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A mosaic of convincing characters in a 1930s setting
on 4 December 2015
Winifred Holtby, a friend of Vera Brittain, was out of the same stable. Although this is fiction, the concerns and the period are similar. "South Riding" springs from her mother's anecdotes relating to her time as a local councillor. The dry as dust subject of council meetings brings to life the impact decisions have on individual lives, from making improvements to the local secondary school to where to build a new road or a new hospital. The councillors/aldermen are a mixed bunch, fallible human beings with mixed motives for what they do, but in general wanting to make a real improvement to the lives of local people and tackle issues head on.
The mosaic of lives, from the failing gentleman farmer to the slum dwellers in the Shacks, give a real picture of a community. The characters are sympathetically drawn, and the reader really cares about Sarah, the go-ahead headmistress, Robert the kind yet troubled farmer living in a world that is passing him by, Lydia the bright child of a poor and feckless family, to name but a few. True to her passionate concerns, Winifred Holtby highlights the position of women. It is a world of the 1930s where some women are carving out a career, others have more traditional roles, and where issues such as too many children and inadequate maternity care affect others. Although of its time, it rings true throughout and is an excellent read. It could perhaps do with a little pruning, particularly towards the end, but I was not disappointed, having read it many years ago aged about 20, and remember the excellent BBC dramatisation (in the 1970s or 80s). Good to know it has not outlived its appeal.