Saturday, January 29, 2011
BOOK REVIEW - SOUTH RIDING - by Winifred Holtby
I will admit that I am a Masterpiece Theater junkie. So when I discovered that they were going to have a production of “South Riding” this year I got on line and ordered a used copy. It was published in 1936. (The picture here is a new release) I was not disappointed.
Two things gave me pause before I began. The introduction said the story moved around English local government. Could that be interesting, I wondered? And then there was a list of characters 6 pages long at the beginning of the book. Wow! How will I ever keep that many straight. But neither issue was detracting. Holtby was a spinster and lived in the era she was writing about and her mother was involved in local government so she knew of what she wrote. The seaside village life of her story was vividly portrayed with every sort of character that might have lived there.
Winifred Holtby’s writing is crisp and quick moving. I was never bored or bogged down. She says a lot with an economy of words. Her character descriptions and dialogue are insightful with sparkle, humor and pathos. She didn’t judge her characters. Even the badly flawed in the story had redeeming qualities.
Sarah Burton is a 38 year old spinster, small, plain, red headed and spunky. She is the new head mistress of the South Riding High School. All of the characters have chapters in the book that unfold as they relate to Sarah or to the local government. Life is changing in this era. The landed aristocracy is losing its grip and urbanization and industrialization are altering every day life. Progressive ideas and opportunities for women are shifting the family and society.
Can you be optimistic to a fault? I like these thoughts of Sarah when she first arrives at the school. If she is wrong she is beautifully wrong.
“There was all the more reason why she must fortify her children, equip them with knowledge and confidence and ambition, arm them with weapons to fight the deadening monotony of life, arm them with joy, with memories, with passion. She would challenge them to make something better of their lives than their parents had done. She would inoculate their minds with her own gospel of resolution and intelligence. ‘Go therefore, and do that which is within you to do. Take no heed of gestures that beckon you aside. Ask of no man permission to perform’—that was the motto she gave to the girls who left her care to become housewives, typists, children’s nurse, shop assistants. She laughed at her extravagance of vision. Oh, but that wasn’t what she meant. It was something unexpected and spontaneous—an afternoon snatched from the fixed routine of time-tables, a chance of joy, a burst of music, an insistence upon beauty or pleasure of daring. Something positive and wild and lovely—like driving out before the dawn of Greenwich and watching the ships sail up the silver Thames.”
The book made me think about women and their need to love a man. All my wallflower friends in High School picked out a guy to have a crush on. He didn’t know we existed but we would carry on our fantasy and it got us through our need for romance. Even though Sarah was a progressive, liberated 38-year-old she still wanted to love someone and becomes infatuated with Robert Carne, a Mr. Rochester like character, with an insane wife who is living in a care center. His story dominates a lot of the book. This is not a satisfying love story but Sarah’s unrequited love is sweet and you long for her to find a happy place, which she does, as all upbeat ambitious people like her are bound to do.
I am excited to see how Masterpiece portrays the book. 5 stars – loved it!