Winifred Holtby wrote South Riding, a grand sweep of 1930s life in Yorkshire’s sea-facing flatlands, quite literally against a deadline. She completed the novel only weeks before her death, and the manuscript was seen through the press by her lifelong friend Vera Brittain. The book was an instant success, and has never been out of print.
I found my first copy many years ago in the Eastgate Bookshop, Beverley, almost in the shadow of St Mary’s, a twelfth-century church less visited than the famous Minster but just as lovely. My find was a Collins hardback, quite savagely foxed, with a smart green cover yellowed on the spine, the twentieth impression of September 1947. Inexplicably, it was printed in Amsterdam. There can’t have been many printers capable of the job in war-devastated Holland. My introduction to this remarkable woman cost £2. She has repaid the investment many times over.
Winifred (calling her Holtby seems too cold) was only 37 when she died in the autumn of 1935, full of literary promise and ideas to make the world a better place. She was an incorrigible supporter of good causes, from a higher age of sexual consent for girls to trades union organization for black workers in South Africa. She was also a tireless advocate of the League of Nations and a director of Time and Tide, in touch with leading politicians of the day. But it is as a novelist that she is best remembered, and South Riding is proof of her conviction that fiction is superior to tract.
The novel, sexed up and romanticized by Andrew Davies for the BBC in the recent dramatization, is set in Holderness, a bleak, windswept landscape between the river Humber and the North Sea, dotted with farming hamlets and fringed with seaside resorts. But like the big skies above it, South Riding (1936) has a large canvas filled with many characters (they take up five pages in an explanatory note) and diverse plots. The heroine, Sarah Bur
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