South Riding, By Winfred Holtby

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Re-issued to coincide with Andrew Davies's new BBC television adaptation, Winifred Holtby's 1935 novel South Riding rings with timely parallels. Set in the early 1930s, it concerns the dilemmas facing a fictional northern council. Presented with new austerity measures, the local dignitaries must decide whether to slash spending on welfare, or adopt a bold programme of public works to stimulate economic recovery. It's Holtby's genius that a novel about local government should make such an extraordinary and absorbing read.

Ever a champion of the forward-looking "spinster", Holtby creates as her engaging heroine Sarah Burton, who is every much a woman of her times. Having lost her fiancé in the trenches, this 39-year-old teacher decides to return from London and apply for the headship of a local girls' grammar school. Her appointment divides the council and local opinion, though sufficient prove willing to back the local "lass" who wants to put something back into the community.

Chief among Sarah's detractors is Robert Carne, a gentleman farmer and horse-breeder, who by rights should be the book's romantic hero - if only Holtby believed in such figures. There are, however, no happy endings in store for the flame-haired headmistress and the "big heavy handsome unhappy-looking man". Success and satisfaction are destined to arrive in different guises - as was true for so many of Holtby's generation, whose hopes of marriage and family were dashed by war.

Rich in humour and worldly insight, Holtby's novel was largely inspired by the working life of her own mother, Alice Holtby, the first woman alderman to serve on the East Riding County Council. In an introduction addressed to her mother, Holtby pays tribute to a system of local government that she saw as "the essence of first line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies - poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment."

Holtby, a close friend and one time flatmate of the writer and pacifist Vera Brittain, died aged 37, just months before the publication of what was to become her best known novel. This panoramic story of local politics stands as testament not only to Holtby's strong belief in public service, but her affection for the people and "rain-rinsed green" landscapes of her native Yorkshire.