Inside Story

The adaptable Winifred Holtby

Out of the unpromising material of local government, Winifred Holtby created a fine novel that went on to be filmed three times

Brian McFarlane 20 March 2017 2850 words

Undervalued achievement: writer Winifred Holtby. Hull History Centre

It is always interesting – and sometimes more than that – to stumble upon a writer who was once a name to conjure with but who, for whatever reasons, has since slipped under the radar. Perhaps changing social mores have rendered the writer’s preoccupations outmoded; perhaps, if he or she is a novelist, changing tastes in narrative modes and styles have sought different pleasures from fiction. Whatever the reason, it seems a matter for regret that so gifted a novelist as Winifred Holtby should be so little heard of now.

It was Vera Brittain’s magisterial memoir of the first world war and its aftermath, Testament of Youth, published in 1933 and read by me just eighty years later, that brought Holtby to my attention. The two women met after they clashed at a debating society meeting at Oxford on the relative merits of travel and a university education, Holtby claiming that Brittain was asserting a kind of superiority derived from her wartime experiences in Europe. Yet, as Brittain later wrote, “The friendship into which, from such ironically inauspicious beginnings, I had drifted with Winifred Holtby began an association that in thirteen years has never been broken and never spoilt.” Brittain would come to recognise in Holtby a mind as acute as it was compassionate, and the friendship would endure until Holtby’s tragically early death, aged thirty-seven, in 1935 – and would be warmly chronicled in Brittain’s Testament of Friendship (1940).

After graduating, the pair shared a flat in London (a blue plaque now records their residence). Both women embarked on literary careers as well as becoming involved in countless other activities, some of them relating to feminist issues and some to the more broadly social/political thinking of the day, notably the work of the League of Nations. The two were in much demand as public speakers and commentators. Holtby published her first novel, Anderby Wold, in 1923; this was followed by five other novels, two volumes of short stories, two volumes of poetry, a study of Virginia Woolf and another of the postwar position of women, Women and a Changing Civilisation (1934). She also wrote numerous essays and articles for journals such as Time and Tide, which is described by Alison Light, in Forever England, “as a child of the suffrage movement, aiming to keep up the momentum of feminist campaigns after the war.” Her life was short, but wildly prolific.

Holtby’s best-known novel, South Riding, was published in February 1936, the year after her death. It was seen into print by Brittain as a tribute to their friendship and to Holtby’s authorial gifts, even if (according to Marion Shaw, writing in 1998) there was “some opposition from Holtby’s mother, who thought the book was both libellous and vulgar.” Within five days of publication, 16,000 copies had been sold; and in the decade after its appearance it went through nineteen “impressions,” the second and third published in the same month as the first. Awarded the James Tait Black prize, Britain’s oldest literary award, South Riding’s place in the collective memory was prolonged by the film version (1938) and two television adaptations (1974 and 2011).

The novel’s subtitle is “An English Landscape,” which may seem misleading if taken narrowly to refer to rural scenes, as the film version was apt to do with its long shots of pastoral activities. But if landscape is understood more broadly to include whatever constitutes the ambience of a place, then the subtitle is a true indicator of the novel’s substance. It may then be seen in the tradition of such notable nineteenth-century English studies of provincial life as George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, in which the authors so adroitly meld matters of personal and communal significance. When Shaw, in her otherwise astute account of South Riding, writes of it as “a quintessentially middle-brow novel,” the characterisation seems to me to undervalue its achievement.

Having come late to reading South Riding, I was greatly struck by how skilfully the aspirations – admirable or otherwise – of individuals are woven into the fabric of this fictional Yorkshire region, which is centred on the town of Kiplington. Holtby offers an engrossing account of how this community operates, both informally and, through the vital work of local government, formally. As Tom Crewe writes in a fine article published recently in the London Review of Books, “The Strange Death of Municipal England,” in the later decades of the nineteenth century these councils “acting on their own initiative, pioneered welfare provision,” and yet, a century later, would witness “the gradual but inexorable encroachment of central government on [their] autonomy.”

Writing in the 1930s, Holtby was still well aware of the potential power for good that local government might exert, though equally alert to how human failings might undermine its best intentions. She prefaced South Riding with a letter to her mother, the first woman alderman in Yorkshire, writing:

I admit that it was through listening to your descriptions of your work that the drama of English local government first captured my imagination. What fascinated me was the discovery that apparently academic and impersonal resolutions passed in a county council were daily revolutionising the lives of those men and women whom they affected. The complex tangle of motives prompting public decisions, the unforeseen consequences of their enactment on private lives appeared to me as part of the unseen pattern of the English landscape.

Whatever Mrs Holtby’s later reservations about the book, it is clear that her daughter drew on the insights she had imbibed from her mother’s work, seeing local government as “the first-line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies – poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment.” In South Riding, all those “enemies” are at work in the novel’s community, but the novel never lapses into didacticism in describing the council’s work and its results.

The book opens with young journalist Lovell Brown’s first appearance in the press gallery of the South Riding County Hall, and Holtby uses him as the reader’s eyes and ears as several of her key characters are introduced. These include Alderman Mrs Beddows, whose “clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages,” and gentleman farmer Robert Carne, who another reporter wrongly considers will be elected to fill a gap in the council. Brown’s predecessor on the Kingsport Chronicle has come along to the meeting to fill him in on the political workings of the council, in which matters of education and Mental Hospital business are raised. “Lovell had come expectant of drama, indignation, combat, amusement, shock. He found boredom and monotony. Disillusion chastened him.”

Holtby is not out to make melodrama from the business and potential conflicts of local government. She establishes it firmly as a source – perhaps the key source – of the community’s chance to improve the lives of its people. South Riding is divided into eight “books,” each of which has a heading that reflects this theme: for instance, Book I is titled “Education,” Book II is “Highways and Bridges,” and the last, Book VIII, is “Housing and Town Planning.” Despite Brown’s disillusion, Holtby makes absorbing reading of all these matters of municipal concern, and her great strength is her integration of the personal lives of her characters with the procedures, and sometimes machinations, of those who wield the power in local government.

As South Riding is a novel, not an economic or political tract, those headings are essentially indicators of the parameters in which individual lives are conducted, and this is a very densely populated work of fiction. A list of 168 characters is given at the outset and, though some appear only briefly, they contrive to create a sense of community as well as identifying individuals. Holtby is concerned with how far her protagonists work for their own ends, virtuous or otherwise, and how far for the greater good of South Riding. She will sometimes query the relative efficacy of personal gestures of generosity, on the one hand, and the broader prospects of council or school board administrations, on the other.

At the centre of this is Sarah Burton, whom the school board appoints as headmistress of Kiplington Girls’ High School. From a modest Yorkshire background, she has, after a career in a mission school in South Africa (a location Holtby was familiar with) and a London secondary school, chosen to return to her roots. She is a fervent believer in the power of education to shape lives for the better and, in her relations with fellow teachers and her pupils, she epitomises the novel’s preoccupation with how personal attitudes and aspirations can work in tandem with institutions.

Sarah may be attracted to the conservative Robert Carne even as she stands largely opposed to the centuries-old traditions of class and privilege he represents. But in keeping with the way she avoids simplistic oppositions, Holtby also allows Sarah to find herself sometimes at odds with left-leaning councillor Joe Astell. Is it a coincidence that both of these men are suffering from physical ailments that threaten their involvement in concerns important to them? Being interviewed for the headship, Sarah asserts unlimited belief in the power of human intelligence, and the novel allows us to see her ideas and character in action in the community she has chosen to return to.

Two of her pupils will tax her resources: Lydia Holly, who lives in the semi-squalor of the Shacks, a congeries of housing structures derived from old railway carriages, and Midge Carne, the wilful, troublesome daughter of Carne and his demented wife. In Lydia, Sarah sees prospects of real intellectual development, which will be poignantly constrained when the girl’s mother dies giving birth to yet another baby, leaving her to housekeep for the large family left behind. In Midge, Sarah sees a wayward snobbery that grows from being Carne’s daughter (he’d have sent her to a private school if he could have afforded it) and from the genetic inheritance of her institutionalised mother.

There isn’t space to pursue here the lines of development for each of the main characters as Holtby interweaves their personal aspirations with their relationships to the wider community. Suffice to say, South Riding remains an admirable study in the interaction of character, idea and place, an undoubtedly sound recipe for the enduring value of a novel.

A large-screen adaptation and two TV miniseries versions of South Riding are surely evidence that Holtby was on to something of more lasting significance than could be limited to the time and place of its conception and execution.

Film producer Alexander Korda of the prestigious London Films company approved a purchase of the film rights within a month of publication, and so Victor Saville’s 1938 film appeared just two years after the novel’s publication. It proved both commercially and critically popular, and it is said that Holtby’s mother was much more pleased with this efficient but somewhat sentimentalised version of her daughter’s work than she had been by the book. Ian Dalrymple and Donald Bull’s screenplay not merely (though necessarily) reduces the scope and large cast of the original, but also cannot resist reducing the complexity of the issues explored.

Saville’s film ends on a day of national celebration (George VI’s coronation), with the unlikely image of Lydia Holly and Midge Carne holding hands; the prospect of love’s finding a way for Carne (Ralph Richardson), very much alive as he wasn’t at the end of the novel, and Sarah (Edna Best); the new housing scheme opened; and the band playing “Land of Hope and Glory.” It couldn’t be more uplifting – or more at odds with Holtby’s apparent intentions. Still, film audiences in 1938, when the prospect of war was looming, no doubt responded to this upbeat resolution.

In other ways too, notably in its dealings with sexual desire and relations, the film is more reticent than the novel, and this was also attributable to what was deemed acceptable to the screen’s much larger audience. The film’s handshake between traditionalist Carne and socialist Astell (John Clements) perhaps also reflected a contemporary urge to solidarity in public affairs. It is an attractive film, if not the one Holtby would have had in mind.

The two television versions adhere more closely to her thematic and narrative interests. Both are written by men of whom much proficiency might have been expected; both place Sarah Burton firmly at their centre and both are fortunate in the actresses chosen to interpret this crucial role.

The 1974 thirteen-episode series was written by Yorkshire-born Stan Barstow, author of A Kind of Loving. (The film version of that novel was one of the high spots of the British cinema’s “new wave” of the late 1950s and early 60s.) He later adapted A Kind of Loving and its two successors, The Watchers on the Shore and The Right True End, into a successful ten-episode television series. He had experience, then, in the challenging venture of translating the life of regional novels into the visual medium, and it shows in his screenplay for South Riding.

Barstow opens the series on the council chamber, with tweed-clad Carne (Nigel Davenport) rushing in late, rebuked by his friend Mrs Beddows (a great performance from Hermione Baddeley) for being “always in a hurry.” A secret ballot concerning a new alderman is conducted, and socialist Astell (Norman Jones) defeats conservative Carne. There is important and characteristic cutting between the personal (an insert shows Carne’s lonely daughter Midge weeping angrily) and the council’s business, thus setting the pattern for the series and maintaining Holtby’s clear agenda.

The next formal meeting, after various individual lives and problems have been set in motion, is that of the school board, whose current function is to select a new headmistress. This brings Sarah (a luminous Dorothy Tutin) into play. Her strongly feminist views on what education might do for girls and her “unlimited faith in the power of human intelligence” win her the appointment, with Carne alone not voting in her favour. Both this and the 2011 miniseries follow this scene with Sarah’s breasting the waves enthusiastically at the nearby beach, as if in celebration of the opportunity that has been opened to her. From the start, this version maintains the dualities germane to Holtby’s vision – and, indeed, preserves a great many of those private lives, across a wide social range, that impinge upon, and are impinged upon by, the operations of their community.

Andrew Davies, author of the screenplay for the 2011 version, may well be the most highly regarded adapter of literary fictions to TV, his lengthy filmography listing his dealings with Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy and many others, as well as screenplays for two Bridget Jones films. He knows better than most how to take a complex series of events and a large cast of characters and render them persuasive in a medium that may offer more temporal scope than a feature film but makes different demands in coming to terms with discrete episodes. Nevertheless, it could be said that in streamlining South Riding, he has sometimes over-simplified important issues.

He opens with a series of vistas of sea, road and rail, followed by images of Sarah (Anna Maxwell Martin) arriving for her interview with the school board, establishing at the outset how central she will be to all that follows. As in the earlier version, Carne arrives late, and Mrs Beddows (Penelope Wilton) again warns Sarah about what to expect in Kiplington, to which Sarah replies, echoing Holtby’s feminist sentiments, that she doesn’t believe that “wife and mother” are necessarily woman’s “highest calling.” Skilled adapter though Davies is, in his screenplay and Martin’s performance she is a less complex and commanding figure than in either novel or preceding television series.

But this latest version of the novel, lighter in tone than Barstow’s, still reinforces Holtby’s vision of what idealistic expectations might achieve and how instrumentalities of local government might enable their realisation. Whatever the strengths of the three screen adaptations, it is the power and insight of the original that provide the mainspring for their action – and which suggest that Holtby has remained a name to reckon with eighty years after her untimely death. •