I wanted to read something set in Yorkshire while I was on holiday there, and a quick scan of my bookcase before I leapt out of the front door and rushed off to catch the train revealed Anderby Wold, the remarkable Winifred Holtby’s debut novel, which has been patiently waiting on that shelf for the best part of two years. Having loved South Riding so much when I read it a couple of months ago, I expected great things as I began reading, and I wasn’t disappointed. Anderby Wold is a brilliant portrait of a changing world, of youthful idealism, stifled dreams and embittered hearts. The characters are so perfectly captured; the countryside so evocatively described; the emotional undercurrent so strong. To think that this was Winifred Holtby’s first novel, written when she was in her early twenties, is astounding. What a talent!
Mary Robson, an intelligent, passionate, outspoken 28 year old, has been married to her much older cousin John for ten years when the novel opens. He is quiet, solid and unimaginative; he unquestioningly follows Mary’s opinions on everything and never makes a rash or spontaneous comment. He is a good man, but he is not the man Mary dreamed she would marry, and she feels trapped by her life with him, which lacks excitement, passion and romance. The true love of Mary’s life is her farm, Anderby Wold, and the village of Anderby that she is largely responsible for, being the employer of many of its inhabitants and the acknowledged pillar of the community. Her position as Lady Bountiful is bitterly resented by many, however, and none more so than Sarah Bannister, John’s brilliantly portrayed sister, who disapproves of Mary and the injustice she perceives she did John in marrying him and ‘making’ him work off the mortgage her drunken father took out on Anderby Wold.
The novel is set in the early 1900s, at a time when the traditional social structures were beginning to be questioned, and manual labourers were no longer content to remain downtrodden and poorly paid by their employers. This tide of unrest has yet to reach Anderby, where Mary is largely revered and respected and involved in all facets of local life. However, there are a small faction of dissenters in the midst; Mr Coast, the bitter and resentful schoolmaster, hates Mary for standing in his way of getting better employment in nearby Leeds and does his best to ruin her reputation. She has made enemies amongst some of her labourers, who feel they have been unfairly treated, and are egged on in their hatred by Mr Coast. Many of Mary’s relatives also dislike her due to her determination to not end up like them, and so they do their best to undermine her and remind her of her inadequacy as a wife; in ten years of marriage she has failed to produce a child, something she feels acutely.
Mary’s quietly frustrating life of farming, village patronage and frosty afternoon teas with disapproving relatives is soon to be rocked off its foundations by a chance encounter Mary has with a young man on a rainy night. For her husband’s birthday, she buys a book of radical socialist essays, deriding the patriarchal world of agriculture and recommending unionisation of the workforce. She hopes this will trigger something resembling passion or interest in John, but he doesn’t say a word about it. However, Mary finds the book is not an entirely wasted investment; she becomes strangely attracted to the energy and passion of its author, David Rossitur, and is intrigued by what he has to say. Imagine her surprise when she bumps into him in a storm a few weeks later, and is forced to bring him home with her after he is injured by her pony. She cares for him for several days, and feels herself coming to life again under the influence of his zeal. Soon she realises she has fallen in love with this strange and interesting young man, yet his love is all spent on social change, and as such it isn’t long before his presence in Anderby has caused serious waves of discontent that will change Mary’s life forever in ways she never imagined possible.
Anderby Wold is a rich and fascinating novel that has Holtby’s zest for life and social justice simmering under the surface throughout. Mary Robson is a brilliant character, whose determination and passionate nature are stifled by the narrow circumstances of her life. She longs for so much, desires so much, believes she is capable of so much more, and yet she is tied to the village and to John and to the constant bickering and disapproval of her relatives, which offer her precious little opportunity to express or fulfil herself. Mary is a very feminist creation, a perfect embodiment of the limitations of many women’s lives. The disapproval of others towards her trying to get ‘above her place’ demonstrates how difficult it was for women to break free of the mould of what was expected of a woman’s character. However, it can’t be denied that Mary is her own worst enemy. Still under 30, she has the life of a much older woman, and her frustration is manifested in a dogged stubbornness to hold on to her position as Queen of Anderby, despite knowing in her heart that times are changing and she is resented by many. Her reaction to social change is rooted in a fear of losing her control over Anderby; understandable, as it is all she has that gives her any sense of achievement or fulfilment. Faced with losing everything she holds dear, how can she possibly agree to go along with the changes men like Rossitur want to bring about, and go into a quiet retirement with a man she cannot love?
Holtby is a writer who manages to perfectly capture the conflict and pain running under the surface of so many people’s lives. There are no heroes and no villains; everyone is a complex, intriguing character with their own motivations and internal struggles. Mary may be good and kind, but she is also selfish and stubborn; John may be gentle and compassionate, but he is also fearful and unadventurous; Sarah may be bitter and resentful, but this is rooted in passionate, possessive love for her brother – Holtby gives us characters who are rounded, real, sympathetic and wholly involving. Anderby Wold is an intriguing, insightful and beautifully evocative novel, that captures a time, place and people on the very cusp of a new social order. Anderby Wold is in many senses a forerunner for the ideas Holtby goes on to flesh out more fully in South Riding, and yet it stands alone perfectly well, and I highly recommend it.