Journalist, author, feminist and activist Winifred Holtby was a distinctive voice in interwar Britain’s press. In her journalism pieces she often challenged social inequalities and advocated for change. Aside from her journalistic output, Holtby also wrote seven novels. The most famous of these is South Riding, which was published posthumously after Holtby’s death at the age of 37. Vera Brittain, Holtby’s close friend and an accomplished author in her own right, edited the manuscript of South Riding and got it ready for publication. The book met with critical success upon its publication, and was turned into a Victor Saville-directed film in 1938. The story’s enduring resonance is evidenced by the BBC adaptation which appeared as recently as 2011.
The scope and order of South Riding are ambitious: the novel opens with a list of characters no shorter than 6 pages in length. The story is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire. A facsimile of a hand-drawn map by Holtby in the front of the Virago edition of the book shows that she imagined the Riding to be located in the triangle between York, Scarborough and the northern border of Lincolnshire.
South Riding is a novel concerned with local government. Across its 500 or so pages, the novel is divided into eight ‘books’, each named after a sub-committee of South Riding Council. Through ‘Education’; ‘Highways and Bridges’; ‘Public Health’ and others, Holtby weaves a tale of modernity and tradition, and the deep interconnectedness of rural communities.
In a book with such a vast range of characters, the closest thing South Riding has to a protagonist is Miss Sarah Burton, M.A. (Leeds), B.Litt (Oxon), the thirty-something new headmistress of the local girls school, whose return to the county of her upbringing kicks off the book’s narrative. Sarah has decidedly modern ideas about education and life in general. Her modernising spirit runs up against the traditions of the South Riding Aldermen, who sit on the Council and have been used to running things their own way.
These Aldermen also reflect a changing society, however: Anthony Snaith is a rich business owner and Mrs Beddows is the Riding’s first female Alderman. Holtby famously modelled Beddows on her own mother, Alice, who was the first woman Alderman in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Alice Holtby initially opposed the publication of South Riding, worried as she was to the damage it may do to local political relations.
The central relationship in South Riding is between Sarah Burton and Robert Carne, a gentleman farmer who occupies the local ‘Big House’, Maythorpe Hall, with his teenage daughter Midge. In an echo of Victorian Gothic literature, Carne’s wife is alive but insane and permanently locked up in an institution. The prohibitive medical costs for her care have led Carne to the brink of financial destitution. Maythorpe Hall is falling apart around him. Divorce is not an option for him, not because it is legally impossible but because he finds it morally unpardonable.
The emotional and intellectual connection between Sarah and Carne builds up throughout the novel. One of the key scenes of South Riding occurs when the pair find themselves staying over in the same hotel. Under the chapter heading ‘Two in a Hotel Find Themselves Temporarily Insane’, Holtby pens what was a decidedly modern and transgressive scene for mid-1930s Britain. A pleasant dinner turns into a night of dancing, and several drinks build the intimacy between the couple. As the evening draws to a close, Sarah invites Carne to visit her in her bedroom, room number ‘five hundred and seventeen.’ For a woman to invite a man to her bedroom was of course already frowned upon, but to do so to a married man broke all the rules of propriety. Equally, Carne’s grateful and enthusiastic response did not match behaviour expected of a gentleman.
Throughout the scene, Sarah remains calm and steadfast. Whilst awaiting Carne’s arrival in her room, she smiles at herself. When he asks her if she is really sure she wants to go ahead with it, she confirms ‘I know now I have never been sure of anything before in my life.’ The only reason the relationship does not get consummated is because Carne has an acute attack of a recurring heart problem. This rather disturbs the mood and the couple do not get a chance to be alone again for the night after that. Morally and emotionally, however, both Sarah and Carne were committed to an affair which neither of them believed to be wrong, despite it going against the generally espoused conservative values of the time.
South Riding conveys the effect of modern ideas on a traditional community, both for better and for worse. At the same time, it treats the local community and the Council with a deep respect. Everyone in the South Riding needs one another eventually, and progress, however difficult, does penetrate the region through the diligent work of the local representatives.
 Shirley Williams, ‘Preface, in Winifred Holtby, South Riding (London: Virago Press, 2010), p. x
 Winifred Holtby, South Riding, p. 367
 Ibid., p. 368