Friday, 15 April 2016

Book Review: South Riding by Winifred Holtby

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9932965-south-riding2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Nobel Prize laureate in Literature Sir Winston Churchill once quoted an unknown source stating “that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Witnessing the poor performance of politicians in virtually all important matters of modern life, this can be hard to believe. In fact, many of us feel that politics have ceased to be about people because our representatives seem to care only about money and power instead of getting anything done. But this isn’t a new phenomenon as prove works of literature from all ages. The novel South Riding by Winifred Holtby shows how politics work on the local level, namely in the county council of the Yorkshire community from the title during the depression years of the 1930s, and how it affects the daily lives of people, notably of those who depend on the government to get along.

Winifred Holtby was born in Rudston, Yorkshire, England, U.K., in June 1898. After a stint as a volunteer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in France at the end of World War I, she studied at Somerville College in Oxford where she made friends with the future writer Vera Brittain. In 1921 she graduated and moved to London to start her writing career. She worked as a journalist for numerous newspapers and magazines, but also produced fiction. Her first novel titled Anderby World came out in 1923. It was followed by The Crowded Street (1924), The Land of Green Ginger (1927), Poor Caroline (1931), and the satires The Astonishing Island (1933) and Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933). After learning that she was fatally ill, the prolific author published the critical study of Virginia Woolf (1932), the feminist work Women and a Changing Civilization (1934), the collection of short stories Truth is not Sober (1934), and the volume of poetry The Frozen Earth (1935). Winifred Holtby died in London, U.K., in September 1935. Three more of her books appeared posthumously, namely the novels South Riding (1936) and Pavements at Anderby (1937) and the play Take Back Your Freedom (1939).

Set in the fictional county of South Riding in Yorkshire between June 1932 and May 1935, the novel paints – in line with its subtitle – the social pattern of An English Landscape as the different members of the County Council, the new Head Mistress of Kiplington High School for Girls and some of her students know it. The story opens with a prologue about the first session of the South Riding County Council that the young journalist Lovell Brown witnesses from the press gallery. It turns out to be all but the intriguing spectacle that he expected.
“Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions.” 
The dominating figures in the County Council are the aldermen Emma Beddows, a woman in her seventies, but unusually lively and interested in the people surrounding her, the rich business man Anthony Snaith and his socialist counterpart Joe Astell. Public money is scarce and many in the community are hard up, not just the unemployed Mitchells and Hollies dwelling in kind of a rural slum known as The Shacks, but also councillor Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall, the local squire living beyond the means of his farm ever since he married a Baron’s daughter whom he was forced to put into a mental home. As a conservative force Carne opposes all change and at first sight dislikes Sarah Burton who against his vote is appointed as new head mistress of the girls’ high school. At her arrival she finds a school that is virtually in ruins, but she is an idealist and a fighter.
“I don’t really mind a hall the size of a cupboard, a pitch dark cellar-gymnasium and laboratories housed in a broken-down conservatory; but these beetle-hunted cloakrooms I will not have. They’re enough to constipate any child for months. I will have those altered.” 
The students, including Carne’s daughter Midge, love Sarah Burton and she cares for them, notably for Lydia Holly who holds a scholarship and then, just sixteen years old, has to leave school to look after her six younger siblings because her mother died in childbirth. Although Carne is her adversary, Sarah Burton enjoys his company and eventually realises that she has fallen in love with him…

Rather than the plot, it’s a colourful kaleidoscope of characters that brings to life South Riding as a novel and as a fictional community. The red thread joining their individual fates are the sessions of the County Council’s subcommittees that appear above all as extracts from their minutes. They show not just the decisions that the council makes in a time of deep economical crisis, i.e. shortage of public funds, but also introduce the central topic of each of the eight books into which the novel is divided. The plot makes visible the interconnection between local politics and people’s everyday lives that are far from idyllic. Virtually everybody in the story has to cope with problems, be it unemployment, poverty, illness, or death, and only for few there is a happy ending. Nonetheless, it’s basically an optimistic novel emphasising the value of good education and the need to fight to improve things. The psychological depth and realism of the characters, notably the female protagonists Sarah Burton and Alderman Beddows, are remarkable and make them feel quite modern even compared to some contemporary works that live on clichés. The author’s language, however, is in no way extraordinary although it flows and is pleasant to read.

When I decided to read South Riding by Winifred Holtby for this blog, I had never heard of the author, nor of her novel, nor of its rather recent TV adaptation. I expected something in a line with Daphne du Maurier’s work (»»» see my review of The Loving Spirit), but I was agreeably surprised to find a book written more in the spirit of Virginia Woolf (»»» see my review Jacob’s Room) although in a different style and certainly with a less innovative literary approach. To cut a long story short, the novel turned out to be one of the best that I have read in a while which makes me wonder why Winifred Holtby and her literary work are so little known today. Luckily, most of her books keep being in print and so I could get a copy of her acknowledged masterpiece South Riding to review it… and to warmly recommend it for reading.

Nota bene:
More than seventy years have passed since the premature death of Winifred Holtby in 1935 which means that at least the original English editions of her work have entered the public domain some time ago. Despite all, the only ebook made available online and for free so far seems to be South Riding on the Canadian site fadedpage.com. I couldn't find any others.

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This review is a contribution to:

http://www.peekabook.it/2015/12/2016-women-challenge.htmlhttp://www.read52booksin52weeks.com/

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