Saturday, April 14, 2012

South Riding by Winifred Holtby


Last spring, I was lucky enough to score a lovely new copy of South Riding from Virago (the U.K. edition!) during the Virago Reading Week hosted by Thomas at My Porch.  That was last April!  It hasn't been on my shelves long enough to qualify for TBR Shelf Challenge, but I've been wanting to read it for awhile. This is another of those between the wars, British/Virago/Persephone books that has been on my to-read list for what seems like forever (well, it's actually a year, since January 2011 according to my Goodreads list).  But the BBC adaptation has been on my DVR since it aired last May, since I stubbornly refused to watch it until I read the book.

So.  South Riding is the story of a fictional town in Yorkshire.  It starts during the Depression, in 1933. Most of the story is centered around two characters:  Robert Carne, the local squire, a conservative farmer who married the daughter of an aristocrat and has fallen on hard times.  His wife has spent years in mental institutions, which is draining his finances, so he's struggling to keep the family estate, Maythorpe, afloat.  He has a teenaged daughter Midge who is quirky and antisocial.

The other main character is Sarah Barton, the new headmistress of the local girls' school.  She grew up poor in the area, and has returned back to her roots as a successful career woman, hoping to make a difference to the community.  She's fairly radical and of course she locks horns with the local gentry, i.e., Robert Carne.  The story takes place over a year or two in South Riding and the surrounding area.  The story includes births and deaths and heartbreak,  how one person's life can impact a whole community.

It's a fairly long book, more than 500 pages, and begins with an enormous list of characters which I promptly ignored, for fear of spoilers.  South Riding reminded me a bit of Middlemarch or a novel by Trollope, because it has multiple intertwining storylines and characters, centered around a fairly small country town.  What I really liked was that the characters are from all different backgrounds and situations -- it's not just the local gentry, but the small business owners, the local families living from hand to mouth, and even the crooked politicians who are manipulating public works for their own benefit.  (Actually, the political part of the story was my least favorite, and I honestly skimmed over some of those bits).

Winifred Holtby created some wonderful, strong characters, who are both flawed and interesting.  None of them are perfect, most of them mean well, and some of them are really tragic.  They all seemed very real and I can absolutely understand why the BBC adapted it into a TV series, though I've heard fans of the book have been somewhat disappointed.   Now that I've finished it, I should probably watch it and clear it off the DVR queue -- but in a way I don't want to because I enjoyed the book so much.  I don't want it to change how I imagine the book and the way all the characters look.  Does anyone else have this problem?  If I watch a movie adaptation of a book before reading it, I always imagine the characters to look like the actors; if I read the book first, I'm usually disappointed.

I do have two other books by Winifred Holtby on my TBR shelves, Poor Caroline which is an older Virago edition; and The Crowded Street which is a lovely Persephone.  I know there are lovely new Viragos of her other books covers similar to my copy, which I think is my favorite of the books I've read so far this year.  I love that it's a reproduction of a vintage travel poster for Yorkshire -- so much nicer than the TV tie-in edition.  I'm tempted to buy the others just because they're so attractive:




Has anyone read these?  Are they as good as South Riding?

This is my 29th book of the year, and nearly half have been books from my own shelves, so that's a pretty good ratio.  It's also one of my 75 Classics in 5 Years.  Three down, 72 to go!

15 comments:

  1. I need to read this, seeing how rave reviews are popping up all around me. :)

    The 'Book or Movie First?' question is a tricky one. For me, the downside of watching a movie first is that the plot of the book generally seems to drag along at a snail's pace. Knowing what's going to happen, all the detail of the book seems interminably slow. This isn't always the case, particularly if a book and adaptation are different enough; but it happens enough to be annoying.

    On the other hand, reading a book first usually results in criticizing the film for its inaccuracies or what I perceive as flaws in its interpretation.

    Faced with the prospect of certain disappointment with the book or movie, I almost always choose to read the book first and niggle at the adaptation. My loyalty lies with the book. :)

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    1. Good point about how the pace of the book seems to slow if you already know the plot! Especially true of longer or older books -- they always have to cut so much to make it into a movie. Maybe I should just skip adaptations altogether.

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  2. Read the book awhile ago and liked it very much. had the video out from the library this past week. I started watching it and fell asleep. Typical. It needed to go back to the library today. I could have spent my morning watching it before returning it, but decided to just stop at reading the book.

    LauraC

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    1. I had the same problem with House of Mirth -- it's a wonderful book and one of my favorites, but the movie was glacially slow. I almost felt like the characters were moving underwater. I never did finish it. Some books just don't translate well.

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  3. I generally don't see film or TV adaptations of books I like, because I can't help "niggling" (to steal Diana's word) at the changes - some of which I know are necessary but some of which just seem so random (like Colin Firth's wet-shirt scene - which I actually haven't seen). I haven't read Winnifred Holtby yet - I just learned about her from reading Vera Brittain's Testaments of Youth and Friendship - and now her books are being reprinted.

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    1. I didn't realize she was Vera Brittain's friend until I read the introduction! I still haven't read Testament of Youth yet.

      And I can't believe you haven't seen Darcy in the wet shirt! I saw Andrew Davies at the Jane Austen convention last year. He cheerfully admitted he likes to sex up Austen adaptations -- there were a lot of nightgowns and heaving bosoms in Northanger Abbey, and an added prologue to the latest Sense and Sensibility in which Willoughby seduces a young lady. It's implied in the book but never show. I think Davies did the South Riding adaptation also.

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  4. I usually read the book before watching a TV/movie adaptation. Will get to South Riding eventually - I keep hearing such wonderful things about it. You're off to a strong start with your 75 classics!

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    1. I usually read the books first also, though sometimes a good adaptation will give me courage to try a book I wouldn't have otherwise. I don't think I would have ever read Bleak House if I hadn't watched the series first (this also started me on the long path to read the entire works of Dickens. Someday).

      I hope I'm not overdoing it with the 75 classics. A lot are already on the TBR shelves and to-read list anyhow!

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  5. I just finished South Riding yesterday. I enjoyed it, too, but because I'd seen the BBC adaptation, I found that I was anticipating events in the book. I normally read the book before I see the adaptation, but I hadn't found the book before the TV version appeared. I was also less interested in the political wranglings in the book, but I understand that they were necessary for several reasons.

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    1. I think I first heard of it around the time the series aired in England. Of course I had to wait until it showed up here and then I just decided to wait until I'd finished the book and then I ended up putting that off too! I wonder if the series made the politics easier to understand.

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  6. South Riding is definitely Winifred Holtby's masterpiece, but I've liked everything of hers that I've read. I think you'll like The Crowded Street -it isn't as mature a work as this one but it has the same spirit.

    I'm generally a book before film girl, but I will make an exception for big or difficult books, as sometimes having an idea of who's who and the general scheme of things helps we with books I would have struggled with otherwise.

    I gave up on new adaptation of South Riding after the first episode, but that might have been because I'm too attached to the book.

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  7. I loved SR & I've also read & enjoyed Anderby Wold & Crowded Street. I often watch adaptations but don't usually find them as satisfying as the book. The recent Great Expectations just sent me back to reread the book. I enjoyed the latest SR on TV but I also have the 1970s series on DVD which I haven't watched yet. I usually read the book first. I've just seen Salmon fishing in the Yemen at the movies but haven't read the book. I'd like to as I believe it's more satirical than the movie which had quite a soft centre. Wonderful performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as a political advisor (in the book, it's a man).

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    1. I think I want to reread GE also -- I watched the first episode and it wasn't nearly as interesting as I remember the book, which I really liked. I'd never even heard of Salmon Fishing before the movie came out, I didn't even know it was a book! I do love KST in just about everything so it might be worth seeing just for her.

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  8. I had an order in for this one with Borders but then they went bankrupt and weren't receiving new books from the publishers so I eventually had to cancel the order and haven't gotten another copy yet. :P I did watch the miniseries and it seemed rushed and a bit shallow. I'm glad to hear that the novel is on the longer side then because it probably doesn't have either of those qualities.

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  9. I am still mourning the demise of Borders. Every time I pass the empty space at the nearby mall, I still feel sad. :-(

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