I first read this book in a hard cover edition I borrowed from my local library as a teenager, and I loved it. I remember I initially chose it because of the title/location – although the South Riding is fictitious, the magnificent county of Yorkshire is divided into three parts, the North, East and West Ridings, and I had family whom we regularly visited in the West Riding.
Yorkshire is the largest County in the UK, and its 600 mile boundary was established over a thousand years ago by the Vikings who divided the area into thirds, or Thriddings, from which comes the name Riding. Nothing to do with how far one could ride which was what I thought as a child, but I digress!
On a recent foray into charity shops looking for costume jewellery, the principal source for BeckyandVince beaded book thongs, I spotted THIS lurking in a corner of a shelf and instantly remembered it; the story, what happens to whom, most of the characters, which I suppose indicates the impact it had on me in the early 1970’s which for many of us living in Britain at the time were almost as bleak and desperate as the post Depression 1930’s were, the time within which this novel sits. Anyone else remember the endless power cuts?
Obviously it was bought and I admit to having pretty much devoured it immediately – I believe it was a beans on toast supper that night, and that was an effort, should have ordered a takeaway! So that’s me – what about the book I hear you ask!
I think it is marvellous. It is a beautifully written piece of social history despite being fictional, encompassing the comfortably off social climbers, the impoverished land owning class watching the erosion of the life they were born to, the deeply underprivileged and deprived working class, the drama of local government and the determination of a blacksmiths daughter ‘made good’ through education to empower the girls of the fictional seaside town of Kiplington as headmistress of the Girls School there.
The author’s mother was a County Alderman in Yorkshire, and in the preface she acknowledges that listening to her mother talking about the events taking place at local Government level influenced her to write this book. It was first published in 1936 but the prose remains fresh to this day, as unfortunately does the fact that there are still people who fall through the cracks in society to a place with little or no hope.
Sarah Burton is the red headed blacksmiths daughter who. through her mothers insistence on education, has become a schoolmistress who is passionate about educating girls to aspire to the possibility of being more than a wife and mother, and the conflict regarding whether being a wife and mother ‘should be enough for any decent woman’ is a theme that threads through the entire book.
Robert Carne, or Carne of Maythorpe, is a landowner, inheriting and caring for his estate as did generations who came before him, and yet through a combination of inability to adapt to changing times and the tragedy of his wife’s mental health and subsequent incarceration in an expensive nursing home, is on the brink of bankruptcy and losing everything he and his antecedents held dear.
Lydia Holly is a teenaged girl from ‘the Shacks’, a ramshackle collection of dwellings inhabited by the poorest and most desperate of Kiplington but who possesses an extraordinary mind and has won a scholarship to the Girls School. She is also the eldest daughter of her family though, and someone has to look after the children.
And while these three are central, there are so many other full fleshed, full bodied characters – those aiming to do well, those trying their best, those out purely for their personal benefit. Emma Beddows for example, the Alderman on the County Council who the author says is NOT based on her mother, is disappointed in her marriage and despite her advanced age still often sees herself as a girl and is more than halfway in love with Carne.
Carne himself despises Sarah simply because her father shoed a horse of his when drunk many years previously and ruined the horse. Joe Astell, the Socialist on the Council, battles tuberculosis and equality quite equally, while Bert Holly, Lydia’s father, cheerfully impregnates his wife again despite the knowledge another pregnancy will kill her.
Miss Siggleswhaite is a distinguished Oxford scholar, but an absolute failure in controlling a classroom full of prepubescent girls. I had a teacher just like her, a Miss Warlow whom we referred to as The Willow Warbler, and towards whom I to this day feel a great deal of guilt for the torments I and my friends inflicted on her. Mrs Hubbard on the other hand rules her husband and her dancing school with a rod of iron.
And all of this, for me, comes together in an almost Lowry-like vision of the landscape of the 1930’s in any small seaside town in Britain. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest of British novels in light of it’s gritty realism, and very much overlooked as such.
I believe this to be one of the finest books I have ever read, and I expect I shall read it again one day, but not this copy as I would very much like to gift this forward – if it appeals please get in touch either here or through the Instagram feed or Facebook page, happy to send this to you wherever you are.. especially if you have a connection to Yorkshire!