Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #24: South Riding by Winifred Holtby
South Riding by Winifred Holtby is a large novel that contains multitudes and contradictions, nevertheless held tightly in place by its structure, the unusual one of town council responsibilities: Education, Highways and Bridges, Agriculture and Small Holdings, Public Health, Public Assistance, Mental Deficiency, Finance, and Housing and Town Planning and the short space of time it happens in. If I had to sum its scope and emotional topography up quickly it would be Gone with the Wind meets D.H. Lawrence, but it’s more realistic than the former and less…icky…than the latter.
The novel was written and set in the mid-1930s, in a Britain still scarred by the First World War, during a depression, under the clouds of intensifying Nazism and power struggles in Europe. Sarah Burton is a cynically idealistic 37 year old returning to Yorkshire’s South Riding to take up the post of headmistress at a girls’ school. Her motto is “take what you want and pay for it,” her ambition is to turn the struggling school into an efficient and inspiring institute. Robert Carne is a gentleman farmer with a crumbling family estate and a wife in a mental institute and a highly-strung daughter who becomes Sarah’s pupil. The usual sort of thing both does and doesn’t happen – the two form the central relationship of the book, representing diametrically opposed politics, heritage, attitudes towards both future and past, but their interactions take an unusual course. Networked to their narrative are multiple others, tales of corrupt councillors and poor families stuck in their stations, in the fading dreams of ambitious but impoverished girls, in the transition from agriculture to industry. The question of “who pays for it?” becomes a centrally defining question for the novel, adding a layer of philosophical musing tightly bound to practical consideration and in no way impairing drama and humour.
South Riding is a difficult read because of its sprawl but it’s definitely rewarding, with odd and comic turns of phrase, flashes of insight into universal character and motivation, well-evoked conflicts within a community and an era, strong and complex characters and plenty of quiet, sometimes sly, humour and pathos. There also happens to be a BBC miniseries of South Riding for those who like that sort of thing.