South Riding by Winifred Holtby

Oh, what an absolute gift this beautiful book has been! It has occupied my every thought for over a week, its characters imprinting themselves on my heart. I didn’t anticipate thatSouth Riding would be as marvellous, as engrossing, as inspiring, as it is – the introduction to my Virago edition has Shirley Williams talking of how South Riding is the only novel in British history that deals solely with local government – unusually for me, I read it before I started the actual story, and my eyes glazed over at the thought of dreary descriptions of council meetings and arguments over the finer points of local byelections. It was enough to make me reconsider even starting. Then I came across the five page long character list – akin to a Russian doorstopper – how would I ever keep everyone straight?! With expectations well and truly at subterranean level, I opened the first page, and was immediately and irrevocably swept into the lives of the warm, vital, passionate and wonderfully human cast of characters who populate this magnificent novel. It might have local government as its underlying theme, but at its core, I soon saw that it is about the human soul, and all of its struggles and triumphs and capabilities and limitations – and the characters whose souls are laid bare are so brilliantly drawn that you can’t help but be fascinated by them from the very first page.

Mrs Beddows, a local alderman in her seventies, is the heart of the novel. Devoted to the South Riding and to improving the quality of life of its people, she is unfailingly wise, generous, warm hearted and compassionate. The main beneficiary of her compassion is the tragic local gentleman farmer, Robert Carne, a proud, handsome man whose life is slowly falling apart; his family seat is crumbling around him, his farms are losing money by the day, his beloved, beautiful wife is in a mental asylum, and his wayward teenage daughter looks to be going the same way as her mother. Robert, however, refuses to be pitied, and remains a figure of much respect amongst his fellow residents of the South Riding, much to the disdain of Councillor Snaith, a greedy, rather soulless fellow Council member, who uses his position of power, wealth and influence not to improve the lives of his fellow men but to increase his own bank balance and hold over the county.

Added into the mix of these powerful few are the locals living in desperate poverty in the surrounding towns, where there are few jobs, few opportunities and very little comforts. However, the desire of the councillors to provide adequate homes and livelihoods for them is complicated by personal politics and who stands to make the most from the land that must be used to build upon. Their lives are played with by those in power, and their sufferings needlessly extended by the selfish few who wish to profit from their misery. Amongst those suffering is 14 year old Lydia Holly; intelligent, passionate, soulful and ambitious, she voraciously reads the Complete Works of Shakespeare given to her by a neighbour, but with several younger siblings to look after and an ailing mother, will she ever get her chance to have the education she so longs for? Into the foray sweeps Sarah Burton, a flame haired, strong minded, idealistic and inspirational young Headmistress, who has progressive ideas and a desire to build a school that will enable girls from all backgrounds in the area to achieve their potential. However, she doesn’t bank upon the opposition she will face from the stuck in their ways locals, and on falling hopelessly in love with one of her fiercest detractors.

So much happens in this that it’s impossible to capture it in a paragraph; there are a large cast of characters, all of whom have their own absorbing lives that feed into this incredible, moving portait of humanity that Holtby paints so vividly. Poor working class men drown their sorrows in the pub; women’s bodies are racked with sobs as they realise they are to bring another child into the world when they already have six children they can barely keep alive. The hard work of women like Mrs Beddows to improve the lives of these people is undercut spectacularly by the scheming Snaith, who thinks not of those he was elected to serve, but of his own interests. Robert Carne is fighting to keep the old traditions alive while his world is rapidly sinking underneath him, and Sarah’s bright idealism and determination to bring the South Riding into the 20th century is brought well and truly into check by the complexity of the problems and prejudices faced and held by her new neighbours. Running underneath it all is the fear of another war looming on the horizon, when the wounds of the last one are still painfully raw for many. In a world with so many problems, how do you retain the ability to keep believing that there is still something essential worth fighting for? It is this that is really the crux of the novel, and Holtby’s personal politics and idealism can’t help but flow through every word she writes. I was in tears by the end, and inspired by her exultant view of the limitless potential of humanity to rise above evil and work for the good that resides in all of us. Considering the times she was writing in – considering all she had lost, and all she faced losing once again – her hope, her faith, her belief in the power of good – really was extraordinary, and incredibly humbling.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes – if I haven’t convinced you to read this, hopefully this will – it’s from a speech Sarah gives to her girls:

‘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 upon marriage, and why the derelict areas are still derelict. This is a great country, and we are proud of it, and it means much that is most loveable. But questioning does not mean the end of loving, and loving does not mean the abnegation of intelligence. Vow as much love to your country as you like; serve to the death if that is necessary…but, I implore you, do not forget to question.’

47 comments

  1. I’ve had this for months and I still haven’t touched it — you’ve convinced me to move it up on the TBR list. I’ll probably have to wait until the holiday break to give it my full attention, but it sounds wonderful. I still have the BBC adaptation saved on the DVR, I’ve been waiting until I read the book!

    1. Karen, how could you leave such a beautiful book languishing for so long?! Get reading – and make time to just immerse yourself in it. It will consume you. Well done you for recording the series – it was on while I was in the US so I think I’ll have to buy the DVDs now…or something for the Christmas list perhaps.

  2. I knew you’d love this! I read it almost exactly one year ago and so enjoyed reading your review as it brought back all those fond memories.

    1. It’s such a ‘me’ book, Laura! Glad I could rekindle the world of south riding for you…oh such a wonderful, vibrant novel. I can’t get enough of it…I’m still thinking about it now!

  3. My copy is on its way from Amazon – perhaps it will arrive tomorrow. Your entry at the end of October did it for me and I got myself a copy for under ₤2. Just the thing for these long dark evenings by the fire.
    I’m glad you warned us about the true theme of this book – and about the character list. It’s so easy to be put off by those immediate things and to miss something splendid.

    How are you getting on with your Elizabeth Bowens, Rachel?

    1. Oh I’m so glad you’ve bought it, Chrissy – two euros well spent, I hope you will find.
      Yes it is – and I must say, I very nearly put it back on the shelf because of it. Prejudices can be very dangerous!

      Not very well I have to admit…I have a massive stash but there were quite a few books I rediscovered in the boxes I’d left at my mum’s and they have taken priority…I’ll probably get stuck into Bowen again in the New Year.

  4. I purchased the book last summer and then felt reluctant to read it. I had seen the BBC production and didn’t like it but had guessed that it hadn’t done the book justice. The broadcast had tried to pack two many themes into too short a time. Now, your review has inspired me to go back to it. I love seeing an interest in Holtly revived. She had such a tragically short life.

    1. Oh Kay, I haven’t watched the TV series but I can promise you the book will be better – it’s so rich and so alive…you’ll adore it. Winifred Holtby should not have died when she did – but what a legacy she has left behind in this beautiful book. Quite the testament to a life well lived.

  5. I read this earlier in the year and I loved it too. I also remember being concerned about the huge character list, but once I started reading I found the characters were so well drawn I didn’t have a problem remembering who they all were. I recently read another Holtby book, The Land of Green Ginger, and while it wasn’t as good as South Riding I did enjoy that one too.

    1. Yes, exactly – I didn’t need to refer to it once, actually, and I was quite surprised by that! They are all such individuals that getting them straight doesn’t really come into it. Thanks for the recommendation – I have Anderby Wold on my shelf to read so I shall have a go at that next.

    1. I’m glad you’ve already enjoyed it, Emily – I like to know that other people hold it as dearly to their hearts as I do. Thanks – I’m pleased you liked reading it!

  6. I have been wanting to read South Riding ever since viewing the BBC adaptation. I actually liked the film, but, as I usually do, felt the book must be all the richer an experience. Your wonderful review, Rachel, compels me to place this up high on the list.

    Thank you.

    1. I am desperate to see the TV adaptation now, Penny, but I have heard from people who have read the book and seen the adaptation that the adaptation felt rushed so…the book is definitely better, and certainly much richer. I am sure you will adore it. Thank you, Penny – and I look forward to hearing about your reading experience in due course!

  7. Lovely review. It’s such an absorbing book. I read it a few years ago but I was so involved with the characters I couldn’t put it down. Idealism combined with realism, what a combination!

  8. I tried reading this when I was about 19 and gave up, I have no idea why now, but your review has prompted me to search out a copy and read it. I’m not sure if I should thank you or not, I really, really don’t need to add another book to the TBR bookcase.

  9. Oh how I loved Lydia! And you made me laugh with your mention of that long list of characters, I felt the same way. South Riding is one of those books that will always stay with me (thanks for sending it!) and I really hope that everyone who wrote that they’re inspired to read it does just that. That quote alone has me wanting to read South Riding all over again!

    1. Me too – poor girl!! That cast list is SO off putting, I don’t think they should put it in at all!! I’m so glad I sent it to you and that you got to enjoy it too – I think it’s going to become a book I reread every year…there’s so much richness in it to savour.

  10. Yes, there would probably only be one phrase besides ‘this is a novel about government’ more likely to deter readers and that would be ‘this is a novel about local government’. Whilst there is nothing inaccurate in Shirley Williams’s description, there is a danger that it sells the book short. It is a bit like saying that Trollope’s Barchester novels are about the Church of England – they are, but there is so much more to them besides. Personally, having somewhat unusual tastes, I probably enjoyed South Riding and the Barchester books precisely because of the light they shine on power games and individuals striving to do good within the constraints of institutional structures and social expectations. However, just as you can ignore the ecclesiastical politics of Barchester and focus on the wonderful characters, so in South Riding you can pass lightly over the municipal machinations and focus instead on the personal lives of its heroine and her star pupil, with all they reveal about the opportunities that were beginning to open up to women, but also of how much progress remained to be made. I wonder if anyone has ever compared South Riding to Barchester Towers before?

    1. Interesting comparison, David! I wish I’d read some Trollope so that I’d be able to discuss this with you but I am yet to read any at all, much to my shame! I am intending on starting his Palliser novels this winter though. I liked the power games aspect as well – knowing little about local government, I did find it interesting to hear about all the small committees and the personal politics behind decisions. Ultimately though, South Riding is about people and that is what arrests the reader, regardless of what they are spending their time doing!

  11. You have certainly made me want to read this one! I saw the programme but knew the book would be even better. I think it might find its way in the door somehow.

    The quote you chose I think is very apt and how relevant some of it (not women renouncing jobs upon marriage) is today – some things never change, and we, the collective we never learn from the past.

    1. I am glad to hear that, Jo! South Riding is definitely a book to make room for!

      Yes – that is very true. It was a thought I often had while reading this. Winifred Holtby had such hopes for mankind – I’m glad, in a way, that she didn’t live to see another war and how little her generation and the one after her had learnt from the previous one.

  12. Hi Rachel – I recently came across your blog (and several others) via the Persephone forum, where I had gone to look at what people had to say about ‘They Knew Mr Knight’ which I finished last week. It’s a while since I read ‘South Riding’: I found it very absorbing, and although I enjoyed the BBC adaptation I didn’t think it did the book justice. Sarah is a wonderful character. I’m grateful to my mum for introducing me to Holtby and to Vera Brittain. Your blog is great, I look forward to reading more of your reviews!

    1. Hi Caroline, it’s so lovely to meet you! I’m glad you have found me, and, of course, are another Persephone fan! Thank you – I look forward to seeing you around!

  13. What a wonderful, evocative review! I am so glad you loved it as this exact copy of South Riding has been sitting tantilizingly on my shelves for quite a few months now and you’ve now reminded me that it needs to be read very soon! I carted it around on holiday with me but took so many books I didn’t get round to it…so now this beautiful copy looks rather used from my rucksack I;m afraid to say😦

    1. Thanks Lucy! Don’t worry, mine was carted around for ages before I got around to reading it! Don’t be put off by the size – it whizzes by once you get into it. Get started asap and enjoy!

  14. I thought this was a wonderful novel. It certainly made me want to read the other of her novels that Virago have now published aswell as wanting to get my mitts on the Persephone novels after I had read it. I thought the TV adaptation this year wasn’t too shoddy either.

  15. Fat, wonderful novels like this are the ultimate form of virtual reality. They take you back to another time and place, and make you think about it. Reading your review made me resolve to dig it out of one of the innumerable stacks of books here (I camp in my library) and read it for a fourth or fifth time.

  16. The series on BBC 1 is not a patch on the earlier ITV series, which is more true to the original book. The ‘abridged’ version does not pick up on the connections between the characters and the reasons behind the happenings.
    I did put a review on the BBC shop website about it being abridged and it was not published. I received a response to say thanks for contacting them and they had considered my comments but chose not to publish them. So far, no feedback shown on the BBC shop website.
    Please, please read the original version, it is so much better.

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