“South Riding” by Winifred Holtby

BookCoverAccording to Wikipedia, South Riding was published posthumously in 1936. The book is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire: the inspiration being the East Riding rather than South Yorkshire.

Writing in The Guardian, Mark Bostridge notes that the novel  deals with a range of social issues, including education, unemployment, local building programmes, poor relief and the treatment of the insane. He also gives some interesting insights into the author’s life and the inspirations for the book – which include a real-life scandal concerning land purchase, and local council minutes retrieved from her mother’s waste paper basket!

The plot covers a number of interlocking stories surrounding one local area. Sarah Burton is an idealistic young headmistress trying to get her children to aspire beyond their circumstances. Robert Carne is the failing landowner of Maythorpe Hall, rooted in tradition but tormented by his disastrous marriage. Other characters include Joe Astell, a socialist fighting poverty whilst working alongside others cynically seeking advantage for themselves; and Mrs Beddows, the first woman alderman of the district.

We read this in September 2015 when eight people attended the meeting. We almost all enjoyed the book except for Alan who couldn’t find enough enthusiasm about it to finish it and thought that the story had been rather predictable. Many of us commented on the characterisation: Hilary admired the author’s ability to “get under people’s skins” and thought that Holtby was like a female George Bernard Shaw, interested in the interplay between people’s position and class. Jade liked the fact that the characters all had their faults but clear motivations – she compared Holtby to a different author, saying that her skill with stories and characters made her a “more accessible Dickens”. Jill thought the book was well-written, with some good descriptions. Malcolm thought that even some of the minor stories, like a pub landlady silently suffering from the onset of cancer, were engaging and drawn with care.

Evan couldn’t make the meeting but sent on some thoughts:

I thought South Riding was a decent choice. A bit Soap-opera-ish, but redeemed by some very good, well rounded characterisation. It seemed fairly realistic, humorous in part and serious at times.

I think I would have preferred a series of shorter novels featuring the different characters and I found myself less and less keen to pick it up – probably more to do with me than the book, since I could tell I wasn’t going to finish it. I would probably read something else by her if it was a little shorter, or if I had more time to read it.

Our scores were fairly wide-ranging, from a low of 4 all the way up to 9. Our overall average was 7.2, based on 9 readers.

Some further trivia, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Holtby’s mother, Alice, was the first alderwoman on the East Riding County Council, so provides some inspiration to Mrs Beddows.

Holtby left rights to the book to Somerville College, Oxford, which used the royalties to fund a scholarship. Sarah Burton would have approved.

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