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Review: South Riding, by Winifred Holtby

Pages: 510

Original date of publication: 1936

My edition: 1988 (Fontana)

Why I decided to read: discovered this book browsing the master list of Virago Modern Classics

How I acquired my copy: Ebay seller, July 2010

On the surface, this novel is the story of local government in a Yorkshire town during the years 1932 to 1934. The novel opens with a deadly dull City Council, but it expands into something much, much more. The focus of the novel is on Sarah Burton a forty-ish spinster and the headmistress of the local Girls’ School; but it often makes forays into the lives and thoughts of the other townspeople.

At first, from the description (and from reading the prologue) I thought I wasn’t going to care much for this book. Plus, there’s a veery long list of characters at the beginning which initially made me think I was going to get everyone confused. But the story really started to pick up as Sarah began to become involved with the town, especially Robert Carne, a landowner with a teenage daughter in Sarah’s school and an ill wife. Certainly, Jane Eyre influenced this book (and there are shades of Rebecca, although that book was published slightly later), but there are also a number of differences. The romance between Sarah and Carne is a bit predictable; and yet, it’s a lot more complicated than you expect, too. As a result, I was surprised by the way that the story turned up; not everything is wrapped and tied up in a neat little package.

The gubernatorial stuff gets a bit tedious (Holtby’s mother was an alderman, and she shows off her knowledge in this novel), but I did enjoy reading about these characters and what happens to them. Holtby really knew how to get at the heart of her characters’ emotions.


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