I watched the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding this spring, and while it was an interesting, entertaining and well-produced drama, I felt—as I often do with film adaptations—that a lot was missing.
To assure audience attention and satisfaction, novels tend to be reduced to their most skeletal elements, romance and overt conflict. With any luck the film will remain essentially faithful to the book, but what you see may not be what it’s really about.
I knew Holtby—a champion of women’s rights and an advocate for social justice—from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, and of course as an early biographer of Virginia Woolf, but I’d never read her fiction. South Riding was her last novel, published posthumously in 1936 and considered her greatest work.
There was enough in the mini-series to convince me that there was a lot more going on than Sarah Burton’s unrequited love for Robert Carne, so I checked the book out of the library. I found it an engrossing saga, pursuing a number of complex and overlapping storylines. The relationship between Sarah, the new liberal high school principal (“schoolmistress”), and Carne, a conservative farmer with a long family history in the region, is just one of them.
It’s more about community and local government—the good, the bad and the ugly. Holtby’s mother had been a council member, known as aldermen (alderwomen? alderpersons?—no such acknowledgment was deemed necessary at the time) in the Yorkshire town where she was raised, so Holtby had a front-seat view.
One of the main characters in South Riding is Alderman Mrs. Beddows, the only woman on the council and a voice of reason and compassion. The council’s decisions, their impact on various constituencies, the greed and self-interest, bargaining and buying of votes and other shenanigans taking place behind closed doors—are little different from what we see today in all branches of government.
Virginia Woolf gets a provocative mention when we read about Arthur Thomas Drew, a character who “did business round about Kiplington in a small way, but he did moral censorship in quite a large one.” He thought all modern novels belonged in the public incinerator: Aldous Huxley was a “disgusting pervert,” Naomi Mitchison “not fit for a lunatic asylum,” and Virginia Woolf a “morbid degenerate.” When challenged, he would say, “No, I’ve not read it all through, but I know enough.”
Woolf and Holtby met once in 1931 while Holtby was writing Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir. In her introductory note, she states that Woolf did not authorize the book or read the manuscript; that she asked only that Holtby “treat her work with the candour and impartiality applied by critics to the writings of the dead.”
Woolf, however, wrote to Ethel Smyth, expressing annoyance that Holtby was going to Smyth to verify facts. “Why doesn’t she send the biography straight to me … after all I’m the chief authority… Why she should impute such delicacy to me I can’t imagine. And she is far too kind, gentle, and well meaning to hurt a hair on the hinder leg of a fly” (Letter #2429, 6 Sept. 1931).
Indeed, Holtby expressed high praise for Woolf’s writing, calling To the Lighthouse “one of the most beautiful novels written in the English language.” She was disappointed in The Waves, however, and predicted a limited audience for future work, in spite of ranking Woolf beyond any other living writer and placing her “beside the work of the great masters.”
It is reported that Woolf wrote to Holtby in 1935 and asked if she would write an autobiography for Hogarth Press. I don’t find it among the collected letters—is there any record of it? Holtby declined, as she was not well and was writing South Riding at the time; she died shortly after its completion.