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.

Virago Reading Week: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

This is my second post for Virago Reading Week, hosted by Rachel of Book Snob and Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books. When I was choosing my books for this week, I knew it was time to try something by Elizabeth von Arnim, a writer whose work I had never read but who seems to be one of the most popular and most loved Virago authors.

The Enchanted April, first published in 1922, is the story of four women who rent a castle in Italy together one April. The women are strangers to each other at the beginning of the novel, but each of them has her own reasons for wanting a holiday. Spending a month at San Salvatore surrounded by sunshine and flowers gives each woman a chance to resolve her problems and try to find happiness.

Our four main characters have very different personalities and very different circumstances. First, there’s Lotty Wilkins who has grown tired of having her life controlled by her husband and is desperate to escape from him for a while. Calm, grave Rose Arbuthnot has the opposite problem: her husband is so wrapped up in his career that he barely remembers she exists:

To be missed, to be needed, from whatever motive, was, she thought, better than the complete loneliness of not being missed or needed at all.

Then there’s Lady Caroline Dester, also known as ‘Scrap’, who is bored with her life and just wants to be left alone. And finally there’s Mrs Fisher who, at sixty-five, is older than the others, and spends most of her time reminiscing about the past.

The story begins when Lotty and Rose meet for the first time in a Women’s Club in London one rainy afternoon and decide to respond to an advertisement in The Times:

To Those Who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine: Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be Let furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z. Box 1000, The Times.

How could anyone resist answering an ad like that? However, they need to find another two ladies to help share the cost and this is where Lady Caroline and Mrs Fisher come into the story. All four of the female protagonists are interesting, complex people and I enjoyed seeing how they were transformed by their time in Italy. I think my favourite was probably Lady Caroline. She’s tired of being surrounded by people who only care about her looks and money and throughout the novel she attempts to keep her companions at a distance – but as the reader, we are given an insight into her mind and can understand her unhappiness.

People were exactly like flies. She wished there were nets for keeping them off too. She hit at them with words and frowns, and like the fly they slipped between her blows and were untouched. Worse than the fly, they seemed unaware that she had even tried to hit them. The fly at least did for a moment go away. With human beings the only way to get rid of them was to go away herself.

I’m so glad my first experience with von Arnim was a good one. I hadn’t expected something so readable and full of gentle humour and wit and yet with so much depth and such a lot of character development. I also loved the setting and the atmosphere. The images of Italy in the spring were beautifully described, with the sun shining and the flowers bursting into bloom. I defy anybody to read this story and not want to immediately book a trip to Italy this April!

As the title suggests, The Enchanted April is a lovely, enchanting story! After enjoying this one so much, I’ll definitely be reading more of Elizabeth von Arnim’s books – any suggestions as to which one I should read next?

Virago Reading Week: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was written during World War I and published in 1918. The soldier of the title is Christopher Baldry, who has just been sent home from a hospital in Boulogne. Chris is suffering from severe amnesia and is unable to remember the last fifteen years of his life. He can’t wait to be reunited with his girlfriend Margaret Allington, the daughter of an innkeeper on Monkey Island. Unfortunately, though, Margaret is no longer his girlfriend – she’s married to another man and is now Mrs Grey. And to make matters even more complicated, Chris has a wife of his own.

The story is narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin, who has been staying at his home, Baldry Court, with his wife, Kitty. Jenny is unmarried but appears to be in love with Chris herself and is devoted to making him happy. When it becomes obvious that Chris really can’t remember Kitty and is still in love with Margaret, the three women are faced with a decision. Is it better for him to be ‘cured’ and regain his memory, even if it means bringing back the horrors of war – or should he be left as he is, blissfully unaware of what has happened during the last fifteen years?

Despite being a quick read at less than 200 pages, The Return of the Soldier raises some interesting issues and leaves the reader with a lot to think about. Although the title character is a First World War soldier, this is not really a book about the war itself and we learn almost nothing about what Chris experienced (in fact, I felt that we didn’t really get to know Chris very well at all). Instead, West takes the war as a starting point to explore some of the consequences that arose from it, such as memory loss as a symptom of the shell shock which many soldiers suffered due to their horrific experiences in the trenches.

But to me, the major theme of this novel was West’s portrayal of class differences, with the rich, spoilt Kitty on one side and the poor, plain Margaret on the other. Kitty treats Margaret with disdain and contempt and Jenny initially shares the same views. I actually found the first couple of chapters quite difficult to read because of their nasty attitudes. For example, this is what Jenny thinks of Margaret on their first meeting:

She was repulsively furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

Eventually Jenny’s attitude starts to change and she begins to see why Chris loves Margaret so much. However, Kitty’s character is never really developed at all. I was expecting Kitty and her relationship with Chris to play a bigger part in the story, but this didn’t happen. Instead, as Margaret comes into the forefront of the story and we start to see her inner beauty and warmth, Kitty’s role becomes less significant.

This book can easily be read in one sitting, which is exactly what I did as I didn’t want to put it down. Rebecca West’s writing is beautiful and for such a short book it was very moving and poignant. Just a word of warning, though – don’t read the back cover first as it gives the ending away!

I read this book as part of the Virago Reading Week hosted by Carolyn of A Few of My Favourite Books and Rachel of Book Snob.

Review: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

This is the second Daphne du Maurier book I have read this month.  I hope eventually I’ll have time to read all of them because so far none of her books have disappointed me.

Like I’ll Never Be Young Again, which I read at the beginning of May, My Cousin Rachel is written in the first person from a male perspective. Also as in I’ll Never Be Young Again, the male narrator is a naïve, immature man who I found it difficult to sympathise with. His name is Philip Ashley, a twenty-four year old Englishman who has been raised by an older cousin, having lost both his parents at an early age. Philip and his cousin Ambrose have a very close relationship and Philip is left confused and jealous when Ambrose suddenly marries a woman he meets in Italy. This woman happens to be another cousin of theirs – their cousin Rachel.

Early in the novel, Ambrose dies and Rachel returns alone to the Ashley estate in England. At first, Philip is convinced his cousin Rachel was responsible for Ambrose’s death, but after meeting her he’s not so sure…

My Cousin Rachel is often compared with Daphne du Maurier’s most famous book, Rebecca, and although the two books are very different in many ways, I can see the reasons for the comparisons. The books share some common elements, including the estate in Cornwall (based on du Maurier’s own home, Menabilly) and the mysterious, secretive woman, but the biggest resemblance is in the atmosphere the writing conveys. Daphne du Maurier is one of the most atmospheric writers I know of. Whether she’s writing about the streets of Florence or the coast of Cornwall she always manages to convey a mood perfectly suited to the location and draws you completely into the world she has created. My Cousin Rachel has a strong feeling of foreboding, where from the beginning you know something bad is going to happen and you’re just waiting to see what it is.

Throughout the book, my opinion of Rachel was constantly changing. It was hard to form an accurate idea of what Rachel was like, as we only really saw her through Philip’s eyes and he was not a reliable narrator. Another thing that added to the vagueness and uncertainty of the story was that we were never told exactly when it was taking place. It was obvious that the book was set in the 19th century, but which decade? And what was the name of the Ashley estate? Unless I missed it, we weren’t told that either. It seems to be quite typical of Daphne du Maurier to withhold information from us in this way – after all, in Rebecca we aren’t even told the narrator’s name!

There are a lot of loose ends and questions left unanswered at the end of the book, which is something that often bothers me, but in this case I didn’t mind. I liked the way there were aspects of the story that could be interpreted in several different ways. I expect it would have been a good book to read with a group, as the ambiguity would lead to some interesting discussions and theories.


Pages: 304/Publisher: Virago Press (Virago Modern Classics 491)/Year: 2008 (originally published 1951)/Source: Library book