Holtby's last deadline

Film makers came to East Yorkshire to make an adaptation of the best-known novel of one of its favourite daughters. Steve McLarence considers South Riding and Winifred Holtby

The veteran politician Shirley Williams has left a vivid description of the woman she called Auntie Winifred.

"Tall, slim, with hair the colour of harvest wheat and eyes of piercing blue," is how she remembered her, writing in a newspaper in 1999. "In appearance a modern Viking."

Auntie Winifred was Winifred Holtby, the East Riding-born author who died cruelly young – just 37 years old – in 1935.

That "modern Viking" gazes – a very keen gaze, very direct – from a portrait hung in the superb new Hull History Centre. Beneath it is a cabinet of maps of the city and its region, opposite shelves stacked with Yorkshire parish registers.

It's an apt setting for an author whose best-known novel, South Riding, is rooted, despite its name, in the East Riding and is cleverly (though perhaps unpromisingly) structured around the workings of local government.

Finished just a month before Holtby's death from kidney disease, it was aimed at the general reader, who might pick it up at a lending library or station bookstall, and it has never been out of print since it was published in 1936. And it's suddenly topical, thanks to a new 75th anniversary BBC TV adaptation which has been filmed across Yorkshire and will be screened shortly.

At first glance, South Riding is a Wolds update of Jane Eyre. It shows a young woman falling for a charismatic landowner whose wife has been consigned to a mental hospital.

It inspired a 1938 film, starring Ralph Richardson which tacked on the sort of happy ending which its target readers might have expected but didn't originally get.

And there was a much-praised 1970s TV dramatisation by Stan Barstow, whose West Riding background must have given an interesting dimension to the book's East Riding preoccupations.

Holtby wrote much of it in Withernsea, described in an introduction to a 1960s edition as a "tiny bleak watering-place of the poor". She subtitled it An English Landscape, but for all its loosely disguised towns and villages, the landscape is, as we'll see, more political than geographical.

The novel's manuscript is one of the treasures at the History Centre, which combines Hull's local history and university archives.

It has the world's biggest collection of Holtby memorabilia, luring scholars and enthusiasts with some 10,000 items including articles, photographs and more than 2,000 letters between the author and Shirley Williams's mother, the feminist writer Vera Brittain.

Holtby and Brittain met in 1919 at Oxford University and remained devoted friends. And it's Brittain's portrait of Holtby in her celebrated book Testament of Friendship that has, until recently, tended to define posterity's vision of Holtby as a self-effacing woman, playing second fiddle to her more flamboyant friend.

That's disputed by many Holtby experts, including Dr Lisa Regan from Hull University. "She was a very strong woman who made friends very easily," she says. "People were attracted to her bubbly, vivacious personality."

Holtby appointed Vera Brittain as her literary executor. "There were files and files and files, all in considerable confusion," Brittain wrote.

Between 1946 and 1965 she donated the collection, bit by bit, to Hull Central Library, where Holtby had researched the background to South Riding.

"Brittain would send crates up on the train," says David Smith, Hull's senior local studies librarian. "There were letters saying 'Send the crates back for refilling'."

One of the crates contained the unexpected item which Mr Smith is gently lifting out of a storage box. He unwraps a swathe of tissue paper and unfolds the tablecloth which Holtby was embroidering when she died. When the library acquired it, her needles were still tucked into it.

It's a poignantly domestic survival from a life busy with writing and travel. "It surprises me that when her time was so precious – rattling round on trains, writing articles, racing against time to finish South Riding – that she found time to do this tablecloth," says Lisa Regan, who has recently edited A Woman in Her Time, a collection of essays about Holtby.

Until now, Winifred Holtby has been remembered as a "one-book author" – and sometimes not very well remembered at that. South Riding may have won prizes and been through 12 editions in its first two years, but it has fallen so far out of the regular literary canon that even normally well-informed booksellers sometimes display it on their Topography or Geography shelves rather than under Fiction.

It's a sort of middlebrow Middlemarch, with a social canvas so broad that the list of characters which opens it runs to 170 names (including "Rex, an Alsatian"). It centres on Sarah Burton, a feisty young(ish) teacher whose emancipated, career-oriented outlook seems less unusual today than it must have done in the 1930s. As it uncovers corruption, the book explores the effects of agricultural recession on the working class.

"Holtby said she was torn between her political commitments and her writings," says Lisa Regan. "South Riding is the place where she reconciled them. What seems a typical rural retreat is shot through with international politics."

It's a far more radical and challenging book than readers might expect, discussing prostitution, incest and priests with a penchant for choirboys, and giving one of its characters a passionate tirade against fox-hunting.

As a horse has to be shot after tripping on a fence, the landowner tells the rider: "If 50 grown-up men will amuse themselves by riding after one little animal to watch it torn to pieces by dogs, on other people's property, they must accept the consequences."

But there is, it emerges, much more to Winifred Holtby than South Riding. The Hull collection celebrates her as the author of half-a-dozen other novels, and as a successful London-based journalist, writing for the Manchester Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Yorkshire Post, among many other newspapers and magazines.

Born in Rudston, near Bridlington, daughter of a farmer and the East Riding's first woman alderman, she was a passionate feminist and campaigner for social justice and racial equality, a champion of the underdog.

She had a library named after her in South Africa, and was a friend of Shaw, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf. Despite that, the metropolitan Woolf was snobbishly patronising about her, calling her "a pig farmer's daughter" and finding her books predictable.

A more relevant criticism of South Riding might be of its bewildering density, particularly in the opening chapters: so many characters, so many plot lines, so many adjectives ("a big, brown-bearded, coarse-featured, powerful yokel dominated by the little neat grey dapper alderman").

Lisa Regan speculates that this busy opening was deliberate. "She wants to drop the reader in medias res and is aiming for documentary realism."

The History Centre's letters from Holtby to Brittain include advice about motherhood: "'Have Girls First' would be a good motto for mothers... Boys are so much more trouble when infants."

There was gossip that the two women had a lesbian relationship (Holtby, who never married, shared a home with Brittain and her husband) but nothing has been proved and, as Lisa Regan says: "We have to be very careful about reading back women's relationships from a modern perspective."

The collection includes many photographs of Holtby, variously flattering, sometimes with her shingle haircut, sometimes with rakish broad-brimmed hats.

One shows her in a beach robe, carrying an oriental-looking parasol, as if in the chorus line of The Mikado. And there's her mother, an imposing woman who inspired one of the main characters in South Riding.

The collection's treasure is the book's manuscript, a hefty volume bound in green leather. The novel is written on thin paper in a firm, confident hand, mostly in blue-black ink.

From time to time, you can see where the pen ran out and Holtby had to refill it. "Some people are incredibly moved when they turn the pages," says David Smith.

There are few crossings-out or second thoughts; the first draft is generally also the last.

Perhaps, says Lisa Regan, it's an heroic reflection of Holtby's journalistic discipline, getting things written quickly and clearly, working to a deadline. In this case, the most testing deadline of all.

YP MAG 22/1/11