students.

As the word of the disappearance leaks out, families begin to withdraw their daughters from the school, which leads to the school struggling to stay afloat and creates stress for the headmistress, Miss Appleyard. In addition, one of the girls, Sara, had been in trouble and was not allowed to go to the picnic and her mental health deteriorates rapidly. She disappears as well, although the mystery of her disappearance is solved. One of the girls, Irma, is found alive, but dehydrated and with no memory of what happened to her friends within a few days of the disappearance. She recovers, but is unable to describe or explain what has happened to her friends.

The story is intriguing as the members of the local community grapple with the events and try to understand what has happened. This is not a book that has a neat resolution. It’s not crime fiction, it’s not horror, it is mostly a slim narration of an unexplained, and inexplicable, event that is perfectly satisfied to leave questions unanswered.

Finishing it was, admittedly, a bit unsatisfying and frustrating. I began googling and found information in Wikipedia that suggested that there had been a final chapter that was left out of the book that contained the solution to the riddle. Having now read a summary of the chapter – and I would recommend waiting until after reading the book to do this – I agree with the publishers that the better decision was to leave the ending ambiguous. Because this is a story about what happens after, not what happened before, and it’s fully realized just taking it from that perspective.

The comparison to Shirley Jackson is not perfect, because Picnic at Hanging Rock lacks the undercurrent of dread that Jackson’s best novels, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, created so perfectly. But she’s probably the best comparison that I can come up with, because that sense of pervasive unease is present all through Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s a slim book, but is one worth reading.

Agatha Christie

You’re Not Over The Hill If You Can Still Match Wits With German Spies

Title: N or M?
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Tommy and Tuppence #3
Published in 1941

Plot summary from Goodreads: It is World War II, and while the RAF struggles to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, Britain faces an even more sinister threat from “the enemy within”—Nazis posing as ordinary citizens.

With pressure mounting, the intelligence service appoints two unlikely spies, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their mission: to seek out a man and a woman from among the colorful guests at Sans Souci, a seaside hotel. But this assignment is no stroll along the promenade—N and M have just murdered Britain’s finest agent and no one at all can be trusted. . .

This review cross posted on Cannonball Read here

This is the year that I will finish reading Agatha Christie, and what that means is that I have just a few left, and the ones that are left are not her best work. I long ago read And Then There Were None, along with all of the rest of the Poirot mysteries. I’ve finished Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, and most of Marple (although I am saving Sleeping Murder for the end, because I’ve heard that it doesn’t suck).

When I started figuring out which titles I had left, I realized that I had almost all of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This is the third in the series, following The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime. When we left Tommy and Tuppence, at the end of Partners in Crime, Tuppence had just announced to Tommy that she was pregnant (after ridding the world of an espionage ring). In N or M?, many years have passed, and the twins, Deborah and Derek, are both young adults.

N or M? was published in 1941, in the midst of WWII, and, at the beginning of the book, Tommy and Tuppence are feeling their age. They can’t find anyone to give them an opportunity to serve Britain in the war, and they are a bit down in the mouth about it: the secret service doesn’t want Tommy, and Tuppence has been turned down for a nursing slot. Their children, in the inimitable manner of young people, have cheerfully decided that mum and dad should shuffle off and spend the war years in a decline somewhere.

One of the best things about Tommy and Tuppence is Tommy and Tuppence. They still have their signature witty banter, and their relationship is good fun. Even after all these years, they still like each other alot, and it shows in their interactions. Occasionally, things get a bit twee with the pair, and there is an annoyingly adorable plot moppet named Betty who accidentally reveals a secret while she is babbling on with Tuppence. When a man approaches Tommy to take on a job rooting out a pair of German spies (code name N and M) without Tuppence, Tuppence is having none of it. He sneaks off to Sans Souci, a seaside boarding house where intelligence suggests the spies are operative. When he arrives there, Tuppence is sitting in the common room knitting a balaclava. Point one to Tuppence.

Christie’s espionage stories are never as good as her straight up mysteries, and this one dragged for about the first 30%. Things do pick up, though, when Betty is kidnapped, and then Tommy goes missing and Tuppence must figure out the identity of the spies with the help of one of Deborah’s friends, Anthony Marsdon, who is a young code breaker. Bring in their old retainer, Albert, and the book comes to a solid and entertaining conclusion. I figured out half of the solution, which with Christie is about as good as it gets.

If you’ve never read Christie, definitely don’t start here. If you already like Tommy and Tuppence, give this one a go – while they are slightly less effervescent in N or M? than they were all the way back in The Secret Adversary, the characters are still a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a place to start reading Christie, though, start with one of her best: And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

A Century of Women, Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Title: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
Author: Barbara Comyns
Published in 1950

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Sophia is twenty-one and naïve when she marries fellow artist Charles. She seems hardly fonder of her husband than she is of her pet newt; she can’t keep house (everything she cooks tastes of soap); and she mistakes morning sickness for the aftereffects of a bad batch of strawberries. England is in the middle of the Great Depression, and the money Sophia makes from the occasional modeling gig doesn’t make up for her husband’s indifference to paying the rent. Predictably, the marriage falters; not so predictably, Sophia’s artlessness will be the very thing that turns her life around.

“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.”

Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Her winsome, stream of consciousness narrative is misleading – the early part of the book beguiles the reader into thinking that this is a piece of cheery, lively fiction about a young married couple starting their lives. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. The book is set in the 1930’s, during the global depression between the two wars.

That sense of optimism rapidly devolves into something more akin to horror. Sophia conceives, and having never received even the tiniest bit of education about the reproduction process, is surprised. She believed that just wishing to NOT have a baby would work to counteract conception. No one is happy about this baby – they are too young and too poor and no one is willing to see Charles clearly for what he is.

Which is a dead loss as a human being. He, initially, lives off of Sophia, his father having stopped his allowance once he married. Sophia is working at a commercial studio, and is fired once she has to admit she is pregnant. Her sense of pride prevents her from admitting that this is a terrible hardship. Even after she is let go, Charles does nothing to try to contribute the family coffers.

His family is terrible, blaming Sophia both for the pregnancy, as though she managed that on her own, and for interfering with his ability to develop his great artistic talent. Everyone, including Sophia, seems to accept that it is Sophia’s responsibility to keep the young couple in food and housing. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia’s class to work.

The chapters that address the birth of Sophia’s son, Sandro, are harrowing. Comyns describes the process of labor in a charity hospital in both explicit and horrifying detail. She is dragged from room to room, never told what to expect, and subjected to the most awful indignities, and once the birth is over, her son is removed to the infant room and she doesn’t see him for two days.

It actually gets worse from here. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. Through it all, Sophia’s voice remains mostly optimistic and always convincing.

This is, more or less, a book about poverty – about how it grinds and about the experience of being completely powerless due to structural inequalities, such as male supremacy and class-based oppression. Reading it pissed me off, I was so angry at everyone: Charles, for being such an irredeemable asshole; Charles’s family for being so monstrously uncaring, and, even, Sophia, for not seeming to find her situation as intolerable as I did. She was so captive to her own circumstances that it seemingly never occurred to her that she should’ve been able to expect more from her husband and family.

There is one briefly satisfying moment when she loses her temper. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. Charles promises to bring her some money in time for lunch, but he blows her off. When it comes time to leave

“I waited to see if he would come fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry too. When I arrived home, I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it.”

Even then, though, Sophia is made to feel that she is in the wrong. “I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead.”

It took me some significant contemplation yesterday to figure out why I had such an emotional response to this book, and it was only after I admitted to myself that I felt a strong sympathy for Sophia based upon a bit of my personal history that it made sense. When I was 21, I married my own Charles – a man who was just fine with living off of me while he attended (and ultimately failed to graduate from) law school, as I worked full-time and went to college to support us.

After I graduated from undergraduate, I applied to and was accepted to law school and left the city where I had done my undergrad. My husband was, originally, supposed to move with me, but he had mucked up his final year in law school badly and had to complete an additional term, so I went alone. Back then, first year law students had to sign a contract that they couldn’t work. Our agreement was that he would get a job and send me money for food. I needed that money to eat.

I had a scholarship to cover my tuition, and some of my rent, and I had some savings, but I was wary of running out of money. My entire financial house of cards was built on getting a little bit of money from my husband, a couple of hundred dollars a month, who hadn’t worked during our entire marriage, but who was able to work because he only had a couple of classes to finish that term.

He sent me one check. It bounced. I had never experienced hunger before, and like Sophia, I was far too proud to tell anyone how broke I was. In retrospect, that is such an act of callousness that I would have been more than justified in ending the marriage. I didn’t. I took a few things that I could scrape together and I pawned them for $50.00 so I could buy some food, and then I began secretly temping for about 10 hours a week to make a little bit of money. I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese for a couple of weeks until my first paycheck came through. No one at the school found out, so I was able to do enough of this to pay for my groceries.

As you can probably imagine at this point in the story, the marriage failed completely about six months later. But reading this book brought it all back – the rage, the helplessness, the sense of confusion, the reality no one knew that I was married to a child and I was suffering. And I was 24, and it was a completely different time. Women were able to work, and I didn’t have children (thank god I didn’t have children), but I was still tied to this worthless asshole who didn’t care that I was hungry. And I internalized all of this by concluding that, somehow, I was at fault for all of it, and my loyalty to this failure of a person prevented me from asking anyone for help.

I think probably all women have a story like this.

Even with the grim subject matter, though, there is something fresh and appealing about both Sophia and the book that I can’t really explain. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.

So, I do recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, even if it made me want to hit something.

Madeleine L'Engle

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Title: A Wrinkle in Time
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Series: Kairos #1, Time Quintet #1
Published in 1962
Literary Awards: Newbery Medal

Plot Summary from Goodreads: It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me be on my way. Speaking of way, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract”.

Meg’s father had been experimenting with this fifth dimension of time travel when he mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin, and Charles Wallace to rescue him. But can they outwit the forces of evil they will encounter on their heart-stopping journey through space?

I decided to reread A Wrinkle in Time again because I am also going to reread the remainder of the Murry/O’Keefe series and I am one of those people who needs to begin at the beginning. I don’t have anything to add to this review, except that I remain in awe of Madeleine L’Engle’s extraordinary humanity. She was a remarkable woman, and I’m not sure that we deserved her.

I read the book as a child of the 1970’s – probably a bit more than decade or so after the initial 1963 publication, around 1977, when I was 11. I fell in love with the book then, seeing much of myself in Meg Murry, the ordinary, often grumpy, young woman. I revisited L’Engle in 2015, and found that, while some of her books had not held up with reread, many of them did.

This book is part of my personal canon, one of the books that shaped my childhood and had a part in making me who I am today.

A Wrinkle in Time is a bit of a period piece, to be sure. Girls today are stronger, more self-aware, more cognizant of the pressures of an often sexist society, and more willing to buck convention in order to be authentic to themselves. Not all girls, of course, but some girls. Our culture, today, at least struggles to understand these pressures and to acknowledge that they exist, even if we often fail to genuinely confront them.

A few notes on the the DuVernay adaptation from 2018: The adaptation succeeds in a way that, after reading a lot of L’Engle, and a fair amount about L’Engle, I believe that she would appreciate. Casting Storm Reid, a biracial young woman was, as Meg Murry, was an inspired decision, the relocation of the plot to a more diverse location in California, the addition of Charles Wallace as an adopted child, to me really work to illuminate some of the themes that L’Engle was writing about – alienation and dangers of extreme social conformity in particular.

There are parts of the book that are quite different from the movie, of course. In the book, the Murry’s have two additional children, a set of male twins who are effortlessly socially competent. They are capable of fulfilling society’s expectations with little work. Meg, on the other hand, is prickly, defensive, occasionally angry, and fearsomely intelligent – all things which 1963 America couldn’t really cope with in girls. Heck, we still struggle with girls who are prickly, defensive, occasionally angry and fearsomely intelligent.

L’Engle’s central message, as always, revolves around love. For L’Engle, love is the thing that sets humans apart – our capacity to love overcomes darkness, our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for love is what enables us to prevail over our adversaries. This is her spirituality, writ small – L’Engle was a deeply religious woman, and her faith informs her writing always (a fact which makes the presence of A Wrinkle in Time on banned book lists based upon religious objections to the text quite frankly odd).

I am not a religious woman, but the fact that someone like Madeleine L’Engle, brilliant and thoughtful, found a way to integrate her Christian faith with her love of science and her extraordinary tolerance gives me hope that American Christianity can step back from the dark place that it is in right now and find a way forward that is more affirming of the ideals held by women and men like her – that of equality and supporting the vulnerable among us. I can only imagine that L’Engle would have deplored much of what is going on in the evangelical Christian religion related to the persecution of LGBTQ people and the continued embrace of misogyny as a bedrock principle.

A Wrinkle in Time shines light into dark places. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

A Century of Women, Dorothy Simpson

A Puppet for a Corpse by Dorothy Simpson

Title: A Puppet for a Corpse
Author: Dorothy Simpson
Series: Inspector Luke Thanet #3
Published in 1983

Plot Summary from Goodreads: A doctor’s apparent suicide sets off alarm bells for Detective Inspector Thanet, “a shrewd yet compassionate observer of aberrant human behavior” (The New York Times).

The Hippocratic oath binds medical professionals to a lifetime of helping fellow human beings. For a doctor to kill himself is not just to renege on that pledge, but to betray all mankind. When Dr. Arnold Pettifer is found dead from an overdose of pills and alcohol, Det. Inspector Luke Thanet’s first reaction is disgust. His second is suspicion: This, he thinks, is murder.

Nothing in Pettifer’s life would point to suicide. He had a prospering practice, money in the bank, a beautiful new wife, and a baby on the way. But when Inspector Thanet learns that Pettifer’s wife had taken a lover, he begins to suspect her—only to find that nothing about the death of Dr. Pettifer is as obvious as it may seem.

I picked up one of these Luke Thanet books for a couple of bucks at the UBS before Christmas – I am always looking for new classic mystery series, and this looked like a promising option.

This is the third book in the series I’ve read at this point. I read the 6th book, Dead on Arrival, first, and then I bought the second and third books because they must have been on sale, as I got them both for under $3.00 each, and the price has now increased to $6.50, which is more than I’m willing to spend. I read the second book, Six Feet Under, at the end of December, and then read this one yesterday. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the series at this point.

I haven’t found any of the books to be particularly difficult to figure out. I cottoned on to the solution in Dead on Arrival really early in the book, once a certain piece of information is imparted to the reader. Six Feet Under gave me the most trouble – I only figured out part of it, and not the most important part. Simpson definitely likes to divide the reader’s attention, and works hard to misdirect, which is only partially successful.

The books are set in Kent, England, in the fictional town of Sturrenden (interestingly, Thanet is the name of a district in Kent). Inspector Thanet is a bit cerebral, and is more-or-less happily married to Joan, with two children. His marriage takes up quite a lot of screen time, as he is grappling with Joan going back to work now that the kids are a bit older, and he doesn’t like not having his meals served hot and ready at his beck and call when he gets home.

Puppet for a Corpse was originally published in 1983, although it has a bit more regressive of a feel than the eighties – when I looked up the publication date I was surprised that it wasn’t the early seventies, given the interactions between Luke and Joan. I graduated from high school in 1984, and there was never any expectation between myself and any man I have ever been involved in that I would be his domestic servant. On the other hand, I suppose Luke and Joan are closer to the ages of my parents than they are to my age, and Thanet’s attitude was pretty much the same as my dad’s attitude was when my mom went to work after my brother and I had graduated from high school.

In terms of the mystery, I’ve read enough of these older police procedurals to have had an inkling of what had likely happened, although I didn’t quite figure it out. There isn’t a lot to them- it takes me about 90 minutes to read one from beginning to end. I’ll keep my eye out for them at my library/UBS, and would consider buying more if they went back on sale, but overall, they are in the “take it or leave it” subcategory of mystery fiction.

This books fits well into my Century of Women Authors, though, fulfilling year 1983

A Century of Women, Stella Gibbons

The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

Title: The Bachelor
Author: Stella Gibbons
Published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: Brother and sister, Constance and Kenneth Fielding live in calm respectability, just out of reach of London and the Blitz. But when a series of uninvited guests converge upon them – from a Balkan exile to Ken’s old flame and the siblings’ own raffish father – the household struggles to preserve its precious peace. In this full house, in a quiet corner of suburbia, no one expects to find romance.

I had planned to read this one for a 1944 club on my blog but ran out of time. This is my second Gibbons, and I have not yet read her most celebrated work Cold Comfort Farm – the first one I read was called Nightingale Wood, which I read a couple of years ago.

I think I liked this one a tiny bit better than Nightingale Wood, although it has some of the same issues that I stumbled on in that one. It’s set during WWII, so the characters are on the homefront during the active fighting, but they scarcely seem to notice that there is a war on. There is some talk about the blackout, and a bit during a barrage, and a couple of the characters have war work that they are engaged in, but for the most part the three main character’s lives go on much as they do during peacetime. I’m not sure if this is an accurate depiction of the way that money can smooth all of the rough edges off the world, even during WWII, or if it is a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Gibbons. I tend to think the latter.

It is a bit of a romance, with the characters coupling off all over the place. My issue with The Bachelor is that I found only one of the pairings even remotely appealing or plausible. Gibbons writes flawed characters, which isn’t a problem for me, but also writes characters who need a swift kick in the ass. The only characters I particularly liked were Betty and Alicia, and I actively disliked Vartouhi and Constance and found them unconvincing. Richard and Kenneth (the titular bachelor, btw) were pleasant enough, if a bit wet.

The writing is a pleasure to read, however, and the descriptions of Sunglades, the home where most of the “action” takes place, are beautiful. I will definitely read more Gibbons, because no matter my issues with her novels, they are worth reading.

A Century of Women, D.E. Stevenson

Bel Lamington duology by D.E. Stevenson

Titles: Bel Lamington and Fletcher’s End
Author: D.E. Stevenson
Published in 1961/1962

Plot summaries:

Bel Lamington: Bel Lamington finds London a very lonely place – until a charming young artist literally drops in on her rooftop garden…

Bel Lamington, an orphan daughter of an Army colonel, is brought up in an English village and flung into the whirl of London life to earn a hard living as a secretary while attempting to navigate romance, unexpected friendships and urban life. Shy, sensitive, and innocent, she is unaware of the pitfalls that surround her.

But when Bel is offered a chance to leave London and venture to a fishing hotel in Scotland for a much needed holiday with an old school friend, things begin to change. There she learns that you cannot escape from your troubles by running away from them…

Fletcher’s End: The joys and contentment of newly-wedded life, set against the tranquil beauty of the English countryside, are the subject of this volume by the beloved novelist, D.E. Stevenson. The author of Bel Lamington continues the heartwarming story of the gentle heroine who came to London and fell in love with her employer, Ellis Brownlee.

Shortly before Bel’s marriage to Ellis, her friend, Louise Armstrong, goes house hunting for the Brownlees and discovers a charming but neglected old stone cottage in the Cotswolds. Bel adores the house, called Fletchers End. Equally enthusiastic, Ellis buys the place from the absentee-owner, Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, and, after a picture-book wedding, the happy couple move in.

As she embarks on her new life as a devoted wife, Bel loyally guides Louise through her own romantic tribulations. She also enjoys sharing with Ellis the excitement and satisfaction of decorating their first real home, as well as unravelling the mysteries of the old stone cottage.

But with the unexpected arrival of Lieutenant Commander Lestrange, the peace of Fletchers End is suddenly threatened…

These two very light, old-fashioned romances are available on Kindle Unlimited. Originally published in 1961 and 1962, they tell the story of Bel, young and somewhat impoverished woman living and working in London, and her travails. The first book gets her married off, and the second book deals with the purchase of a first home, renovation, a tiny bit of drama, and the romantic life of her best friend, Louise.

There isn’t a lot of substance to the pair of books, but they are extremely sweet and I liked all of the characters a lot. The friendship between Bel and Louise is quite lovely and is unmarred by the sort of jealous nastiness that can sometimes pass for tension in books of this sort. Bel is a working girl when the books begin, and she is extremely capable at her job. While they were published in the early 1960’s they had a more old-fashioned feel to them to me, more 1950’s or even 1940’s in atmosphere. There wasn’t any real focus on the rapid social change occurring during the 1960’s.

These two simple little books don’t offer the same though provoking social commentary as something like South Riding, but they were free and a pleasant way to while away a few hours reading something entirely unchallenging.

Stevenson is having a bit of a renaissance these days, between her Miss Buncle and her Mrs. Tim series. Neither of those are available for free, so I haven’t dipped into them yet, although I do plan to read them at some point. I suspect that they are better than the ones that I have read, which are enjoyable, if a bit pedestrian, light romance. They are very comfortable books.

Winifred Holtby

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
First published: 1936

Plot Summary from Goodreads: When Sarah Burton returns to her hometown as headmistress she is full of ambition, determined to create a great school and to inspire her girls to take all they can from life. But in the aftermath of the First World War, the country is in depression and ideals are hard won. Lydia Holly, the scholarship girl from the shacks, is the most brilliant student Sarah has ever taught, but when her mother’s health fails, her education must be sacrificed – there is nobody else to care for the children.

Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall stands for everything Sarah despises: his family has farmed the South Riding for generations, their position uncontested. Yet Sarah cannot help being drawn to this proud, haunted – and almost ruined – man.

South Riding is a rich, panoramic novel, bringing vividly to life a rural community on the brink of change.

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.