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.’