Sunday, 20 February 2011

South Riding, Winifred Holtby

I wouldn’t have heard of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding if it hadn’t been for the new 3-part BBC adaptation masterminded by Andrew Davies of Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House fame and due to start airing in the UK tonight. A largely forgotten work, it has been compared with George Eliot’s Middlemarch, being a portrait of an entire community at a difficult time – in this case, the 1930s, between two world wars and an era of depression. South Riding has been hailed by novelist Sarah Waters as “a twentieth century classic,” so I have chosen it for Sarah’s Back to  the Classics challenge.

Although there is a large cast of central, viewpoint characters, the main protagonist is Miss Sarah Burton, who is newly appointed as headmistress of a girls’ high school in the South Riding, Yorkshire. At thirty nine, Sarah was much younger than her competition for the job, and a very modern woman. She is full of idealism and a love for life, and full of ambition to encourage her girls to realise their potential, not to be held back by their sex or poverty.

Holtby also shows us the details of the local government trying to do their best at a time of financial crisis, covering themes and issues that are all too familiar to a modern reader, and it’s sad to see how little has changed. The slums of the South Riding may be gone, but there is much that resonates – the trap and stigma of unemployment and poverty – Mr Holly, for example, is described as being two shillings a week better off when on the dole than when working as most of his wages go towards his travel. His daughter, Lydia, is an excellent student and a scholarship girl at the high school, but she can’t afford to go to college and fulfil her potential, and her responsibility to her younger siblings keeps her out of school.

"A twentieth-century classic"
- Sarah Waters
South Riding, like Middlemarch, shows everyone’s point of view in turn, good and bad. My first impression of Councillor Huggins was the tired old stereotype of religious hypocrisy, preaching fire and brimstone from the pulpit and in his spare time ogling pretty ladies in their swimming costumes on the beach. But we get to know him as a compassionate man, with a good heart and an agonising awareness of his own weaknesses. It’s painful to watch him trying and trying to make amends and digging himself deeper into trouble. Then, there is sad, tormented farmer and landowner Robert Carne, who is as good as widowed with a mad wife who doesn’t recognise him. He is on the verge of financial ruin and fears that his teenage daughter Midge will go the same way as his wife. Midge, herself, is a bratty, spoilt kid, but underlying is loneliness and a desperate longing to be popular.

With such a large cast of viewpoint characters, it’s inevitable that some get only a little page space, but this does not mean that they’re not fleshed-out properly. Holtby brings her characters to life in a chapter or two, then they pop up a bit later in the background with an update on a situation you can quite believe has been carrying on away from the readers’ eyes.

The casting of the BBC adaptation features several familiar actors, faces who seem to pop up everywhere, such as Anna Maxwell Martin, (Bleak House) David Morrissey (Blackpool) and Penelope Wilton (Doctor Who’s Harriet Jones Former Prime Minister (Yes We Know Who You Are) and Downton Abbey.) All are actors I admire and enjoy watching, and this as much as anything else persuaded me that South Riding is a book and series that might be worth a look at.

There is of course a little bit of romance – name me a book without it! – or at least the hope of romance between Sarah and Carne. This came as no surprise: Sarah is the heroine after all, and Carne is a brooding, tortured soul – as well as being played by the rather handsome David Morrissey. Their relationship was clearly meant to be a Pride and Prejudice- style hatred which reveals itself to be a disguise for attraction. Yet in the book, Sarah’s first realisation of being in love seemed to come from the blue, prompted by a few grumpy encounters in which I, at least, noticed no signs of attraction. No doubt on the screen their scenes will be slow-paced to allow for many long, smouldering looks, supported by appropriate music. But we’ll see.

4 stars 

For UK viewers, the first episode of South Riding is on BBC1 at 9PM tonight.
In the USA, PBS have scheduled part 1 for May 1st this year.

If you enjoy this, you may like:
Middlemarch - George Eliot
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
Bleak House - Charles Dickens
TV: Cranford (or the book by Elizabeth Gaskell)
TV: Lark Rise to Candleford (or the book by Flora Thompson)


  1. Hi, I found this review really interesting to read as I too wasn't aware of the book until I saw the BBC series advertised. I watched it last night and was impressed! A great cast, breathtaking scenery and gorgeous costumes. I actually wrote a blog post myself about it yesterday! I'm definitely going to read the book now.

    Alexandra Thérèse xx

  2. Thanks for the review! I meant to check out the TV show last night - it sounds like something I might like!

  3. What a fantastic summary. I now must read.



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