Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I'm declaring this International Winifred Holtby Week

What? It's precisely as legitimate as "National Soyfoods Month".

I didn't mean to read two books by Winifred Holtby in a row; it only happened because the one was so expensive and the other was so cheap. The first one I bought was at Persephone Books, but I forgot it one rushed Sunday morning and ended up buying this one from a bargain books shop, because it was the cheapest option of the books I thought sounded decent.

The blurb on the back is misleading; it's all Sarah Burton is a determined schoolteacher... Robert Carne stands for everything she hates... Yet she finds herself drawn to him... This doesn't really sound like it deserves being called a "masterpiece" twice in the pull-quotes. But it turns out the quotes are right and the synopsis is wrong.

I am convinced that Sarah Burton and Robert Carne can only be called the main characters insofar as we're all programmed to view a man and a woman with a romantic connection as the "main characters" of whatever book they happen to inhabit. South Riding is about a whole community -- there is a six page character list in the front of the book and nearly every one of those names has a little plot of his or her own to act out. Oh sure, the conclusion of the book, the last couple of chapters, are infused with the emotions that connect Robert and Sarah; but I insist that this book is not actually, really about them but about those six pages of characters who make up the inhabitants of the fictional South Riding.

And Holtby makes you care about all these people. Each chapter is like a vignette, with a different character at its center (there's an omniscient narrator rather than being written in the first person, but each chapter has a definite shift in perspective). At first I found this a little uneven but that didn't last long. Not even I could charge through this book, because at the end of each chapter you know the next one will shift, and I often wanted to just sit and digest whatever I just read. Very often on my train ride I would put the book away early.

Holtby is a really gorgeous writer, and again this was something that built up for me as I read. She has the knack of telling tragic stories without making them bleak. Even when love leads to suffering, you can still really feel that love, the good intentions at the heart of a bad situation.

It's hard to pick quotes (partly because I wasn't particularly good about marking them in the book -- oh Kindle!) but here's an inadequate taste. When I looked back at the sections I remembered being breathtaking, I had a hard time picking something that would work out of context.
For though, apart from the death of young Roy Carbery, she had suffered less from the war than many women, seen less of it, remained less keenly conscious of its long-drawn catastrophe, the farther it receded into the past, the less bearable its memory became. With increasing awareness every year she realised what it had meant of horror, desperation, anxiety, and loss to her generation. She knew that the dead are most needed, not when they are mourned, but in a world robbed of their stabilising presence. Ten million men, she told herself, who should now have been between forty and fifty-five, our scientists, our rulers, our philosophers, were mud and dust, and the world did ill without them.
I first found out about Winifred Holtby from that disappointing book about the First World War and single women; Holtby's childhood sweetheart came back from France unable to live a stable life, and Holtby herself died, never having married, at only 37.

South Riding is a real gem, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all of you. I will be reporting back on The Crowded Street... shortly.


  1. I LOVE that cover. A lot. Also I kind of want to read it but WILL YOU BE BRINGING IT BACK WITH YOU?

    1. This one is high priority to bring back, so I'll try my best to wedge it in.