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South Riding: They like it! They really, really like it!

I’ve just finished rereading South Riding, ready for our final discussion of the novel in the Somerville seminar tomorrow. I was caught up in it both intellectually and emotionally, more than I was when I first read it last spring. Rereading made the subtleties of the novel’s construction more apparent: the sophisticated way Holtby weaves together the stories of her vast array of characters, the tensions between their disparate visions for their own lives and the life of their community, the ironies of unintended consequences, the conflicts between political commitments and personal affections, the books each named for a council committee. More apparent also this time was the role of the communal events (concerts, festivals)  in returning us over and over to the intermingling of these lives and values. Though there are strong personalities that dominate the novel, it is, ultimately, a social novel, and our realization that even the strongest individuals cannot really shape their own destiny–cannot control either the forces of history or the forces of their own nature–is shared, in the end, by Sarah Burton, who in a different novel would be the heroine but here learns to subordinate her ego to a communal story.

I think she also learns to accept that there are currents in life outside her control. I wrote before of my dissatisfaction with Sarah’s discovery of her love for Carne. I still find it melodramatic in its presentation, but on this reading I had more ideas about how it belonged, thematically, to this novel. Sarah arrives in South Riding keen to bring reason to bear in the service of progress and reform. In a pivotal exchange with Mrs. Beddows, she asserts,

I think we have to play our own Providence – for ourselves and for future generations. If the growth of civilisation means anything, it means the gradual reduction of the areas ruled by chance – Providence, if you like.

Mrs. Beddows feels “sorry for the wilful unbroken girl before her.” South Riding is partly the story of how Sarah’s will is broken, and I’ve been thinking that her love for Carne is one of the ways that happens. Love – passion – desire – is not reasonable; it cannot be brought neatly under our control. It is, I think, shown as part of the natural world, in which raw forces like sex and death wreak havoc on well-laid plans. Many of the novel’s subplots, in fact, show people’s lives similarly wrought upon by their intractably physical elements: people get sick, they get pregnant, they inherit ‘tainted blood,’ they die. Sarah knows that Carne represents, politically, everything she opposes, and yet she loves him. Her feelings are characterized, in one of Holtby’s characteristically dry chapter titles, as a form of temporary insanity. In her conversation with Sarah after Carne’s death, Mrs. Beddows helps her to see that love carried her past their ideological differences: it was a response to Carne’s full presence and complexity as a human being. “He was everything I dislike most,” exclaims Sarah, ” – reactionary, unimaginative, selfish, arrogant, prejudiced.” “He may have been all that you say he was,” responds Mrs. Beddows,

but he was much more. He was courageous and kind and honest. He was, in dealing with people, the gentlest man I ever knew. He knew all about loving. . . . He never ran away from failure; he never whined, never deceived himself, never blamed other people when things went wrong. In the end – it’s not politics nor opinions – it’s those fundamental things that count – the things of the spirit.

Without suggesting that specific policies don’t matter, Holtby advocates the primacy of humanity over ideology. That’s an ideal, she suggests, for how we live our individual lives, but it’s also the model she endorses for civic government, because, in the novel’s simplest and most compelling idea of all, we’re all in it together. Thus Sarah’s conclusion:

She was one with the people around 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 – was fought for her as well. She was not outside it.

We end not with Sarah’s love for Carne, but with her love for the South Riding.

South Riding has been a hit with the class. Frankly, I’ve been both pleased and a little bit puzzled by their outspoken enthusiasm. It’s buoying, for sure, not just for me, but especially for them, given that before long they are going to be deep into their independent reading projects, and I think their expectations are now higher about what they might find as they explore other books that they hadn’t heard of before. The things they like about the book include its range of characters, its political and social engagement, and its dry humor. I was worried that they would find the novel too diffuse, but they’ve talked a lot, with enthusiasm, about the frequent changes in perspective and how Holtby keeps shifting and complicating how we see people and situations. We can’t ever rest in simple judgments, seems to be the message they are taking away from that. The introduction of the love plot provoked a lot of discussion, but mostly they had accepted Sarah’s declaration less skeptically than I had. To be fair, it’s prepared for by a broad hint on the back cover blurb, as one student pointed out with justifiable annoyance. But they liked the frankness of Sarah’s confrontation with her feelings and the way her love contradicts her political principles. I’m curious to find out how they react when they see how things turn out! It is certainly not a conventional romance plot.

It’s great that they like it and are really energized to talk about it. I know I won’t have to carry the discussion tomorrow! But at the same time, I am reminded why I usually try to set the terms of my classes to rule out a lot of talk about ‘liking’ or ‘not liking.’ I have allowed, even encouraged, them to explain why they like South Riding, partly because it’s so clear that they do and it’s interesting to know why. And their positive response to the book is clearly motivating them to think about it and ask questions about it and make connections and generally be good readers of it. Yet there’s also a temptation for them to use the book they do like as a stick to beat the books they didn’t like as much or didn’t find as easy to appreciate–that is, both of the other books we’ve read for the course.* There’s a risk in setting up South Riding as a standard for success, as if other books that have very different aims and methods are not as good in some absolute way: for our purposes, that’s not a very productive way to proceed. It encourages complacency about their own preferences and interpretations and reading habits, which is just the kind of thing I’m guarding against when I worry that I’m not challenging my own reading of Gaudy Night. I’m certainly not sorry that so many of them seem so fired up about South Riding. I’m just going to do my best to channel the resulting energy back into ideas about why Holtby’s form and style serves her ideas so well, while Brittain and Sayers are doing other kinds of things.

*I can’t help but reflect that this is how I sometimes use Middlemarch. Ahem. But my purposes here are not the same as my purposes in the classroom. If I were teaching Madame Bovary I would save the possibility of a comparative critique of that kind for the very last day. The rest of the time would be all about appreciating Flaubert for being Flaubert. Honest!