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.