South Riding is set in Yorkshire in the first half of the 1930′s, focusing on the everyday lives of the people who live there. There is Sarah Burton, the new headmistress of the girls’ school who returns to the area armed with progressive ideas and is determined to make a difference; there is Mrs Beddows, the council’s only female alderman who is torn between her desire for progress and her personal loyalties; and there is Robert Carne, staunch proponent of the old ways, desperately trying to care for his mad wife and fragile daughter while not losing his tenuous hold on his lands. The book chronicles their struggles, sometimes against each other, sometimes alongside one another for a common cause, and those of a whole host of other characters.
The cast of this novel is huge, with more than a hundred characters (listed handily after the introduction), but it never feels overpopulated or confusing. In fact, they are what makes South Riding such a great read. I felt as though I knew each and every one of those characters, even if we only had a nodding acquaintance. It is testament to Winifred Holtby’s writing skill that she manages to create such a wide variety of characters with equal authenticity; I believe in Midge Carne, who is young, female, highly strung and unthinkingly cruel, just as much as I believe in Castle, who is an elderly, male, gentle salt of the earth type. I particularly liked the fact that no character is as straightforward as they at first seem, and not in a gimmicky everyone-has-a-dark-secret way, but in a these-are-all-real-people-with depth way. They aren’t defined by their quirks, but these help to gain a deeper insight into the characters and why they behave the way they do. Councillor Snaith at home with his cats was a particular favourite of mine.
A wide range of characters means a wide range of relationships, and here too Winifred Holtby excels. Whether two people are cooperating or at loggerheads they always act in a way that is so appropriate and well described that I experienced everything along with them. Tom and Lily’s relationship broke my heart time and time again, and they are relatively minor characters (if there can be said to be such a thing in this novel). Not only does she write scenes tightly focused on one individual or group, she also writes the best, most effective crowd scenes I’ve ever read. The outside performance put on by Madam Hubbard’s girls, at which cast and audience alike spend more time focusing on their own individual thoughts and agendas than the show, is an absolute masterpiece. Her writing reveals a wealth of life experience put to very good use.
I also appreciated the fact that, although people struggle and fight with one another, there is no cruel, cackling villain in this book. The characters go through hard times and experience tragedy, but that is because life is hard rather than because someone is plotting against them. Harvests fail so people lose their money. People become sick and, because they are poor, they die. It’s all very matter-of-fact and realistic. This may make the novel sound rather bleak, and it’s definitely not without its bleak moments, but there is also a great deal of comedy in this book. There is stoicism but there is also humour; the people of South Riding endure hardships and they do so with a shrug and a grin. Despite some of the tragedies that occur, Holtby never allows characters to wallow or the tightly controlled plot to spiral into melodrama, which I find only adds to the pathos. I’m sad to leave South Riding and it’s definitely a novel that I’ll be rereading in the future....Continua