I was very excited when Virago decided to reprint three more novels by Winifred Holtby after the success of the TV series of South Riding. Apart from anything else, I loved the covers, based on 1930s railway posters so I ordered the lot – Anderby Wold, Poor Caroline & The Land of Green Ginger. I loved South Riding, The Crowded Street & the collection of short stories, Remember! Remember! so I was looking forward to reading more of Holtby’s fiction. I also remember how jealous Vera Brittain was when Winifred’s first novel was published before her own The Dark Tide. The friendship between Vera & Winifred is explored in Vera’s books, Testament of Youth & Testament of Friendship as well as fictionally in The Dark Tide.
Anderby Wold is full of themes that were very prevalent in the fiction of the 1920s & it also reflects the preoccupations of the author – politics & feminism. Mary Robson is a young woman who feels stifled by her life as a farmer’s wife in rural Yorkshire. When she was 18, her alcoholic father died, leaving her with a farm, Anderby Wold, & a huge mortgage. She married her much older cousin, John, & when the novel opens, 10 years have passed & the Robsons have paid off the mortgage. John’s family, including his formidable sister, Sarah Bannister, have been invited to the farm to celebrate. Mary is very conscious that the farm is hers & that John left his own farm to take on her debts when they married. Sarah has always resented their marriage & considers that Mary has used John to save her farm. More shockingly, Mary has not had children & Sarah feels that she hasn’t done her duty. Mary always rubs Sarah up the wrong way, never more so than when she’s in charge,
Sarah watched her smile at one relation and then another on her progress to the door. It was ridiculous, the way she behaved, as though she were a queen holding a court. Well, nobody was likely to bow down to Mary, unless one counted the villagers, who were said to make an absurd fuss of her.
Mary is involved in everything in the village. John is a quiet, easygoing man who defers to her judgement & never initiates an idea or topic of conversation. The farm workers are well looked after & well paid but it’s Mary not John who really runs the farm. Mary’s involved in everything – in decorating the Christmas tree in the village hall, organising treats for the children, charitable visits to the poor & sick, taking a leading role in everything. Her leadership & uncompromising standards have made her enemies, principally Mr Coast, the local schoolmaster, who resents Mary’s dominance of local affairs. She refused to allow John to write a reference for Coast & since then, he has been rude & unco-operative. Coast is an unpleasant man, a sly domestic bully but an uncomfortable enemy in a small village.
Mary’s unsatisfied life is changed when David Rossitur arrives. David is a journalist, living in Manchester, but undertaking a tour of the villages of the Riding to spread his ideas about Socialism & trade unions. Mary’s benevolent despotism (as he sees it) are anathema to David & they have many spirited arguments about the future of agriculture & the inevitability of political change. Mary is also personally attracted to David &, all at once, her quiet, predictable life becomes intolerable to her.
Of course some people never wanted anything very much. Like John. She could never imagine John eating out his heart in longing for the unattainable. He was safe enough, securely fenced in behind his limitations. But David – David who believed in such stupid things that were bound to let him down one day, David who was such a child, who needed so much someone who could help him when the inevitable hour of disappointment came – what was one to do for him?
If John had been like David she would have watched and protected him. If John had been like David…If David had been John….
There were some things that it was wiser not to think about.
David’s visit & subsequent newspaper articles lead to the establishment of an agricultural trade union in the area. The discontent of a labourer Mary had sacked & the agitations of Coast, the schoolmaster, lead to a strike at harvest time. Mary stands firm on the question of wages, believing that her offer is fair & knowing that the smaller farmers won’t be able to afford to pay if she gives in. Mary’s misery & frustration is increased when she doesn’t hear from David & their one meeting ends in a passionate kiss that may or may not have been witnessed by John. She realizes that her obsession has blinded her to the consequences of her actions & her life will be changed completely by what follows.
Anderby Wold is an intensely realized portrait of rural society that rings true. Winifred Holtby’s family were Yorkshire people & she was very aware of the political changes that had resulted from the War. Her farmers & labourers are at the end of an era. The labourers will no longer be content with what the farmers are gracious enough to give them. Mary is trying to continue a tradition of patronage that is no longer wanted. She is chafing at the limitations of her life while trying to fulfill her duties as she sees them. It’s also a very funny book. Sarah is a wonderful character, spiky & domineering, always trying to assert her superior knowledge of John & disapproving of Mary because she has no children. Mr Coast is a perfect portrait of a frustrated man. The scene where he plays the hymns at Sunday service too fast because he’s angry & then, because the vicar asks him to slow down so the choir can keep up, plays the final hymn “like a funeral dirge, with long-drawn wails at the end of every line.” is typical of his ungracious, self-sabotaging manner. I think it’s a remarkable first novel & I’m looking forward to reading more of Holtby’s work.