The stuff of good stories: Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936)

You know how some people say that they won’t read fantasy novels because the long list of characters in the front is just too much?

Well, I just checked the list in Guy Gavriel Kay’s first book of The Fionavar Tapestry, and the list is less than two-and-a-half pages.

Meanwhile, the list in Winifred Holtby’s South Riding: An English Landscape (1936) has nearly five full pages of characters at the start.

To say nothing of a Prefatory Letter, a Table of Contents with full chapter names for each of the eight books therein, an epigraph by Vita Sackville-West, a Prologue in a Press Gallery, and extracts from South Riding legal and political documents of interest to the community members that open each Part.

Yes, it’s a bit overwhelming.

And, because I started reading it when I was reading Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising (which is like an HBO series in print) and fresh from the equally thrilling and also uber-contemporary Suzanne Collins books, it was doubly so. Like putting on the literary brakes.

But I kept reading for three reasons

First, I had the company of a dear reading friend. (Doesn’t that make all the difference?)

Next, I have a charming Fifth Impression reprint edition of this novel. This is not the valuable sort of Old Book, not the collectible sort, but the sort that begs to be read.

Not only is its binding inviting and comfortable (you needn’t imagine the book having been read many times because the binding itself has eased to reflect that fact), but this book came with clippings. You know the kind, the kind that you, yourself clip and slip between pages. These clippings are actually reviews and commentaries on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship.

Here is a snippet from one: “She [Brittain] has done her work so well that a person with no knowledge of Winifred Holtby would be engrossed in the life on the novelist, who died five years ago at the age of 37. Miss Holtby had achieved at her death some very fine work. ‘South Riding,’ written during her last illness, was posthumously popular. No other novel of hers has reached any wide circle of readers, though ‘Mandoa, Mandoa!’ deserves a better audience than it has ever had.”

And here is a snippet from Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: “The women who pursued their careers with the most conspicuous success were the schoolteachers (of whom the heroine of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1935) is the most outstanding fictional example).

I offer snippets in the spirit of South Riding because Winifred Holtby takes bits and pieces of a community and draws attention to one — and then another — and yet another  –in her novel in much the same way.

I was about to say the novel is sprawling, but that would suggest it’s a little sloppy and it’s not, most definitely not, but complicated, yes, and it does take up space to try to include everything.

She introduces members of the board of education, who are considering a series of women for the position of headmistress, but then pauses to share bits and pieces of the history of some of the board members and then some of the applicants (and the story of one applicant’s parents). And then we ride horses and then we learn a lot more about one of the applicants. And then we…

I was about to tell you about that. It’s really quite interesting (no, nobody gets shot: oh, except… and oh, damn, I teared up over that…even though I was on the subway in rush-hour…everything around me as different as could be from the scene unfolding on the page).

I was about to say too much. And then I was about to say that it doesn’t matter, because that’s really just a detail, just one tiny snippet of this story.

And it is. The entire novel is just details, I suppose. Just details about nearly five pages worth of characters.

And that’s the third reason why I kept reading, because details make the stuff of good stories in the hands of a novelist like Winifred Holtby.

Have you read anything of hers? Or have you wanted to?

PS Equally amusing are the advertisements on the back of said snippets, like this small ad, complete with pine tree and line-drawn, lodge-like structure: “GRAY ROCKS INN for Winter Sports   Skiing; dog teams; sleighing, hockey and skating — everything in Winter outdoor life. Inexpensive. Book now. St. Jevite-Quebec” ::giggle:: How Canadian.



  1. Buried In Print May 14, 2010 at 6:49 am - Reply

    Thanks very much for the comments!
    Kat – I’ve read one of Brittain’s novels and am heading for her memoirs in the next while. Good to hear they’re enjoyable too.
    Victoria – It seems like it’s getting harder and harder to find copies of these as the years pass. ::pouts::
    Rachel – Its size put me off too, but it has read remarkably easier than I’d have expected. I think you’ll enjoy it.
    Geraldine – Oh, her short stories: I haven’t been able to find any of those. That biography sounds intriguing too. Thanks for the recs.
    Verity – They’re both clamouring on the bookshelf within reach, begging to be “next”. I won’t tell them you’re not as fond of them.
    Helen – ::nods:: If I hadn’t already promised you that I’d read it, I’d have given up that quickly too.

  2. Geraldine May 13, 2010 at 9:59 am - Reply

    I opted for “Truth is not Sober”, which is a collection of short stories.

    “The Clear Stream a life of Winifred Holtby” by Marion Shaw is close at hand, so that could be my next re-read.

  3. Helen May 12, 2010 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    Hello, it’s me 😉 I think if I hadn’t felt like I *had* to read SR, I might have given up having seen the list of characters, but when you get into it, it doesn’t read like a novel with a cast of millions. I think it appeals to me particularly because I like to write stories from multiple viewpoints rather than sticking to one or two POVs throughout. Email to follow 🙂

  4. Verity May 12, 2010 at 3:46 am - Reply

    Goodness me – all of that to get through before getting to the story! I enjoyed South riding and Crowded Stret and also Poor Caroline, but recently read both Land of green Ginger and Mandoa Mandoa which I didn’t enjoy so much…

  5. Geraldine May 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    I’d been wondering which author to re-read next. It’s been far too long since I read any of my Winifred Holtby books so thank you for the inspiration to revisit her work.

  6. Rachel (Book Snob) May 11, 2010 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    I have read The Crowded Street and greatly enjoyed it; I keep intending to read South Riding but its size puts me off. This review is incredibly convincing; there’s nothing like a good saga to flex the old reading muscles. I shall search out a copy, soon.

  7. Victoria May 11, 2010 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    I have been looking for a good VMC of this for ages now and only ever seen extremely battered copies, obviously well-loved by their previous owner/s. Having read this I shall redouble my efforts to find a readable one. 🙂

  8. Kat May 11, 2010 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    I loved South Riding when I read it a few years ago and am thrilled you have the good taste to discover her. After I read Holtby’s novels, I went ahead and read Brittain’s. I’d known Brittain strictly for her memoirs, but her novels are as good as Holtby’s!

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