For many people, the term ‘classic novel’ will conjure up an image of some dusty book, probably written in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, lying on their bookshelf, patiently waiting to be read. Lord knows I have more than a few of these! These are the ‘worthy’ books, the books we are meant to read, the books which have been deemed of such significance that they are elevated above the other paperbacks in the bookshop and given their own self of honour. Obviously not every old book becomes a classic, and not even every worthy book becomes a classic, so what is that places one in this holiest of holies?
Perhaps Italo Calvini got to the core of what makes a classic when he argued that classics are those works which readers of the classics will immediately recognise as being such. I can count on one hand the number of non-classics with which I have had this experience. However, one book immediately struck me as a classic, and I am still indignant that it is often not recognised as such: Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936).
I’ll admit that South Riding may not be the easiest sell in the world. Set in the 1930s, the book deals with a number of social issues, including unemployment, poverty, and education, and it is centred around the activities of the local council, and the impact of their resolutions on the community. So far, so dry. There may be a good reason why very few novels are concerned with local politics, but South Riding is far more compelling than this would suggest: it is a rich evocation of life in a Yorkshire community on the brink of change. True, the overt ‘condition of England’ elements of the novel are pronounced, but the story and its characters are vivid.
South Riding begins when Sarah Burton returns to her hometown as a headmistress, determined to shake up her school, and inspire her girls to seize all of the (still limited) opportunities that are opening up to them. Its closest literary counterpart is Middlemarch, not only in its interest in contemporary politics, but in that it manages to capture the life of a whole community even as it relates the frustrations, loves and agonies of individual lives. Indeed, one of the reasons this book manages to remain fresh, unlike many other community novels that attempt the same feet, is that it avoids most of the novelistic tropes: most the characters are at least on the brink of middle-age, and are often haggard, working people.
There’s Robert Carne – the proud, genteel farmer with a troubled daughter, who is trapped in a marriage that has left him on the brink of ruin; Mrs Beddows – the sturdy, conventional alderwoman of the district; and most vividly of all there is Sarah Burton. She’s a fiery spinster in her late 30s, but she is not a figure to pitied. ‘I was born to be a spinster and, by god, I’m going to spin’, she declares early in the novel. She is at once sparkling and steely; an idealist who is the book’s main advocate for social change.
What comes through with all these finely worked characters is the importance of their working lives. The novel ends with a sense that those characters who have work of value will have fruitful, independent lives, particularly the women. Sarah, and many of the other characters, put their faith in the emerging left wing, more interventionist politics to create this more beneficent England. Yet the novel recognises that the often cruel hand of chance still has a role to play. It is chance rather than concerted efforts that enable Lydia Holly – the brilliant, but impoverished schoolgirl – return to her studies, and is chance that make the progressive Sarah fall in love with Robert Carne, and reel from the consequences of it.
This certainly is a bold statement, but South Riding is the Middlemarch for the modern age, yet the term ‘classic’ has somehow eluded it. While it has received some recognition, and it has never been out of print, it is virtually unknown to many readers. Perhaps the ‘it’s bleak up North’ notion has become attached to it, or readers suspect it will be an earnest rallying call for social change. Neither statement would be fair. What is true is that South Riding is a compelling and considered examination of the life of individuals in a community on the brink of change. Holtby’s treatment of the subject is masterful, and her characters continue to live and breathe even into the 21st century, and for all these reasons it should take its place among the classics.
Image: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr (All creative commons)
Published 3rd April, 2016