Mrs Featherstone occupied the corner chair in our staffroom, a specially imported armchair unlike the institutional ones provided for the rest of us. I was frightened of her at first, then in awe, then respectful and finally missed her when she retired. She sat throughout the lunch hour, and if children needed to speak to her they were allowed to enter. The rest of us had to speak to children at the door. Mrs Featherstone let it be understood that in her day colouring hair with henna (as I did) was a sign of loose morals. She also told us that before the war she had been required to give up teaching when she married. And she and her husband had bought their first house for £60. No-one, staff, students, headteacher was able to get anything passed Mrs Featherstone. This was in the first days of my teaching career in the 1970s.
Mrs Beddows, from South Riding, seems to me to be very like Mrs Featherstone. She is the 13th in the series Older Women in Fiction on this blog.
Alderman Mrs Beddows is 72 and like all the main characters in South Riding a rounded character. She is married to a man so mean that her own generosity is a form of repentance. She uses their social advantage to benefit the community through serving on the Council. In addition to the tedious work of inspecting cash-strapped mental hospitals, interviewing for a new headmistress of the grammar school and the countless committee meetings, Mrs Beddows also manages to dispense charity and find jobs and other solutions to the many difficulties of the inhabitants of her area.
Here is how Winifred Holtby describes her at the opening of the novel
She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beaned benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. Her clothes were a compromise between her spiritual and chronological ages. She wore day-to-day a dignified and beautifully designed black gown of heavy dull material; but she had crowned this with a velvet toque plastered with purple pansies. She carried a large bag embroidered with raffia work and had pinned on her rounded bosom the first crimson rose out of her husband’s garden. Actually, she was seventy-two years old, a farmer’s daughter, and had lived in South Riding all her life. (4-5)
There is a great deal of affection in this description. The character may well have been inspired by Winifred Holtby’s own mother.
In both her public and private life Mrs Beddows is loyal. She never complains about her husband’s freeloading and generously provides a home for her neighbour’s daughter. She loves this neighbour, Robert Carne, who is a gentleman farmer finding it hard to keep his farm viable. Not only is agriculture a difficult economic prospect but Carne has the expense of supporting his wife in an asylum.
Mrs Beddows also supports the innovative Sarah Burton, appointed to provide a better education for the girls of the area. Miss Burton attempts to improve the school in the face of lack of interest in girls’ education, weak and inappropriate teaching staff, inadequate buildings and depressed and troubled social backgrounds. She too is supported by Mrs Beddows.
Winifred Holtby has given us a portrait of an active woman of the county, finding satisfaction and pleasure in being useful to the community. Mrs Beddows is not waiting for death, although aware of her age. ‘The consciousness of her three-score-years-and-ten arose and smote her. There was so much to do that she must leave undone.’ (335) This is her reaction to a tour of the mental hospital. There is an echo here of Winifred Holtby’s own mortality. She knew she was terminally ill with Bright’s Disease, even as she wrote South Riding.
Mrs Beddows is only one of the strong characters in this novel, which is broad-ranging enough to have been compared to Middlemarch in its scope. South Riding is a fictional county. It always intrigued me as a child that while we had North, West and East Ridings of Yorkshire, there was no South Riding. And the idea of a Riding conjured up people on horses marking out the boundaries.
This is the story of a rural community in the 1930s, suffering during the depression years, with its inter-relationships, and ambitious people, and inhabitants trying to survive in the hostile economic climate. The community of the South Riding stands for the country in those dire days. Many people were still suffering from the effects of the First World War. Building the Land Fit for Heroes promised by Lloyd George was proving harder than anyone had imagined.
Despite the hardships, the members of the community do support each other, and this spirit may have been evident during the war that was to come within a few years.While South Riding is a campaigning novel it does not read like one. It is admirable in its scope and for the careful plotting. It was the final achievement of Winifred Holtby, who died before its publication (March 1936) at the age of 39.
Reviews on the Age of Uncertainty
And on Booksnob
Review of Land of Green Ginger on this blog.
Winifred Holtby was also a poet. I referred to her in a post about women poets of the First World War.
South Riding by Winifred Holtby, published by Virago Modern Classics since 1988, first published in 1938. 515 pp
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