Winifred Holtby was born seven miles from where I was born and I have always felt a connection with her, forged primarily by reading South Riding as a teenager and reinforced by re-reading and two television series. And she also did what I wanted to do; she left the Yorkshire Wolds and became a writer. But until now, I am ashamed to say, I had not read her earlier novels. Anderby Wold is her first; published in 1923 it is a portrayal of a Yorkshire Wolds village in the first years of the twentieth century. I was struck by the similarity to Jane Austen: both focus on the personalities, tensions, the pettiness, resentments and emotions of small communities, and both combine acute social observations with sharp humour.
The novel opens with a family party at the farm, Anderby Wold, as Mary Robson and John, her husband of ten years and also her cousin, are celebrating a decade of hard work and penny pinching to clear the mortgage on the farm they had inherited. We are introduced to Mary and the family from the viewpoint of John’s sister, the spiteful Sarah. If ever there was a negative first chapter that makes you think the story is going to be full of unlikeable characters, this is it. It is, perhaps, a sign of its times; I am not sure a novel would be published today with such an ill-feeling introduction. But do persist, this novel is worth reading. We are slowly introduced to each key character with their own viewpoint and take on their agricultural world, where hard toil, tough weather and difficult land unites – and separates – the community. Mary thinks of herself as a considerate benevolent mistress, she sits with sick people, visits the old, supports the school, and distributes gifts at Christmas. But she is unaware that some of the farm labourers resent what they see as her Mrs Bountiful role, a vision of her behaviour to which she is blind. She feels dissatisfaction with the minutiae of her life, dissatisfaction she pragmatically ignores. At a gathering of the village ladies, she listens to the gossip, ‘Mary shivered. They were as lifeless as the uprooted trees, carried from the wold side and laid in the back garden of the farm, awaiting destruction for firewood. Their talk was as meaningless as the rustle of dry leaves on brittle twigs.’
Into this fragile world where people speak bluntly and behaviour can be brusque, comes a writer from Manchester. He is researching the lot of the agricultural labourer with an eye on social change. When he comes into conflict with Mary, the beliefs and assumptions of both are challenged in an Austen-esque manner. As an outsider, David Rossitur is treated first with silence, then with suspicion. The innkeeper’s wife worries about his motivations, ‘Mrs Todd, being a personal of small imagination, had divided mankind into two classes, those who had designs on Victoria [her daughter], those who had designs on her Beer. Last night she had come to the regrettable conclusion that David had no true appreciation of Beer.’ A trade union for agricultural workers is formed, followed inevitably for a strike. At harvest time. Anderby Wold will be changed forever.
Read more about Sarah Burton, who features in South Riding.
‘Anderby Wold’ by Winifred Holtby [UK: Virago]
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