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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A powerful depiction of English provincial life during the thirties., September 28, 2011
This review is from: South Riding (Virago Modern Classics) (Paperback)
As every schoolboy knows, or at least as every schoolboy knew before the local government reforms of the 1970s, the county of Yorkshire was traditionally divided into three ridings, North, East and West. Those schoolboys who inquired (as I did) why there was not a South Riding were generally told by their schoolmasters in a lofty tone of voice that as the word "riding" derived from an Old English word meaning "a third part" it would be illogical for there to be four ridings rather than three.

Winifred Holtby clearly also seems to have felt that there should have been a South Riding, as she used this as the title of her best-known novel. She is not writing about the area around Sheffield which is today known as South Yorkshire, but which in the 1930s was still part of the West Riding. Her South Riding is her native East Riding by another name; like Hardy, she used the device of disguising real places under fictitious names. Hull becomes Kingsport, Beverley Flintonbridge, Bridlington Hardrascliffe, and so on.

Although written in the fourth decade of the twentieth century, "South Riding", is in many ways a traditional nineteenth century novel. With its linear narrative, omniscient narrator and panoramic view of a wide cross-section of society it is reminiscent of the work of Dickens, Bennett and the George Eliot of "Middlemarch". Another literary influence appears to have been Charlotte Bronte. The portrait of Robert Carne, an aloof, patrician Yorkshire squire struggling to cope with the burden of a mentally-ill wife and to bring up a young daughter, owes a lot to Edward Rochester in "Jane Eyre", and there are certainly similarities between Carne's wife Muriel and Rochester's wife Bertha. (Holtby's contemporary Daphne du Maurier also drew upon "Jane Eyre" in her "Rebecca").

Holtby was politically on the Left; she was a convinced socialist, pacifist and feminist. A combination of political radicalism and artistic conservatism was, however, more common than one might think. In some leftist circles it was customary to decry artistic modernism as "bourgeois formalism". Holtby herself did not go so far. She was by no means hostile to the modern movement; she wrote, for example, a critical appreciation of Virginia Woolf. She believed, however, that a novel with a traditional structure was a better vehicle for conveying social and political ideas to a wide audience than a modernist one, and "South Riding" is very much a novel with a political message. Much of the book describes the proceedings of the South Riding County Council and the struggle by the reformist faction on the Council to bring about social reform in the teeth of much determined opposition from conservative elements, of whom Carne is the most prominent. The eight sections into which the novel is divided are named after various committees of the Council, such as "Education" or "Housing and Town Planning".

I will not attempt to summarise the plot, as there are numerous interconnected strands, following the fortunes of a large number of characters drawn from all sectors of society. The most important strand deals with the relationship between Carne and Sarah Burton, the headmistress of a girl's school, who falls in love with him. As Carne is a traditionalist landowner, deeply reactionary in his political views, and as Sarah in many ways represents the author's own social radicalism, theirs might seem an unlikely romance. (Sarah's close friend, the elderly Alderman Mrs Beddows, is a portrait of the author's own mother). Yet Holtby, unlike some writers with a political agenda, was not so prejudiced that she refused to see any good in her opponents. She makes little secret of the fact that she finds Carne's politics deplorable, but allows him some good qualities as a man. He is not a capitalist ogre but a man who, by his own standards, tries to do his best for his wife, his daughter and even his workers and tenants, despite his straitened financial circumstances. Most of his income comes from farming, and farmers have been badly hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Another of Carne's good qualities is his honesty, a quality not shared by all those who claim to speak for progress. Another important thread in the book is a scheme by the Machiavellian Councillor Anthony Snaith to develop a piece of land for social housing. Although such housing is indeed desperately needed by the poor of the district, Snaith's real purpose is to make a good deal of money from a complicated land deal. One of the most vividly-drawn characters is Snaith's hypocritical associate, Councillor Alfred Ezekiel Huggins, a devout Methodist lay preacher and equally devout womaniser who somehow manages to reconcile both his womanising and his corrupt scheming with his conscience. Joe Astell, a radical Socialist Councillor, is not personally corrupt, yet in his zeal for social reform allows himself to become associated with Snaith and Huggins's scheme, something which Carne resolutely refuses to do.

A third major plot thread involves Lydia Holly, an academically gifted schoolgirl from a poor working-class family whose future is threatened when her mother dies and she is forced to look after her younger siblings. Mrs Holly is one of a number of characters suffering from terminal or life-threatening illnesses. This reflects the fact that Winifred Holtby was herself seriously ill while writing the book and knew that she did not have long to live. (She died, in fact, shortly after completing it and did not live to see it published).

Yet this is not a morbid or depressing book; in many ways its conclusion is an optimistic one. Although the book was written at a time of economic hardship, Holtby does not dwell on misery but offers a positive message that conditions can be changed for the better, and her optimism can be admired even by those who do not share her political analysis. My one criticism would be that there are perhaps too many plot threads, making it difficult to follow the changing fortunes of so many difficult characters. Overall, however, it is a powerfully written depiction of English provincial life during its period.
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Location: Tunbridge Wells, Kent, United Kingdom

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