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South Riding by Winifred Holtby : tradition versus progress

If I had relied entirely upon the back cover synopsis, I doubt I would have read Winifred Holby’s final novel, South Riding.

The blurb gave me the impression the focus would be on Sarah Burton, the idealistic new head of a girls’ school in a fictional Yorkshire seaside town and her clashes with conservative locals. It sounded rather tame.

Fortunately there are plenty of bloggers around whose opinions I have learned to trust more than a publisher’s synopsis.

South Riding is a novel that evokes the lives of people in a Yorkshire community that is trying to recover from the tumult of the First World War. Former soldiers, local politicians, religious leaders and the working men who struggle to make a living: all are conscious that their world is changing. They just have different ideas about what should change and how.

One of the chief advocates for change is the outsider Sarah Burton. She’s a spirited woman whose idealism is matched with an eminently practical nature.  Faced with a tumble down building and a school that doesn’t have the greatest of academic reputations, she decides her first battle ground will be the toilet arrangements.

I don’t really mind a hall the size of a cupboard, a pitch dark cellar-gymnasium and laboratories housed in a broken-down conservatory; but these beetle-hunted cloakrooms I will not have. They’re enough to constipate any child for months. I will have those altered.

Sanitary provisions are but a step towards her greater goal of a world from which disease, poverty and ignorance have been eradicated. In her opinion that will take government  intervention.

Conservatism Versus Progress

Opposing her is the book’s representative of the gentility; local squire Robert Carne. He’s conservative by nature, opposed in principle to the idea that local government should expand its sphere of influence. Carne is very much a man of the past not the future. He sticks to traditional methods of farming but despite his best efforts he cannot make his estate pay its way and his manor home is crumbling about his ears.

His conservatism also puts him at odds with  other members of the local county council, Alderman Snaith and Councillor Joe Astell, who connive to push ahead with their own plan for change. But their desire to replace a slum area with a new town, complete with new job opportunities, is not motivated entirely by altruistic principles.

The clash between the forces of tradition and progress is played out in the chamber of the county council. This is where decisions are made affecting the lives of everyone in South Riding:  whether roads will be built, slums cleared, a new maternity hospital established. But anyone expecting to hear lively debates about critical issues, quickly gets their ideas squashed. When young journalist Lovell Brown witnesses his first meeting of the county council, he discovers it is far from an exciting spectacle.

Without emotion, without haste, without even, so far as Lovell could discern, any noticeable interest, the South Riding County Council ploughed through its agenda. The General mumbled; the clerk shuffled papers, the chairman of committees answered desultory questions.

It’s a testament to Holtby’s skills that she makes us care about what happens in this mundane world of local politics.

Desire Versus Reality

Politics aside, South Riding is a very human novel. Holtby isn’t afraid to show life as it really was in the 1930s and that there are no easy answers.  Sarah declares she wants her pupils “to know they can do anything,” but the case of one girl, Lydia Holly, shows the gulf between her desire and what is possible. Lydia is a bright and intelligent girl who lives in “the Shacks” – a set of disused railway carriages. She dreams of a scholarship and learning but her ambitions have to be set aside  when she is required to become a substitute mother for her many younger brothers and sisters.

All of human life is depicted in South Riding. Almost every character in this novel (there are some 160 of them) has a problem. Cancer for one, poverty for another, a loveless marriage for a third. We feel for all of them but Winifred Holtby shows that a happy ending is possible for only a few.

Rather than the plot it’s the way Holtby brings these characters to life and shows them as distinctly human with their shortcomings as well as seams of goodness, that makes South Riding such an enjoyable read.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby: Endnotes

Winifred Holtby. Source: Wikipedia
Creative Commons Licence

Winifred Holtby came from a prosperous family who had a farm in the East Riding of Yorkshire. She joined the  Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in early 1918 but only shortly after she arrived in France, World War 1 came to an end. She returned to England and began studying at Oxford University. There she met Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Britain. The two shared a flat in London after their graduation, intending to launch careers as writers.

She published six novels between 1923 and 1933, together with collections of short stories and poetry. During her life she was better known as a journalist than as an author. She wrote for more than 20 newspapers and magazines, including the Manchester Guardian newspaper. 

In 1931 Winifred was diagnosed as suffering from Bright’s disease ( a form of liver disease) and given just two years to live. Aware of her impending death, Holtby devoted her remaining life to completing her final novel South Riding.

Winifred Holtby died on 29 September 1935, aged 37.

South Riding was published in 1936. It’s a fictional county based on the East Riding where Winifred’ was born and where her mother was an alderman (an elected representative to the local council). The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1936. Holtby bequeathed the rights to her alma mater, Somerville College, Oxford. The college has used royalties from the book and her earlier novel Pavements at Anderby to fund a scholarship in her name.

To understand her impact on literature, its worth reading the article “Winifred Holtby: author, feminist, campaigner” published in The Guardian in 2017.

It’s a shame that her other novels are not more easily available. I thought Persephone had published several o but I can see only one on their website: The Crowded Street. Virago fortunately has a few more in their Virago Modern Classics imprint.

This review was posted originally in 2018. This updated version incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover. Formatting has been changed to improve readability.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

30 thoughts on “South Riding by Winifred Holtby : tradition versus progress

  • In the 1980s, when I was a councillor in a now defunct county that included the East Riding and met in Beverly, the very room where those council meetings decribed in South Riding took place, Winifred was never far from the lips of colleagues who represented East Riding areas (I was a pariah from South of the Humber!).
    To my shame I never read her book, although I have read Vera Brittan’s – not least because the latter was the mother of a poitician I admired, Now that I have read your review I will seek it out.
    By the way, Aldermen were elected, not by the electorate but by the elected councillors. This is from Brittanica: Under legislation that reformed English local government in the 19th century, the term alderman was used to designate one type of membership in borough, municipal, and county councils. Of these councils’ two types of members, councillors were elected by the voters, while aldermen were elected by the councillors. These aldermen had legislative, administrative, and some judicial functions. Because it was viewed as undemocratic, the office of alderman was abolished throughout England (except in the government of the City of London) by the Local Government Act of 1972.

    • How on earth did you manage to resist reading it given your connections???
      I never knew that about aldermen. I worked in local authorities in Wales for many years but the aldermen designation had long gone by then.

  • You’re so right about blurbs some of which remind me of estate agents’ rhapsodies. I read this as a teenager, far too young to fully take in the social commentary, but I do remember being absorbed by it. I also enjoyed the TV adaptation with Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey broadcast in 2011, far longer ago than I’d thought until I looked it up!

    • David Morrissey is always watchable in my eyes so I shall be digging that out. It sounds like the perfect programme for a dull winter’s afternoon.

  • I loved the TV series of South Riding very many years ago. One day i must read the book!

    • I didn’t know there had been an adaptation until you and Susan (Life in Books) mentioned it. Off to hunt down a copy if I can

  • Such a wonderful book, I will definitely have to re-read it one of these days. It’s a big favourite of mine.

    • I started reading it years ago but never got further than chapter 1. I don’t know what my hesitation was. I completely forgot I had the book until I was doing a bit of a clear out of the bedside cabinet and found it lurking at the back. A happy find!

    • An important influence in your own writing I’ll hazard, Judith

    • I wasn’t keen on the headmistress but loved the family who lived in the caravans

    • It’s a great book to curl up with on a winter’s evening or afternoon. Some good “issues” to think about but nothing too heavy

  • I like the sound of this one… and you are so right about the blurbs…

  • Judy Krueger

    Sounds delightful and your review made me think of that stand alone novel by J K Rowling, The Casual Vacancy. I don’t think anyone else liked it but I thought it was quite brilliant and dealt with a similar topic though in modern times.

    • I never got to read the Rowling because they did an adaptation on tv and I just couldn’t bear it. It put me off the book….

  • To my eternal shame I own this and several Holtbys and still have to read them. And blurb is so often misleading. I find skimming the first few pages is often a better indicator of whether you should pick up a book or not! 🙂

    • You’ve completely thrown me by that ‘confession’. I was sure you and Ali were the people who told me how good it was 🙂

  • I love this book. You’re right about it being a very human novel. I thought the characters very real and it’s definitely a book I want to re-read. That blurb really did the book a dis-service.

    • I think this is one that would easily withstand re-reading. I loved the depiction of the council having worked in those organisations for a few years I knew exactly what she was portraying

  • I adore this book and have read it a few times. The book I just read has a blurb that talks of an important phone call that looks like it starts the book … it actually happens on p. 404 of 437!!

    • How ridiculous is that! It makes me think the person who had to come up with that blurb was struggling to find anything to say

  • I loved South Riding! It’s one of those books that make you feel as though you are there taking part in the action in the 1930s. And, as you say, Holtby brings the characters to life and makes us care about them. I’d love to re-read and enjoy it again and again.

    • That’s an interesting reaction Margaret. Yes she did make me feel very much part of the community and embroiled in its affairs

  • Just skimming your review for now as I have a copy of South Riding in my TBR. 160 characters, that’s quite a cast list!

    • When I saw the list I got a bit worried because I am really bad at remembering names. But some have very minor roles so don’t worry!

  • I never trust the publishers blurbs anymore. I enjoy Yorkshire tales and this sounds interesting. I love the cover. Happy weekend.

    • It must be difficult to write those blurbs so that you get people’s attention without giving too much away. And they have to fit it all into a paragraph or two so I can understand how they get it wrong some times


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