I am a long-time fan of George Eliot's Middlemarch, so when I read in the introduction to Winifred Holtby's South Riding, which was written by Andrew Davies, who did the screenplay for the BBC mini-series version of the book that he compared it to Middlemarch, I thought "aha, that's why I like it so much!" Davies goes on to say that South Riding is "a portrait of a whole community at a time of change and stress, with an endearing and idealistic heroine at its centre."
The time of change and stress is 1934 in Yorkshire--the country, like the world, is in an economic depression. People are still reeling from the catastrophe of the Great War and are fully aware that the conflict is not resolved, just on the back burner. Into a rural society that is struggling to transform itself from one based on tradition-steeped agrarian values to one based on the liberal view that government should exist for the people and not vice versa, Sarah Burton bursts on the scene as the newly hired headmistress of the girls high school in the region.
Sarah is progressive, assertive, attractive and energetic. She wants to mold girls who will enjoy freedoms never imagined by their mothers. She is a teacher and a mentor and a role model, and is appalled when she falls in love with the local squire, the most reactionary man in the county, Robert Carne.
One of the things that I loved about South Riding was that, like in Middlemarch, the various characters are complex, realistic people. There are really no villains and no heroes--there are people, mostly good, but who are weak in some areas, fragile, vulnerable, and entirely sympathetic. Regardless of how they choose to live their lives, they have their own story that enables the reader to understand and in some measure empathize with them. Robert Carne, though he is cast in the role of reactionary country squire, he is motivated by the same impulses as Sarah and the other liberals with whom he battles--they all want what is best for the people of the district, they just have polar opposite views with regards to how to achieve that end.
Winifred Holtby is worth reading up on. She died at age 37, shortly after completing South Riding, which was published posthumously in 1936 and was edited by her close friend and companion, Vera Brittain. Brittain wrote of her friendship with Holtby in her book Testament of Friendship in 1940. One of the main characters in South Riding is Mrs. Beddows, the only female alderman on the South Riding council. Holtby modeled Mrs. Beddows on her own mother, who was the first female alderman in the East Riding County Council. I think Holtby's portrait of Mrs. Beddows is one of the finest tributes a daughter could pay to a mother.
Now that I've read the novel, I am rewatching the BBC mini-series and appreciating anew the wonderful adaptation that Davies did of this marvelous book.
I'm closing in on finishing up my TBR Pile Challenge, and this is book number 10! Two more to go by end of year, and I've started both of them.