Wednesday, February 16, 2011

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

South Riding
Author  Winifred Holtby
First published 1936
Paperback 544 pages

This reissue of Winifred Holtby's classic novel anticipates a new Andrew Davies television adaptation to be broadcast soon on BBC One. The trailers promise BBC drama at its best but I recommend that you rush out and beg, borrow or buy a copy of the book before it gets to the screen. Don't be put off by the 544 pages, it is such an absorbing story with such varied, realistic characters that I found myself staying up late into the night to read just one more chapter and then one more....

South Riding. An English Landscape is set in the fictional district of the South Riding of Yorkshire in the early 1930s, a period overshadowed by the impact of the Great War and the Depression. It is a period of change and resistance to change. There are those who want better living and working conditions for the working classes: better education, housing, health care and more opportunities for girls to fulfil their potential. On the other side are those who want the old traditions to continue, with a social hierarchy based on land ownership and loyalty. These issues will be decided by members of the local council, each of whom brings his or her own passions and interests to the council chamber.

The two conflicting views are represented by Sarah Burton, the feminist, liberal, young headmistress of the girls' school and Robert Carne, the gentleman farmer of the centuries old Maythorpe Hall who is passionate about his farm, his horses and his loyal tenants and labourers. Their stormy relationship has been likened to that of Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre but South Riding is far more than the unfolding of an unlikely love story, it is a complex work of social history, idealism, heroism and suffering.

The book begins with a list of Characters in their order of appearance that runs to six pages. It is a measure of Winifred Holtby's skill as a writer, as well as her compassion for and understanding of people and their concerns, that each character is fully rounded and memorable. There are no simple heroes and villains, every good person has some flaw, frailty or blind spot and every scoundrel has at least one redeeming feature.

The members of the South Riding County Council are a motley crew, some of whom seek to serve their local community while others use their position to further their own interests. They have limited funds to allocate and must balance the needs of specific groups, such as the unemployed and the slum dwellers, against investment in commercial interests that would benefit the area as a whole. Plus ça change!

South Riding is considered to be Winifred Holtby's masterpiece. It was published a year after her untimely death at the age of 37. It is beautifully written and totally absorbing. The landscape is as much a central character as Sarah Burton, Richard Carne, Alderman Mrs Beddows and Lydia Holly, the 14 year old girl from the Shacks who wins a scholarship to the High School. It encompasses her passion for education, social justice and feminism. It is as relevant today as it was in 1937.


  1. I've never read it and now I think I will :0)

    Thanks for the introduction

  2. Val
    I am sure you will love it. The characters are so real that I felt I knew them. I am just hoping now that the television adaptation lives up to the book.

  3. I'm hoping for a Cranford attempt rather than a Lark rise attempt ...if that makes sense

  4. I know eactly what you mean, Val! I'm hoping for the same thing.

  5. It's 40 years since I read South Riding for the first time and I can still remember it vividly (always the sign of a good book . . . )

    Do hope that the new TV serial will be as good as the 1974 version, which starred the wonderful Dorothy Tutin. At that time, of course, television companies had the budgets to make serials consisting of 13 hour-long episodes, which meant that a production team could remain very faithful to the original book . . .

  6. D

    I must say that I was dismayed when I saw that the new dramatisation will be in three episodes.

    I bet Dorothy Tutin was marvellous as Sarah Burton. Unfortunately, I missed that adaptation, I was too busy with baby A to watch television. I looked up some of the photographs from that series and the clothes match my imagined images from reading the book. The newest Sarah has some stunning dresses but I'm not sure that a teacher in the 1930s could afford them. But I'll reserve judgement until Sunday.

  7. I read this some time ago when I'd 'done' Vera Brittain and moved onto those associated with her. (I always end up doing this with writers)I think Holtby's mother was the first female Alderman in Yorkshire, if memory serves, so she knew what she was writing about!

  8. I just ordered a used copy from Amazon for $6.95 and am looking forward to reading it the old fashioned, dead tree, way. The ease and convenience of ordering books both electronically and by snail mail is fantastic.

  9. I collected my copy from our local bookshop today and will be reading hard to stay ahead of the tv adaptation - thank goodness it's half-term, so no teaching!!

  10. Haven't read the book but always meant to and really looking forward to something solid for Sunday Night tv. Yes Lark Rise far too bland. Let's hope Mr D. has done his stuff.

  11. I'm sorry not to have responded to recent comments but I have been away on family visits. I didn't get to see the television adaptation of South Riding on Sunday but it was recorded for me and I look forward to watching it this afternoon. I do hope it is good!


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