I don't know about you but being a bit traditional I never buy a copy of book when it's serialised on TV in the 'advertising the series' edition, it's against my religion. If I decide to read it I'll hunt out an old edition, so when BBC books very kindly sent me a copy of South Riding by Winifred Holtby I headed straight for my shelves to find the old Virago copy and do a compare and contrast exercise. I know I know, what's to compare, we all love our Viragos but in the wake of a TV series it's obvious which one is going to grab the attention of the viewers, and if that gets more people reading Winifred Holtby then hallelujah.
South Riding is to be serialised early in 2011 and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, so my first thought was an obvious one along the lines of expect sexed-up fireworks that might have made even Winifred sit up and take notice.
Writer Andrew Davies says: "What appealed to me most about South Riding is how fresh and relevant it feels, even though it was written and set in the Thirties. It's a terrific love story but it's also a portrait of a whole community in turmoil, with the country in recession, and bitter struggles between the advocates of change, like our heroine Sarah the new forward-thinking headmistress, and the forces of conservatism embodied in Robert Carne.... It's also full of rich comedy, with some wonderful minor characters, splendidly cast. I feel as if we've rediscovered a forgotten masterpiece."
I hadn't read South Riding but having received the heads-up about the series and now the book, and knowing that I'm a stickler for reading beforehand if I can to get an idea of the characters in my own mind before I see someone else's interpretation, I decided I'd give it a go.
I opened the first page of my nice shiny new BBC edition and a funny thing happened. Apart from the fact that this is proving to be a brilliant read and I can't imagine why I haven't read the book before, I was also trying to place the characters on the cover in parts various and in a way that is, to my surprise, really enhancing the read. Actors we know well Anna Maxwell - Martin (Bleak House) and David Morrissey (everything) star along with Penelope Wilton (most recently Downton Abbey, but for me has the midas touch for any role she plays) and Peter Firth (Harry Pearce in Spooks). Now I'm wondering how they are going to play the parts, which bits will be included, which left out due to time constraints (just three hours in total) and already I can see that this has the potential to be a great production.
So South Riding my second read for Christmas and though 1930's Yorkshire perhaps slightly far removed from Hilary Mantel's 17th century revolutionary France, yet in other ways perhaps not. Plenty of fermenting discontent evident, class-warfare is rife and skullduggery abounds, just no guillotine as yet.
But what I am also sensing as I read the book is that Winifred Holtby might not have been quite so shocked at an Andrew Davies adaptation (I'm only assuming here based on past Davies form) as I might have first thought. I have always felt huge sympathy for Winifred, no slouch in her own right, but in my mind so often seen as playing second fiddle to Vera Brittain... Bookhound and I came across their shared home in Doughty Street on a recent trip to London..
Yet emerging from that same crucible of the Great War, Winifred Holtby seems to be a fearless writer. One who is completely unafraid of confronting the truth about women's lives along with uncomfortable issues which were doubtless usually confined to hushed whispers, rarely committed to the pages of 'respectable' fiction back in the 1930s. I suspect that Winifred took the word on the page as far as she dare, hoping that one day someone would add in what for her may have been the unsayable... the other bits, and as we know nothing is 'unsayable' for Andrew Davies, the master of those 'other bits'.