I had never heard of this novel before I read a precis and analysis of it in Susan Leonardi’s Dangerous by Degrees, but I was inspired to pick it up because the heroine, Sarah Burton, is headmistress of a girls’ school in the north of England in the 1930s, and one of my characters is going to end up doing a similar job in a similar place and time, so I thought it might be good for a bit of background. It was, but it was so much more than that.
Sometimes billed as a novel about local government, South Riding is a story about several characters who shape a community during difficult times. Sarah Burton, the schoolmistress, is one, but there are many main characters in this story: the landowner Robert Carne, the alderwoman Mrs. Beddows, the disillusioned socialist Joe Astell, the evangelical preacher with a weakness for the ladies, Mr. Huggins, the promising girl from a poor family, Lydia Holly … and many more. Yet each character is vividly and fully realized; the omniscient narrator brings us each of their lives briefly and yet each one is real and memorable. This is an amazing novel which I can’t believe I’ve never encountered before, and I highly recommend it.
This was the only book I read while researching That Forgetful Shore that I could not find a cover image of — it’s that obscure. Even my university library had to dig it out of a storage facility, and I cound find very few references to either the book or the author online. Which is a shame, because it’s a really interesting memoir of a slice of life you rarely read about.
The author, Margaret McCarthy, was a teenage factory worker in the North of England during the years immediately after World War One and the Russian Revolution. She got involved, first with the Trade Union movement, then with the British Communist Party. McCarthy was an active young Communist (I know, it’s funny to see “McCarthy was a Communist” in a sentence, isn’t it?) during the period between the wars, when most English people viewed Communism with wary suspicion but full-blown Cold War hysteria had not yet broken out. She travelled to Russia more than once as a youth delegate to international Party congresses, and became, as many idealistic young Communists of the period were, disenchanted and disillusioned as she gradually recognized that direction the Soviet Union was taking under Stalin. Later in life she became a Labour MP.
McCarthy’s writing style is more formal than readers would expect in a memoir written today (hers was written in the 1950s) but it’s still very readable and provides an invaluable glimpse into the mind and experience of someone who was deeply attracted to Communist theory but ultimately abandoned it.
I’ve been a longtime fan of Dorothy Sayers and particularly of her portrayal of life at an Oxford women’s college in Gaudy Night, but while researching higher education for women in the 1920s I came across this great book, Dangerous by Degrees, which examines Sayers in the context of five other women novelists who, like her, attended Oxford’s Somerville College in the early 20th century and whose novels touch, to some degree, upon the questions of women’s education and women’s roles.
Not only is Dangerous by Degrees very well-written and interesting to read in its own right, it also introduced me to writers I hadn’t read or heard of before — some realtively well-known like Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby — as well as those who are perhaps less remembered: Muriel Jaeger, Doreen Wallace, and Margaret Kennedy. The focus is not so much on biography, though Leonardi does talk about each woman’s life in the context of her time at Somerville, but rather on literary analysis. Leonardi chooses a few women characters from each writer’s work and shows how each of the novelists handles the themes of higher education for women, women’s work, and romance/marriage for the “new woman.” There are some really interesting insights here, and it made me want to read more by all these novelists. Actually, even if it had only led me to read Winifred Holtby’s South Riding that would have been enough of a revelation, but I’m hoping that I get to hunt down some more novels by these writers (some are hard to find). Both for itself, and for other books it might point you towards, Dangerous by Degrees is highly recommended.
After doing a lot of reading about life in outport Newfoundland in the early 20th century, I veered in a different direction with my research for That Forgetful Shore and started reading about university education for women in England during the same period. The basic premise of my story is that one of the two main characters gets the opportunity to leave her outport home and further her education, and she ends up in England in 1921, which led me to this book, Bluestockings. This is a wonderful history of the struggle for higher education for women in England, full of lively anecdotes as well as information, highly readable, and also balanced — while it celebrates the accomplishments of the “bluestockings” it also recognizes honestly the difficulties they faced when career opportunities for women lagged far behind women’s desire for, and ability to obtain, higher education. For those who didn’t choose to become teachers, there were often limited opportunities to use the education they had worked so hard to obtain. Bluestockings is a book I highly recommend to anyone at all interested in the history of women’s education.