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February 2019



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Flavour of the Month: Winifred Holtby

Coming up on BBC1 from Andrew Davies, a new adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s most famous novel, South Riding. I see there was a 1974 series which I don’t remember at all. It’s also the next book for discussion on the Cornflower Book Group and there’s a new Virago edition with a very pretty cover. I’ve read it at least twice. It’s a rollicking good read and more successful than The Crowded Street, which I’ve just finished.

Endpaper design from the Persephone edition

Winifred Holtby grew up in Yorkshire and set The Crowded Street there, in fictional Marshington. The principal characters are the Hammonds: rich, kindly but slightly vulgar Father, better-born and social climbing Mother and their daughters Muriel and Connie. Mrs Hammond is ambitious, wanting to be known to the ‘best’ families and to marry off her daughters well. As Delia, the vicar’s daughter, later tells Muriel, ‘sex success’ is the only thing that matters in Marshington. Delia is clever and manages to get away to college. Sadly for Mrs Hammond, her daughters don’t play up to her. Muriel seems a perpetual bystander, letting things happen to her and failing to attract swains. Connie is tougher and bolder; she gets her own way but at a terrible cost.

We see the Hammonds first in 1900, with shy little Muriel failing socially at a dance, and follow their lives through to 1920. When war comes Muriel stays at home ‘helping Mother’ and working for the Red Cross, while Connie goes off to be a land girl. The place she works at is so like Cold Comfort Farm that events there seem ludicrously melodramatic compared with the rest of the book. Throughout the book Muriel nurses a hopeless passion for the local squire, dashing Godfrey Kneale, apparently losing him for good when he falls for her fascinating school friend Clare. Connie tends to chase men if they don’t chase her. Muriel is eventually rescued by being given an income by her father and then going to look after Delia in London. Only away from home can she become herself. I read this book fast, enjoying the social comedy of provincial life, wanting to shake Muriel and feeling a grudging respect for Mrs Hammond’s steely self-control and determination. I felt it didn’t quite come off. You can’t argue with Holtby’s dislike of the idea that only marriage and children can fulfil a woman and her belief that a spinster can also lead a useful life. Unfortunately, Muriel isn’t a strong enough character to carry these ideas and her transformation at the end of the book is too rushed to be believable.


Thank you! I've been wondering about that book for several years, and couldn't track it down
The 1974 series of South Riding was very bad - I read the book about three times running to get the pictures out of my head
Glad I didn't miss much!
On the other hand, my mother, who loves the book, also enjoyed the TV series. I guess it depends on your mental pictures.
Let's hope this TV adaptation will be good.
Ah, thank you! I was vaguely aware that there was a new adaptation in the pipeline, but I hadn't actually tracked down what, when and where. Amazon are listing the DVD's release date as 7th March, so it must be on soon!
The sooner the better; there's nothing else on!
I vaguely remember the 1974 series, with Dorothy Tutin. No detail - I just remember it being on. No idea what it was like.