Book Review: South Riding

The details:

Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1936)
Pages: 502
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

Sarah Burton moves back to the fictional South Riding, in Yorkshire, with an ambitious plan. Having just been appointed the headmistress of the local girl’s high school, she wants to remake it into something spectacular. She was originally from the area, but had moved away, eventually attending university and taking a teaching position in London. But she’s determined not to settle into what might seem inevitable. Sarah wants to form the world for herself. As she arrives back in South Riding, suitcase in hand, she thinks: “I was born to be a spinster, and, by God, I’m going to spin.”

This is a novel about how local government can affect the citizens of a small English town, but it is also about being resolved to make the most of life. While the great institutions are spinning about us, as politicians make plans out of altruism or self-interest, there is Sarah, manipulating the school’s governors into improving the school building. There is Sarah guiding the young girls at her school and teaching them how to go from giggling adolescents to purposeful women. She is adored by the schoolgirls, including Lydia Holly, whose home situation threatens to throw her promising academic career off track, and Midge Carne, daughter of the local landowner, Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall, the only one of the school’s governors to vote against appointing Sarah as headmistress.

When she arrives in South Riding, Sarah holds a grudge against the gruff, handsome, reserved Robert Carne. Their first one-on-one meeting takes place on a lonely, snowy road with him on horseback, a setting reminiscent of the first meeting between Rochester and his governess in Jane Eyre. Their relationship remains fraught, gradually thawing with each meeting. He has problems of his own; his wife is unwell and has to be kept in a mental hospital at great expense. He fears Midge might be going the same way. Other local politicians are scheming against him, ruining his chances of becoming an alderman in the opening chapter. And the great estate, Maythorpe Hall, is not bringing in the sort of money that will support running it from year-to-year. He is tormented by his past, by the memory of his wife and his behavior towards her.

The cast of characters is large and seems to expand with each chapter. There is the man, a socialist named Joe Astell, who is named alderman instead of Carne. He becomes an ally of Sarah’s, sharing many idealistic beliefs with her. There is also the Alderman Mrs. Beddows, the first woman alderman in South Riding, an indefatigable woman prone to bon mots. She is vocal about her opinions, well-respected by all in the community, and privately nurses disappointments in her personal life. One of Sarah’s favorite quotes is: “‘Take what you want,’ says God. ‘Take it and pay for it.'” Mrs. Beddows wonders, “But who pays?” A note by Holtby at the beginning of the novel serves as an apology to her mother, an alderman very much like Mrs. Beddows, explaining that the character is purely fictional.

South Riding was published posthumously, written by Winifred Holtby while she knew that she was dying. And yet it has a spirit of idealism that I rarely find in literature. Around the middle of the novel, Sarah’s can-do attitude is sharply contrasted with that of a science teacher at the school, Miss Sigglesthwaite. The girls don’t respect her, and she is not capable of inspiring them to learn. She is not unsympathetic, I really felt for her, but she is fighting against life and her personality, in completely the wrong role. Sarah tries to manipulate her into quitting her job. When Miss Sigglesthwaite was younger, she thought about becoming a researcher, but financial circumstances forced her to take a teaching post. She looks at the edge of a cliff as an easy way out–it would look like an accident, as if the ground gave way–but then she reconsiders and decides to go on teaching. She has a pessimistic acceptance of the way things are. Sarah, on the other hand, refuses to accept that the way things are now is the way they must continue to be. She can change the world around her. She takes responsibility for her choices and for the consequences of her actions.

We’re so busy resigning ourselves to the inevitable that we don’t even ask if it is inevitable. We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.

And that is the message the reader should take from this extraordinary novel. The world is ours to shape, if we would but make the effort.