Monday, October 22, 2012
It may seem perverse to describe a novel that has been filmed once, adapted for television twice and never been out of print since publication, as a forgotten masterpiece. But now that I've read 'South Riding', I understand why people have applied this label to Winifred Holtby's last book.
Holtby's story of provincial life didn't bowl me over from the first page. There seemed to be too many characters and I wasn't quite sure where the narrative was heading, but I persisted and my admiration began to grow with each chapter. By the end, I was convinced that I had read a novel that was every bit as good as 'Middlemarch'.
Set during 1933-34, in a thinly-disguised part of Yorkshire that stretches from Hull to Horsea, South Riding is an ambitious novel with a cast of characters that range from the local gentry to a family living in slum accommodation. Many stories of this kind collapse under the weight of their own ambition, but Winifred Holtby pulls it off an aplomb that few writers could match.
There are many reasons why South Riding works as a book, but here are just four. First and foremost, it has credible, three-dimensional characters that the reader cares about, with a very moving love story at the core of the novel . Second, although Holtby clearly has something to say about the condition of England, the narrative never feels as if it is being driven by a crude political agenda. Third, there is a good balance between the broad canvas of a community and the more intimate portraits of some of its citizens. Fourth, although South Riding contains many elements that wouldn't be out of place in a Victorian novel (including a homage to Charlotte Bronte), the author writes with a candour that must have shocked many contemporary readers.
Perhaps South Riding was a little racy because Winifred Holtby had nothing to lose. Diagnosed with Bright's disease in 1931, the 33-year-old author was given two years to live. South Riding is the work of a dying woman, who put everything she had into her last work. The result is a passionate, life-affirming masterpiece.
This isn't the place for a biographical sketch of Winifred Holtby or a summary of the narrative, but I should mention the fact that as the author was an active socialist, pacifist and feminist, you would expect South Riding to be something of a manifesto, with the novel's heroes representing the forces of progress and egalitarianism.
In the hands of a lesser writer that's probably what you'd get. But to coin Virginia Woolf's description of Middlemarch, South Riding is a novel for grown-ups, not a pantomine with easily recognisable villains and heroes. Its characters are flawed individuals, struggling against the limitations of background and circumstance. It is to Holtby's credit that one of the novel's heroes is a man who stands for everything she fought against.
South Riding has been described as a story of 'provincial life', which may suggest that its scope is narrow and its ambitions limited. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is, without a doubt, a truly great novel that has an enduring message about the human condition.
This blog contains a much better review of South Riding than anything I could write, so if your appetite is even slightly whetted, please click on the link.
I'll finish with a few quotes that I particularly liked:
"And who are you to think that you could get through life without pain? Did you expect never to be ashamed of yourself? Of course this hurts you. And it will go on hurting. You needn't believe what they say about time healing. I've had seventy years and more of time and there are plenty of things in my life still won't bear thinking. You've just got to get along as best you can with all your shames and sorrows and humiliations. Maybe in the end it's those things are most use to you."
"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."
"I'm an old woman. But when you're seventy you don't always feel old. I know I don't. There are times when you find yourself thinking of yourself as a girl. 'Now the girl went downstairs.' 'Now the girl put her hat on.' And then you look in the glass and there's a stiff heavy lump of an elderly person facing you, your face all wrinkles and the life gone out of your limbs. But you can still feel young."
The latest Virago edition has an introduction from Shirley Williams, whose mother - Vera Brittain - was Holtby's best friend. Sadly, the jacket design portrays a very different Yorkshire to the flat wolds that make up the landscape of South Riding:
It's a great pity that screen adaptations of classics have become such vapid affairs in recent years - beautiful to look at, but hacked to death until the result looks like a trailer.
But that is a subject for another blog post. I think the last word should go to the wonderful Winifred Holtby:
“These are the moments of revelation which compensate for the chaos, the discomfort, the toil of living. The crown of life is neither happiness nor annihilation: it is understanding. The artist’s intuitive vision; the thinker’s slow, laborious approach to truth, climbing through the alphabet of A, B, C, D, up to R, on the long way to Z; the knowledge that comes to the raw girl, to the unawakened woman—this is life; this is love. These are the moments in which all the disorder of life assumes a pattern; we see; we understand; and immediately the intolerable burden becomes tolerable; we stand for a moment on the slopes of that great mountain from the summit of which we can see truth, and thus ‘enjoy the greatest felicity of which we are capable.’