Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine has certainly opened up doors for me when it comes to 1930s and 40s English literature. The literature of the twentieth century has always eluded me before now, mostly because I was convinced that it would be, based on my limited experience with it, either a) depressing, or b) mad, confusing, and experimental. Or possibly both.
But one thing I’ve found, reading Cold Comfort Farm and re-reading I Capture The Castle, is how contemporary these texts can feel. And they’re so easy to read, flowing like Victorian novels – only with telephones and cars thrown in. The same can be said of South Riding, another of the books that Ellis discusses in How To Be A Heroine.
South Riding is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, and its main character is a forty-year old spinster called Sarah Burton, who comes up from London to become the headmistress of the girls’ high school. She brings with her boundless energy and a desire for reform. She’s a character who believes that “The proper technique of headmistress-ship was to break all rules of decorum and justify the breach” (Book I, Chapter V).
This was what I expected coming in to the novel, based on its plot: an uplifting tale about an unconventional headmistress who manages, through perseverance and intelligence, to turn a crumbly old school into the pride of the district, whipping everyone around her into fierce and total shape.
But South Riding is neither so simple, nor so satisfying. It’s a tricky book, because as the title suggests, it is not really about one person, but rather about a whole community. Holtby writes in the prefatory letter to the novel that “we are not only single individuals, each face to face with eternity and our separate spirits; we are members of one another”. And it’s for this reason that the novel follows the lives of dozens of characters, young and old, as they struggle to make lives for themselves in the midst of poverty, illness, and the threat of another war on the horizon.
Of course, with a diverse cast of characters it’s almost inevitable that readers will struggle to like all of them, especially if they are rendered as realistically as possible by the author – which I think is the case here. For my part, I couldn’t stand the self-sacrificing Carne of Maythorpe, and while his daughter Midge was at times sympathetic, at others she was just irritating.
I think one of the reasons I wasn’t as enchanted with this novel as I was with others was that there were only a few characters whose stories I really cared about; namely, Sarah Burton and her quest to repair the High School, and Lydia Holly, the scholarship girl whose mother’s death forces her to quit school and look after her brothers and sisters.
But of course, that’s not really the point of this book. South Riding aims to show how we are interconnected, and what it means to live in a community. Sarah realises, only at the end of the book, that “She was one with the people round her, who had suffered shame, illness, bereavement, grief and fear. She belonged to them”. There’s no happy end here – not entirely – merely the continuation of life, and the understanding that one’s social responsibilities are tied to the benefits that one gains from living in a community.
It’s an interesting philosophy to emerge only a few years before the outbreak of the Second World War (it definitely seems like it’s being foreshadowed in the book, although perhaps ‘predicted’ is the right word to use in this case). It doesn’t shy away from depicting the struggles of life after the war, and doesn’t try too hard to be optimistic about the future. It only tries to find those things which help people to survive times of violence, conflict, and struggle; and, more often than not, these are things offered to them by others, by the people that they share their lands and homes with. So long as we remember that we are all “members of one another”, Holtby suggests, we can weather whatever storms life throws at us.
Rating: 4 Stars