South Riding by Winifred Holtby

I read South Riding in February and managed to finish it just in time to watch the recent BBC adaptation. I’m glad I was able to read the book before watching the series as I like to be able to form my own images of the characters before seeing someone else’s interpretation of them. I also think if I hadn’t read the book first I would have found some parts of the adaptation quite confusing.

I first came across Winifred Holtby in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (she and Brittain were close friends) but this is the first time I’ve read any of her work. South Riding, as well as being a wonderful story, is also a realistic and insightful portrait of a community, which reminded me of Middlemarch by George Eliot. It also shares some plot elements with Jane Eyre – one of the main characters even remarks on this herself!

So what is the book actually about? Well, it’s about Sarah Burton who is appointed headmistress of Kiplington High School for Girls and who begins to fall in love with troubled gentleman farmer Robert Carne. It’s also about Lydia Holly, the brightest girl in the school, who is forced to abandon her education and stay at home to look after her younger siblings after their mother dies in childbirth. And it’s about…no, I won’t tell you any more – South Riding is about so many different things I would rather leave you to discover them for yourself. But at the centre of all these storylines is the South Riding council, which makes the important decisions that affect the lives of every character in the book. And there are a lot of characters! When I first opened the book and saw the huge character list at the front, I was slightly overwhelmed: would I be able to keep track of who was who?

The answer is yes, because every one of them is well drawn and memorable. I really admired Sarah Burton. She was a woman who thought she could make a difference and she was prepared to take action to make things happen. But even some of the minor characters (such as Miss Sigglesthwaite, the nervous science teacher and Lily Sawdon, the innkeeper’s invalid wife) get their turn in the spotlight and I was very impressed that Holtby was able to give such a large number of very different characters so much depth. They all feel like real, believable people, people you might live or work with in real life.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed was the portrayal of Yorkshire in the 1930s. Holtby paints vivid pictures and images, from the crowded streets and alleys of Kingsport to ‘The Shacks’, a cluster of huts and converted railway carriages where the poorest families live. The ‘South Riding’ doesn’t actually exist – the North, East and West Ridings are the three historic subdivisions of Yorkshire – but the setting feels completely realistic (Holtby apparently used the East Riding, where she grew up, as her inspiration).

I admit that South Riding hadn’t previously sounded very interesting to me and I hadn’t expected to love it as much as I did. It was a book I looked forward to returning to every day and I was sorry when I reached the final page.

11 thoughts on “South Riding by Winifred Holtby

  1. The Book Whisperer says:

    Great review, Helen. I have looked at this book a few times and you have persuaded me to pick it up (I haven’t seen the TV adaptation either). Being from the West Riding myself I must admit that it being set in Yorkshire appealed to me and when you mentioned elements of Jane Eyre……….SOLD!

  2. Annie says:

    My great grandparents came from the region about which Holtby was writing and from what my mother remembered of the area at that time the book is very accurate indeed. I came to it in the same way that you did and I nave to say that while her other books are worth reading none of her fiction comes anywhere near ‘South Riding’. However, have you read any of her journalism? That is very good indeed. There is a collection in the Virago series called ‘Testament of a Generation’, which combines a selection of her work with that of Vera Brittain. It’s definitely worth getting a copy. Also you might like to see if you can find the relier televised version which was done over thirteen episodes and was much closer to the original work.

    • Helen says:

      No, I haven’t read any of Holtby’s other work – either fiction or journalism – but Testament of a Generation sounds interesting. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Teresa (Lovely Treez Reads) says:

    Delighted to see you shared my love of South Riding, Helen. I do hope that interest in the tv adaptation encourages many more readers to pick up this novel. Like you, the list of characters filled me with some trepidation but I was amazed at how well all of the characters were fleshed out and at how readable the novel is.

    • Helen says:

      I was surprised at how easy to read it was too. For some reason I wasn’t expecting it to be. And yes, hopefully the TV adaptation will have increased interest in the book!

  4. Jessica says:

    I initially wasn’t interested in this until a member of my book group said I’d really enjoy it. I had no idea what the story was about so thanks for the review.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy it if you decide to give it a try. I didn’t originally think it sounded very interesting either, so I was happy to be proved wrong!

  5. Jo says:

    Thank you for the review, I was unsure about whether I would like it or not, especially as I have now read the book.

    I am certainly going to read it now!

    • Helen says:

      This was one of my favourite books that I read in February. I’m so glad I decided to read it, as I had also been very unsure about whether it would be my type of book or not.

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