South Riding – Winifred Holtby

Apologies for what is a back dated post but a mixture of me feeling a little ropey, WordPress being a bit ropey and… well the internet at home being a bit ropey I couldn’t some how get my thoughts up on ‘South Riding’ by Winifred Holtby. You see the TV adaptation is currently here on the BBC in the UK and also the lovely, lovely blog Cornflower Books had chosen it for her latest book group. Having very kindly been sent a copy from Virago recently it seemed that all of the signs where pointing me to reading ‘South Riding’ and as I am reading on a whim this year I decided I would.


It is very hard to try sum up the whole of ‘South Riding‘ in any kind of book thoughts/review because though there is one story at the very heart of it there are also several other minor stories going on between a cast of almost one hundred characters (maybe more, I haven’t counted the list of characters which you get at the start of the book – though I am of course now tempted). Really ‘South Riding‘ is a tale of its times, which is rather a cliche I know and I am slightly cross with myself for it, and a way of life in the British countryside. We join the residents of ‘South Riding‘ as they appoint a new headmistress, Sarah Burton who is returning to her old homeland after several years away both abroad and in London, and its the tale of her arrival and the people that she meets and how she changes the town in certain ways (not all big, not all small but I don’t want to give everything away) including meeting the rather difficult but dashing squire Robert Carne.


As soon as I say that you are likely to think, and could be on the money, that there is going to be an instant dislike between the two and then things could move from there. Well whilst I don’t want to give anything away you wouldn’t be far off which reminded me of ‘Pride and Prejudice‘ and showed one of the interesting things I found in ‘South Riding’. There sees to be shades of certain famous novels, Robert Carne seemed rather like Mr Rochester of ‘Jane Eyre‘ and his house rather like Manderley from ‘Rebecca‘ – though of course that came later so maybe Du Maurier read this novel, that had clearly influenced Winifred Holtby’s work though the novel isn’t hugely gothic at all even if the romance at the heart of it feels so. I fear I might not be making sense here but hopefully if you have read the book, and if you haven’t then you should, then you might understand where I am coming from. Back to the book itself though as I seem to have gone on a rather strange detour…


The timing of the novel is interesting as set between wars, or thats what I assumed, its a time of both uncertainty and also a time of great progress. In fact ‘South Riding‘ in many ways is a social commentary as well as a novel and I found that rather fascinating. Of course this could mean that it won’t be to everyones taste. There are several sections of the book where often nothing much seems to be going on and a lot of time is spent on minuscule little details alongside the fact that there are often sudden diverging mini-tales which take you away from the main one which some people might think makes the book overly long. I myself got lost in it. I felt like I knew all the characters and actually found myself caring about them more than I have done in a novel for a while. I took an instant dislike to Snaith (were my feelings founded, well you would have to read the book), really felt for Lydia Holly and food myself really liking South Ridings first female Alderman (though I found the whole alderman thing slightly dreary) Mrs Beddows which I wasn’t expecting. The one tale that I could have read a lot more of was that of Robert Carnes daughter Midge, there was so much there to take in about her and her situation from the first chapter (which I initial read in completely the wrong context – it was more along the lines of Eastenders than a 1930s drama) and onwards that i sort of felt it could do with a book all of its own. See there is so much to this book its a real nightmare to try and write about and do justice.


What I think is brilliant about ‘South Riding‘ and what I have tried to encapsulate, and I have to admit found bloody hard, is how it encapsulates (thats a lot of encapsulates I am aware) a British village to the full in the 1920’s/30’s. Not just its characters either but its moods, the feelings of change in the air. Obviously I wasn’t in the countryside at that time but thanks to Winifred Holtby and this wonderful novel, published posthumously, has made me feel like I have been on of the local curtain twitchers and have lived in the times and been revelling in all the goings on and the not goings on. Though its not as salacious as the wonderful, wonderful ‘Peyton Place‘ by Grace Metalious (which I really loved and is also published by Virago) this book has a certain gentle charm that had me from the first page to the last. It’s a book you really feel like you have lived through. 9/10


You can see some more coherent and less rambling thoughts on Cornflowers Book Group Blog which might help you make a more informed decision as I have come away from writing (and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting) this and feeling like somewhat of a failure in trying to sum up and make anyone read this book, which I would recommend people do. Its a book that should be a classic and isn’t, though I am hoping with the adaptation on the BBC etc this will now get the attention it deserves. I already have another Winifred Holtby lined up, ‘The Crowded Street‘ which Persephone published and Paul Magrs lent me. I was going to read it for the ‘Persephone Reading Weekend’ but I thought I might be Hotby’d out if i did that. What did I read? You now, thanks to the delay of this post, don’t have long to wait and find out. So have you read ‘South Riding‘ or anything else by Winifred Holtby? I would like some more recommendations, oh and recommendations of other novels where I can feel like a real nosey neighbour again? I think I am becoming a bit of a curtain twitcher.


Filed under Books of 2011, Review, Virago Books, Winifred Holtby

14 responses to “South Riding – Winifred Holtby

  1. I really enjoyed The Crowded Street, Simon! (old review on blog)
    I’ve yet to read South Riding -and have the first in the series digitally recorded- but received the lovely edition above.

    I believe I have recommended the salacious Valley of the Dolls to you before…

    • I will have to hunt down your thoughts on The Crowded Street, I have only been loaned it so I will have to crack on with it soon. Though I would like a mini breather between my Holtbys.

      I actually got The Valley of the Dolls the other day and for a project winging its way to Savidge Reads soon 😉

  2. I’m reading this at the moment and also watching the tv adaptation which makes for interesting reading as I compare the book’s characters with the tv versions. I’m only about 150 pages in and although I am really enjoying it I can see how many folk would find it difficult – just shows how a lot of readers these days like their books on a par with fast food – quickly delivered and not overly flavoursome! I do hope that the tv dramatisation might encourage more readers to take the time to savour Holtby.

    • I get what you mean about fast food fiction. Though we all like a bit of a fast food binge now and again dont we?

      I too am hoping that the tv series bring it to a whole new audience, its a book that deserves to be read.

  3. I have to second ‘Valley of the Dolls’ I might be way off but I suspect you would enjoy it Simon!

  4. I live in the East Riding of Yorkshire, where Winifred Holtby was born. She lived on the Wolds, but she set South Riding in Holderness, the coastal district of the East Riding. I have read the book twice and love it, though it is a little slow at times. One thing is certain – it captures the East Riding between the wars very successfully.Winifred’s mother was a county councillor and so she knew local politics well.I think that this new adaptation is good. About 25 years ago there was a TV version, which took up more time, so they were able to develop more of the story-lines. It’s rather a shame they can’t do this, but I recommend anyone to read the book when they have seen the TV version. Anna Maxwell Martin, the heroine, was born in Beverley, which is our ‘county’ town, and where Winifred’s mother was a councillor (and alderman?). I recognised several local scenes on TV, and only one blob so far, which was tank blocks on the beach. This was a World War II defence device, in case of invasion! It is a verry romantic novel in many ways – prepared to be harrowed!

    • I read that Winifreds mother tried to ban the book, I think she felt that it was too close to home. I liked the occasional slowness of it all to be honest. I liked how the stories came and went too, it is just like village life, ups and downs, fast and slow.

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  6. Jan, having read the preface by Shirley Williams to my 2010 edition, I was very saddened to discover that Winifred’s mother opposed the book’s publication and it created a rift between the two women. It was also interesting that Vera Brittain and Winifred were close friends – Testament of Youth is one of my all time favourite reads.

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  9. When it was her last book (and her best) its so sad to think of that. The reviews of the TV were not that good but I think that was because the treatment was so superficial. I note that The Crimson Petal and the White’ is going to be ‘done’ now. Another fantastic and subtle book which won’t be given enough time. Perhaps we should stop watching telly and stick to books!

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