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.