A slice of political and day-to-day life: South Riding

June 22nd, 2011 Posted in 52 Books in one year challenge, Award-Winning, Fiction, Kelly, Literary Fiction

South RidingWinifred Holtby’s posthumously published novel South Riding is considered the best work of  her too-short career. Set in the fictional “South Riding” area of Yorkshire (but inspired by the real-life East Riding), the novel follows the lives of multiple characters as they navigate life in Yorkshire during the Great Depression.

I read South Riding after watching the Masterpiece Classic adaptation, and I’m sure my opinion was colored by the experience. The TV adaptation focuses on Sarah Burton, the newly appointed Headmistress of the local girl’s school. In many ways she’s the heart of the story, but the novel spends equal time with a large cast of additional characters. While I enjoyed the series, the last hour or so felt a little rushed. The novel feels more complete. I’m glad I’ve read the novel and seen the series.

At its heart, South Riding is a political novel although it does focus on the relationship between Sarah Burton and Robert Carne. Carne is a landowner struggling to stay afloat, caught between providing quality care for a mentally-ill wife and keeping his farm from going bankrupt. His plight shows the lives of farmers and struggling landowners struggling during the depression. Carne is the counterpart to more progressive individuals who want to do more to help the poor—build council estates, new schools, etc—even though the local government doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Yet Carne is sympathetic to the poor, able to relate to them in ways that this fellow committee members can’t. Other councilmen—like Joe Astell—have grand ideas about helping the working (or unemployed) man, and discount the effect of the depression on farmers and landowners like Carne. Characters like the smart, talented, but poor Lydia Holly represent the people who need help while adding human interest to the story.

No description of South Riding is complete without mentioning the salty Alderman Mrs. Beddows (unique since she’s the first woman to sit on the council). She’s a friend to Carne, eventually forms a bond with Burton, and from a literary perspective, is a strong, well-written character throughout the novel.

South Riding is an especially interesting read today given our economic climate. The parallels between political scapegoats, how to best help our communities, etc, are paralleled and make our current situation seem like something we’ve faced before. The novel itself is strongly written, with memorable characters. The sheer number of characters can be daunting, but they help create a large portrait of Yorkshire life.

One final note: South Riding won the illustrious James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1936.

Read by: Kelly

Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
Date Read: June 2011
Source: Public Library

 

 

 

Tags: , , , , ,



Leave a Reply