Friends, I have discovered a new literary love. It is so pleasurable to read something so completely embued with a love of place (in this case Yorkshire) and so reflective of a community of people. I can't really talk about this book and my thoughts on it without giving away major plot points, so consider yourself warned.
Sarah Burton is the new headmistress of the Kiplington High School (confession: there are three towns in the South Riding, and I never quite figured out which was which. Throw in another village, and I was geographically-confused most of the time. I still really enjoyed it!), and she is as modern as they come. She is strong-willed, outspoken, passionate, dedicated, and completely convinced of the importance of her mission to show her students (all girls) that there can be more to their future than marriage and babies. It doesn't take long before she clashes with the more traditional, staid members of South Riding, especially Robert Carne, a gentleman farmer and father of one of Sarah's more interesting students.
Sarah's fight against the traditionalists is a small piece of the larger conflict between tradition and progress that the novel focuses on. We are introduced to idealistic preachers, cheery self-made men, poverty-stricken families struggling to survive, the aristocracy, the working class, and everything in between. All these characters are deeply flawed, but most of them are also deeply likable. While it at first seems that most of the inhabitants of South Riding have very little in common, it becomes clear by the end of the novel that they are bound by community, and, as Sarah so eloquently realizes, "'we all pay,' she thought; 'we all take; we are members one of another. We cannot escape this partnership. This is what it means--to belong to a community; this is what it means to be a people.'"
South Riding takes place as England teeters on the edge of war with Germany. Reminescences and horrors of WWI loom large in the minds of many characters, and the cost of the War to End All Wars is still being paid. Even as the inhabitants of the South Riding strive to recover from that horrific conflict, they are forced to prepare for and reconcile themselves to what will become another bloody, draining conflict. I was deeply moved, especially, by Sarah's memories of the wars and her reactions to things as simple as patriotic songs that were sung during WWI. These remembrances serve to highlight all the more starkly the foreboding nature of the war about to break.
Even though there is a huge cast of characters in the book, in the end, really, it is Sarah's story. I had a few jarring moments as I was reading this book: the first came when Sarah realizes her love for Robert Carne. She is a strong, independent woman, so far ahead of her time, so to hear her acknowledging that she would give anything to have one night with Robert, even if he was so drunk that he thought she was his mentally unstable wife, was a bit shocking and disappointing. Her declarations of love (never to him, of course, but just to the reader) were beautiful and moving, and Holtby intentionally alludes to Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester as she introduces Carne, shows us how Sarah falls for him, and even in the way that Sarah and Carne interact.
The thing that almost took away my love for this book was the death of Robert Carne. Holtby makes it fairly clear that Carne will die because of heart problems, but the manner of his death still shocked me. I will admit to being quite the romantic; I wanted Sarah and Carne to be together, and finally, after 400 pages, it seemed that Carne was starting to acknowledge the possibility of feelings for Sarah. He is a wounded, damaged man, distraught over the loss of his wife to mental illness, wracked with guilt over his perceived fault in driving her to insanity, and determined to sacrifice everything (even his ancestral home, himself, and his pride) to see that Muriel (his wife) is cared for. I freely admit that there are few things more appealing to me than the wounded suffering hero, and to see him, after so much pain, and strife, and hardship, catch a glimmer of hope and change in Sarah was beautiful and exactly what my mushy little heart wanted to see.
And then he has a terrible accident, dies, and leaves behind speculation of fraud, suicide, and cowardice.
And I found myself thinking, "WHAT THE.........!!!!!!!!!"
It was not a pretty moment in my reading life. This character, who I had become so deeply invested in, is cast off without seeming thought or care from his creator.
Sarah, naturally, is destroyed by her guilt, grief, and regret (in true repressed, angsty fashion, they never discussed their feelings), and she is at a loss, almost paralyzed by what she sees as the game-changer of her life.
I will admit: I was angry at Winifred Holtby. True, Sarah eventually finds out that Carne did feel the same for her, and she has several almost transcendant revelations about herself, her purpose, and life in general, but it wasn't until I read the epitaph that Holtby's good friend Verra Brittain wrote that I understood.
Winifred Holtby wrote South Riding as she was fighting her final battle with terminal kidney disease; she finished the novel a month before she died. And I understood that Robert Carne had to die because Holtby, like Sarah, was reconciling herself to the reality of death; she was coming to grips with her own death, and to have Robert Carne die in the way that he did was a fitting testament to Holtby's resolution about her own death. South Riding shows Holtby's belief that "the world, with all its beauty and adventure, its richness and variety, is darkened by cruelty. Death, if it ends the loveliness, the adventure, ends also that. Death balances the picture. It completes the pattern. It makes even cruelty fall into place. It is completion."
"This tale of universal values mirrored in local experience is not only an achievement of the mind; it is a triumph of personality, a testament of its author's undaunted philosophy. Suffering and resolution, endurance beyond calculation, the brave gaiety of the unconquered spirit, held Winifred Holtby back from the grave and went to its making. Seed-time and harvest, love and birth, decay and resurrection, are the immemorial stuff of which it has been created. In it lies the intuitive rather than the conscious awareness of imminent death. Its lovely country scenes go back to the earliest memories of the Yorkshire child who, thirteen years ago, came as a brilliant Oxford graduate to London, as though she returned to her beginning because some instinct told her that beyond the brave struggle for life and for time, the inevitable end was near.
This knowledge has given to South Riding a wisdom and maturity beyond its author's years. With the clear enlightenment born of her own peril, she understands the men and women who already belong to those dim regions where the living walk as strangers, yet who hide from their friends their consciousness of encroaching doom. She realises that the death which swoops down from the sky or roars upward from the sea may sometimes appear a mercy and a release; she knows the reassurance brought to the soul tormented with griefs and problems by the certainty that life is not endless nor sorrow everlasting."
To have written a book that is about death that is so vibrant, full, refreshing, and beautiful is a true accomplishment. I will definitely be seeking out more of Winifred Holtby's work.