Category Archives: Winifred Holtby

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