The tragic story of 'South Riding'

As a new TV version of Winifred Holtby's novel begins, Shirley Williams remembers her 'Aunt Winifred' – and the pain she overcame to produce the classic work

Winifred Holtby, who had met my mother, Vera Brittain, in the autumn of 1919, when both were students at Somerville College, Oxford, was, like her, a writer.

The two young women had rented a flat in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, after leaving university, and together tried to break into the world of journalism and writing books.

Both were regarded as unconventionally progressive writers, addressing topics like birth control not much discussed in respectable society. After my mother married in 1925, she and my father shared their home with Winifred. And after my brother John and I were born, she shared in our early upbringing too.

With eyes the colour of cornflowers and hair the pale gold of summer wheat in her native Yorkshire Wolds, Winifred couldn't easily be overlooked. Indeed, she might have been a descendant of the Vikings who had ravaged and occupied so much of the east coast of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire centuries before. Tall – nearly 6ft – and slim, she was incandescent with the radiance of her short and concentrated life. For she died, aged 37, when I was only five.

South Riding, Winifred Holtby's masterpiece, was born of two powerful factors in her life: her deep roots in the Yorkshire countryside and her fascination with the comedies and tragedies of local government.

The first was nourished by accompanying her father, David Holtby, around his Rudston farm in the wolds of the East Riding, a land of rich earth and huge skies. The second began with admiration for her mother, the formidable Alice Holtby, the first woman to become an alderman on East Riding County Council.

The young Winifred pieced together her mother's career from minutes of local government committees and newspaper cuttings thrown away in wastepaper baskets; an early example of investigative journalism.

South Riding, like Thomas Hardy's Wessex, is an invented place. That place is, however, steeped in the traditions of Yorkshire, the stoicism, humour and directness of its people, the majesty of its hills and skies. It is also a story of the often painful confrontation between the old ways of farming, shaped by the immutable disciplines of the seasons and the weather, governed by territorial and family loyalties, and the new apostles of progress and radical change.

In a grand novel redolent of the compassion and generosity of its author, Winifred embodied these conflicting cultures in her heroes, the modern-minded headmistress, Sarah Burton, and the melancholy passionate landowner, Robert Carne, with whom, despite their profound differences, she falls deeply in love.

South Riding somehow triumphed over the heavy odds against its publication; Alderman Mrs Holtby and other members of her extended family detested the exploration of their lives and their public work. Descriptions of illness, poverty, death, desire and love, the companions of human existence, were eschewed as intrusive, even vulgar. Winifred's touching, indeed beseeching prefatory letter to her mother, Alderman Mrs Holtby, tells the reader about the gulf of incomprehension between mother and daughter. To the end, Alice Holtby opposed the book's publication.

Winifred, its author, wrote under the shadow of a death sentence. She had contracted scarlet fever as a schoolgirl, which developed into Bright's disease, sclerosis of the kidneys. She was often in the care of doctors and nursing homes, the radiance of her exuberant joy in life dimmed by sickness.

Yet her generous spirit was unable to refuse help to her friends, to the poor, the homeless and the desperate. In the last few months of her life, as she fought to complete South Riding, she also cared for her sick niece Anne, for her mother, and for my brother John and me when my mother, Winifred's dearest friend, was coping with my father's serious illness and her own father's suicide.

My mother did all she could to make amends. She edited South Riding, gradually overcame the opposition of Alderman Mrs Holtby and her associates, and advocated the novel in every way she could. That in 1936 it won several of the great literary prizes and became a much praised film in 1938 directed by Victor Saville, with Ralph Richardson among its leading actors, was some compensation for the suffering of its own making. It is the great epic of local government, a monument to the tens of thousands who serve their fellow human beings at the grassroots where things grow.

© Shirley Williams 2010, extracted from South Riding, published by Virago, price £8.99.

Book Offer

*South Riding was first published by Virago Press in 1988. To order your copy now at the special discount price of £7.99 (postage and packing free), please ring 01832 737525. The order reference is LB 137.

A new television adaptation of South Riding, by Andrew Davies, begins tomorrow, Sunday, at 9pm on BBC1. Anna Maxwell Martin stars as Sarah Burton, Winifred Holtby's heroine, with David Morrissey as Robert Carne, the man with whom she falls in love.

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little