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.