Review: South Riding, by Winifred Holtby

Set in 1930s Yorkshire, South Riding is the story of two strong women.  Emma Beddows is the first and only alderwoman in the local government. At 72, she has lived a life of public service, and honed the relationship skills so critical to the political process.  And despite operating in a “man’s world,” Emma has not lost her femininity:

Mrs Beddows sat warming her knees over the drawing room fire.  Her skirt was pulled high, exposing her taut rounded calves and well-turned ankles. She was proud of her legs. For a woman of over seventy they did her credit (p. 37)

Sarah Burton is the newly-appointed head teacher at Kiplington Girls High School.  Idealistic and driven, she brings energy and a bit of impetuosity to her work.  But from the moment she accepts the job she finds herself at odds with Robert Carne, a school governor and prominent landowner.  Carne was the only governor to oppose Sarah’s appointment, and she is determined to prove him wrong.  Sarah is surprised when her antagonistic feelings give way to something more romantic. Emma Beddows is surprised when this arouses jealous feelings; she is, after all, old enough to be Carne’s mother.

In less skilled hands, a novel like South Riding would be a traditional love story, with a woman achieving her rightful purpose through marriage.  But Winifred Holtby does something much different with this book: the romantic storyline shares the pages equally with Carne and his sad personal circumstances, the poor Holly family struggling for survival in the slums, a preacher caught in a blackmail scheme, a publican and his terminally ill wife, and many more everyday folk.  I was fully immersed in the South Riding community; I began to feel as if I knew these people.

The interplay between Emma Beddows and Sarah Burton was also quite interesting.  Their interactions are minimal and businesslike.  Sarah respects Emma, recognizing that her generation has opened up new opportunities for women, but that certain societal expectations continue to hold them both back:

She thought of the women of Mrs Beddows’ generation and of how even when they gave one quarter of their energy to public service they spent the remaining three-quarters on quite unnecessary domestic ritual and propitiation. The little plump woman with the wise lined face might have gone anywhere, done anything; but she would always set limits upon her powers through her desire not to upset her husband’s family. (p. 183)

Sarah and Emma aren’t exactly rivals, but they fail to realize how their joint influence — on both Robert Carne and the community at large — could do greater good than each of them on their own.  Towards the end of the book they begin to grasp this, leaving me imagining the many ways these two women worked for good later (yes, I forgot for a moment that they weren’t real people).

And finally, Holtby uses South Riding to express her strong anti-war sentiment, brought about by service during World War I.  The messages are mostly understated, but as World War II threatens Britain she takes a stronger tone:

Men I used to know as the finest workmen in the world, skilled artisans, riveters, engineers, are rotting on the dole. … And the tragic, sickening fact is that their only chance of re-employment lies in this arms race. They can return to life only by preparing for death.  (p. 482)

Winifred Holtby finished South Riding just one month before dying of kidney disease.  It is an absolute masterpiece.

17 thoughts on “Review: South Riding, by Winifred Holtby

    • Wendy, you’re looking to read more classics, right? This is a great one. I started it thinking it would be “just another romance set in the English countryside” and it was so much more.

  1. I’ve been waiting for your reaction on this one because I was pretty sure you were going to love it. It is indeed a masterpiece, and Sarah Burton just might be my favourite Virago heroine – so far.

    • Fleur, having just read your review of Joanna Godden yesterday, I’m thinking how fun it would be to assemble a party with our favorite Virago heroines!

  2. Oh my goodness! I LOVED The Crowded Street and this fantastic review now has me DESPERATE to read South Riding. I’d love to do a Vera Brittain/Winifred Holtby reading marathon at some point…wouldn’t that be spectacular?!

  3. Thanks for this review! I found a digital copy of this book after reading about the BBC adaptation to air next year, and now I’m more excited to read South Riding.

    • Evangeline, thanks for stopping by! I’m excited about the new adaptation as well, and that’s one of the main reasons I read the book when I did. Enjoy!

      • The new adaptation is over-abridged and over-compressed. I recommend the 1974 serialisation, which is out on DVD: 13 episodes, very faithful. My only real complaint with the 1974 version is that they didn’t cast Joe as described in the book: they had a rather plain-looking guy in the role, whereas in the book, we’re told he’s “pretty” and has reddish curls! I can only think this was to push viewers towards seeing Robert as a ‘romantic hero’. (Grrrr…!)

  4. I just finished reading and reviewing, this, and I was just stunned. My edition contained an epitaph by Vera Brittain, Holtby’s good friend, and I’m so glad I was able to read it because it really made a lot of things about the novel make sense for me.

    I just loved Robert Carne, and I, too, at various points forgot that these weren’t real people ;).

    Here’s my review if you want to check it out:

    • Great review, Jo … I just left a comment there. Now: have you read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth? It’s non-fiction, about her experience at the front in WWI. Holtby also figures prominently. It’s a hugely powerful book; you can find my review here. Brittain also wrote Testament of Friendship about her relationship with Holtby, but I haven’t read that one yet.

      • While Testament of Friendship is good, I recommend Marion Shaw’s biography of Winifred, The Clear Stream – especially regarding Vera’s treatment of Winifred as a friend.

    • Fabulous novel, which I first read as a teenager 31 years ago, growing up in the area – Hull (Kingsport in the book). But you’re welcome to have Robert: I’d much rather carry off Joe and nurse him back to health! (And I do hope that’s what Sarah has in mind at the end, carrying his letter around for days, quite uncharacteristically!)

  5. I had never even heard of Vera Brittain before reading her epitaph, so of course I dutifully Googled her after finishing South Riding! I want to read both books, but especially Testament of Youth. I’ve always been fascinated by WWII, but thanks to things like Downton Abbey and South Riding, I’m becoming more interested in reading about WWI. Thanks for the pointers!

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