by Winifred Holtby
SOUTH RIDING hasn't been out of print since its publication in 1935 and it is easy to see why. Winifred Holtby's final and best-known novel is a rich and enduring evocation of life in rural Yorkshire between the wars, populated by some of the most memorable characters in twentieth century fiction. Despite being framed by the unpromising structure of local council meetings, the book tells a compelling story of love, duty and selflessness as much as hubris, greed and ambition.
Sarah Burton is a modern woman who has been appointed as the new headmistress for Kiplington Girls' High School. The daughter of a drunken blacksmith, she improved herself through education and believes in the power of human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. She arrives with dreams of creating an outstanding school where she will train girls and 'inoculate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight' and with uncompromising determination she throws herself into ensuring her vision is realised. All goes to plan until she falls in love with Robert Carne, a school governor and father to one of her pupils. Carne's family has owned Maythorpe Hall and farmed the land for four generations. A natural conservative, believing passionately in the old order and his duty to preserve it, he is temperamentally and politically at the opposite end of the spectrum to Sarah's own feminist and socialist convictions. So is the scene set for a tumultuous love story.
The many other characters who make up the community are all there: Lydia, the bright girl from a very poor family who is forced, at the death of her mother, to quit school to look after her brothers and sisters; Mr Huggins, ecstatic lay preacher and alderman, who unwittingly becomes involved in gerrymandering; Lily Sawdon, quietly and painfully dying without telling her husband in order to protect him; Alderman Snaith, damaged industrialist who resents the fertility of spring and whose only hope of redemption lies in good works for the community. And so on. Each and every one drawn in the round in their human mixture of good and bad.
Winifred Holtby died of kidney disease at the age of 37, less than a month after finishing SOUTH RIDING. Her close friend, Vera Britain, in an epitaph at the end of the book, voices her regret that Holtby did not live to realise her great potential as a writer and will 'create no more men and women in the likeness of our human frailties, our superb loyalties, our brave and pathetic aspirations.'
Published by Virago, 544pp.