Review: Anderby Wold, by Winifred Holtby

After reading Winifred Holtby’s South Riding last month, I was eager to read more of her work.  Where South Riding is considered Holtby’s masterpiece, Anderby Wold was her debut novel.  It shows, but only a bit.

Mary Robson is the novel’s protagonist.  She’s 28, and married to the much older John Robson, who rescued Mary from her father’s debts through profitable farming that paid off the farm’s mortgage.  The book opens shortly after John and Mary have achieved this degree of financial freedom.  And while John deserves credit for his farming success, Mary is no slouch.  She is somewhat of a pillar in Anderby, visiting the sick and supporting community functions.  But she’s also a bit of a control freak, insisting on being present at every important event to make sure everything is done right.  And she’s not entirely happy in her marriage, because John is both distant and dull.

One day Mary encounters a young man traveling by foot.  He is quite ill, and Mary provides him with shelter for a few days.  He turns out to be David Rossitur, a journalist who espouses progressive ideas about farming and labor.  His spirited private debates with Mary soon turn into community organizing down the pub, much to the chagrin of Mary and her relations.  David forms an alliance with the schoolmaster Mr. Coates, who is not at all on good terms with Mary.  Another man arrives from Manchester to form a union, and before you know it farm workers all over Anderby are threatening a strike.

This central conflict provides an opportunity for Winifred Holtby to explore the clash between progressive and conservative ideas.  While Holtby was a very liberal thinker, she portrays characters on both sides of the debate sympathetically and often with a bit of humor.  The result is an interesting, if somewhat strident, depiction of early 20th century England, showcasing the talent that created South Riding some 13 years later.

I read this book for Virago Reading Week … come and join the fun!


8 thoughts on “Review: Anderby Wold, by Winifred Holtby

  1. This sounds fascinating, Laura. I have it in a box somewhere back at my mum’s. I am getting really annoyed with myself for not reading more Holtby, as Holtby fever seems to be raging across the blogosphere right now! I’m glad you enjoyed this – though I have noted that South Riding would be the more complete work.

    • Rachel, I guess you can look forward to reading Holtby when you return home! She wrote so few books that I think I’m going to wait a while before reading another. It will be sad when I’ve read them all!

  2. Pingback: Virago Reading Week: Round Up #3 « A Few of my Favourite Books

  3. I love Holtby’s novels, but I think her real genius comes out best in her journalism. It isn’t that easy to get hold of but there is a Virago edition, ‘Testament of a Generation’, that has a collection of her writing along with that of Vera Brittain that I would strongly recommend.

    • Thanks Annie. I’ve heard great things about all the “Testament” books. Testament of Youth was my top read of 2010 but I have yet to read the others. Thanks for the tip.

      • I was not happy at all about David’s fate! At least in SR she left us with a bit of hope for my darling Joe (some people lasted for years, going in and out of TB sanatoria). I’m tempted to fic an alt.ending for Anderby Wold – she could at least have had the aim be less lethal, given that h/c scenes with David could be such fun… (recalling the scene with the embrocation and him being ticklish… Ahem!)! And given that John’s already had one stroke, why couldn’t he pop his clogs, with the stress of the fire, & c?… It was a bit mean of Winnie not to give us a happy ending!

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