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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015