I finished up South Riding yesterday and enjoyed it right up to the end–though overall I’m not as impressed by it as I expected to be. It didn’t seem quite balanced, somehow. One thing that really threw me off was Sarah Burton’s falling in love so precipitously with Robert Carne. I knew something of the sort was coming, not just by fictional convention (and I would have been glad to have that expectation disappointed), but because the back of my edition says she “finds she is drawn to him.” Still, when the moment of revelation arrived, it felt much too sudden. Where was it prepared for? What motivated it? Even she acknowledges she hardly knows the man. And yet we get this:
“I love him!” she cried aloud, as though struck by sudden anguish. Immediately she felt that she understood everything. All her past slid into an inevitable and discernible pattern; all her future lay before her, doomed to inevitable pain.
She knew love; she knew its aspect, its substance and its power. She knew that she faced no possible hope, no promise, no relief.
I didn’t like it! More to the point, I didn’t believe it! Where does this melodramatic posturing come from? Is it actually ironic, at Sarah’s expense? A bit, I think, at least at a metafictional level, given how things turn out, but overall her passion is given full credit as sincere. What is the source of these sudden strong feelings? Why are they nearly allowed to derail her characterization, so vivid and sparky to this point, by giving her a tendency to mope as well as a predilection for self-loathing, for her failure (as she believes) to win his love in return? I know, I know: how can I complain when I enjoy so much the burst of melodrama that carries Dorothea into Will Ladislaw’s arms at the end of Middlemarch? But that moment is anticipated by all kinds of hints and indications of Dorothea’s needs and feelings, not to mention by their much closer relationship (unlike Sarah and Carne, Dorothea and Will have had numerous long conversations, for one thing), and by thematic pressures such as … well, I won’t go into this since I’m writing about South Riding, not Middlemarch, but I don’t quite see the thematic necessity or satisfaction of Sarah’s love, and as a plot development, it felt contrived, though after that jarring moment its effects and implications are worked out in very interesting ways.
I really liked the diffuse attention of the novel, the way it held true to an idea of community, giving pretty much equal time to all of its diverse range of characters. The emphasis on Sarah as a central protagonist–not just in the cover blurb, but in the small amount of criticism I’ve looked into–seems misleading to me, insisted on almost as if we don’t know what to do with a novel that doesn’t really have one main character. Though Sarah’s work at the school is significant, and the school itself is a useful organizing point for some of the intersecting plot lines, the novel does not spend a lot of time there or focus conspicuously on Sarah as a newcomer or force for change–she’s not a female version of Dr. Lydgate, for example, just to keep up the Middlemarch comparisons. Am I underestimating her centrality to the novel’s larger concerns? Because I felt she was really just one element among many, it seemed odd that she takes up so much of the novel’s conclusion, and yet the values she articulates do seem to represent what the novel is itself trying to show us. Again, something felt not quite balanced–straining, almost–about the conclusion. And yet it is rousing nonetheless. (I wonder if this is what Lauren Elkin means when she says Holtby is more interested in the possibilities of message than of form.)
Because the novel kept making me think of Middlemarch, I was struck by the difference between its ending and that novel’s Finale. George Eliot emphasizes the importance of honoring the individual contribution to the ‘growing good of the world,’ insignificant as it may seem at first glance or when measured against more grandiose forms of heroism. In contrast, Holtby celebrates the participation of the individual in a communal enterprise, almost to the point of submerging the one in the many:
She was one with the people round her, who had suffered shame, illness, bereavement, grief and fear. She belonged to them. Those things which were done for them–that battle against poverty, madness, sickness and old age, the battle which Mrs Beddows had called local government–was fought for her as well. She was not outside it.
Local government is the structuring idea of this “English landscape” (geez, even the subtitle provokes Middlemarch comparisons!) so the horizontal structuring makes sense. What makes less sense to me is why Sarah needs to go through the crucible of love and loss to realize her place in this landscape. That said, there is something surprising about her standing alone at the end, though I’m still thinking about Susan Leonardi’s argument (in The Somerville Novelists):
That Holtby’s heroines triumph convincingly and unequivocally attests to the success of her strategy for telling in a traditional narrative the story of the educated woman: the systematic elimination of men from the lives of her heroines and from her texts.
I haven’t read any of Holtby’s other novels, but I didn’t see men being eliminated from South Riding, just from Sarah’s immediate (romantic) future. If Sarah triumphs, what is it over, and how unequivocal is it?
I liked South Riding best, as it turned out, at the level of its sentences, which are constantly strong, frequently funny, and often surprising. Of Mrs Beddows, for instance, we’re told, “Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages”; of Carne, “His unfeigned pleasure in killing the correct animals at their orthodox seasons made him an affectionately respected neighbour.” These fondly acerbic epigrammatic lines remind me (you guessed it) of Middlemarch.