This is my review of South Riding (Virago Modern Classics) by Winifred Holtby.
Feckless blacksmith's daughter made good, Sarah Burton returns as a headmistress to the coastal Yorkshire of her youth, resolved to inspire her girls to "Take what you want" and to "Question everything". It is a time of change, with the old social order of rural life breaking down and a growing division between town and country. The depression of the 1930s is combining with the aftermath of the First World War and hints of the rise of Hitler and Mussolini to destabilise the world in the next major conflict.
Sarah's progressive ideas and desire for modern, well-equipped school buildings are at odds with the values of the traditional, stubborn yet honourable and charismatic local landowner Robert Calne. Yet this proves to be much more than a sentimental romance or soap opera, rather the moving and in-depth portrayal of a community which Winifred Holtby understood partly through growing up as a Yorkshire farmer's daughter but also through her mother's accounts of working as the first woman councillor for the East Riding, embellished by her unwise habit of leaving council meeting minutes screwed up in her waste-paper bin. The resultant storyline of corruption and speculation over land deals, the achievement of the desirable "ends" of building decent council housing by questionable means, so alarmed Winifred's mother that she obstructed publication of "South Riding" until after her daughter's untimely death.
The author's knowledge of her own imminent death gives "South Riding" an edge. She does not flinch from "killing off" characters and revealing the hardship in a world that predates the NHS, social work safety net and compulsory secondary education for girls under sixteen. Yet the book is saved from mawkish sorrow by the lively dialogues, striking descriptions, wry humour and realism of the narrative, with wonderful anecdotes from some of the characters.
At over five hundred pages, it may seem rather long, but the plus side is that the reader can become immersed in the characters' lives. This deserves to be called a "classic" with its hints of Thomas Hardy's Wessex, "Under Milkwood", George Eliot's "Middlemarch" and Arnold Bennett's "Five Towns", with the drama switched to the East Yorkshire wolds, crumbling cliffs, dramatic sunsets and constant presence of the sea. The story is all the more powerful and authentic for having been written during the period to which it relates. Winifred Holtby shows great prescience in sensing "the way things were going" and some issues, such as recession, the venality and self-interest of politicians, the uncertainty of life and the "sturdy endurance in obscurity" of ordinary people still resonate today.