South Riding by Winifred Holtby

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South Riding by Winifred Holtby

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: A sweeping epic about life in the South Riding just after the atrocities of the First World War. Everything in a family saga is here, in spades: the highs and the lows, the celebrations and the deaths, the good and the petty-minded, all wrapped up in northern grit and humour.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: January 2011
Publisher: BBC Books
ISBN: 978-1849902038

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This book is set to be a BBC drama in 2011 and the front and back covers are littered with the names of well-known actors, as well as the lovely Anna Maxwell Martin who takes the lead role. Something to look forward to indeed.

The central character is a single woman in her middle years who relishes the chance to return to her roots in the tight-knit South Riding community. She's ambitious and well-travelled and has tasted life and work in bustling, cosmopolitan London. So it would appear that her pull back home is very strong indeed. But, you have to ask yourself the question, who would choose to give up this stimulating life down south and return up north? One Sarah Burton, schoolteacher with promotion in her mind, that's who. Everything depends on Sarah actually getting this job. And straight away, Holtby gives us the low-down on the collective mentality of local government. Yes, narrow-minded, parochial, dull - it's all of those things and more. But not everyone is a political 'sheep'. There's one or two who can see the bigger picture and can look beyond personal gain.

There's a hefty cast of characters but don't let that put you off in any way. Holtby has a lovely writing style and it's very easy to get into the book. She's neatly divided the chapters into reader-friendly, bite-sized pieces usually dealing with either one character, or perhaps a couple at the most. And with such chapter headings as Councillor Carne Misses A Sub-Committee and Midge Enjoys The Measles they give an excellent indication as to the style of the book and also its contents. The characters are truly a mixed bunch. The generous-hearted, the mean-spirited, the downright lazy, the gifted ...

Holtby does a terrific job with the new headmistress (yes, she's now got the job), Miss Burton. She takes her job very, very seriously. She is, at heart, a free spirit and independent thinker. And yes, these attributes do cause problems down the line. There's certainly some surprises in store for several of the characters. And as I was reading the book, what struck me was the stoicism of the local women. Often in the face of abject poverty. Poverty and what to me was far worse, hopelessness. The hopelessness of their lives. Far too many unwanted babies are born and the struggle is apparent between the pages of this book.

All in all, we see that Miss Sarah Burton appears to be a square peg in a South Riding round hole. How will she fare? Holtby gives her readers a peep into the headmistress's daily life at the school. All is not plain sailing. What was so appealing about the book for me was that the author is not afraid to delve into the minutiae of her characters' lives. Some of the names are apt: Miss Sigglesthwaite, for example and yes, she behaves just as her name would suggest. A brilliant piece of writing. I also warmed to Alderman Mrs Beddows. She seems to have drawn the short straw on so many counts - she's female, in public office and rather elderly. But is she bothered by the narrow-mindedness of some of her colleagues on the council?

In essence, this is a big, satisfying book written in a traditional manner similar to the classics. It crosses the social classes and crosses generations. It's about local folk trying to make the most of their lives. It's also a terrific read. Highly recommended.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might like to try Heading Home by Katie Flynn.

Buy South Riding by Winifred Holtby at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy South Riding by Winifred Holtby at

Buy South Riding by Winifred Holtby at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy South Riding by Winifred Holtby at


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