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.

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