South Riding: the prescience of Winifred Holtby

Winfred Holtby set the book  between the wars in the mythical South Riding of Yorkshire. Except she didn’t. It was published in 1936 – the only war she knew was the Great War.  And far from being mythical – the South Riding is based on real towns in Yorkshire, and real events in the East Riding (of which her mother was an alderman).  So it is fiction very strongly grounded in the reality of its times: women’s rights, the great depression, the lovers and husbands killed in the war; and the left versus fascism.

There is a minor character in the book – Ernst – a young Communist.

‘Ernst, who wanted peace and comradeship and a mystical unity of like-minded youth’

Holtby was writing this in 1935 – it was the next line that made me go back and check the date:

‘Ernst whose mother had been a Jewess … Ernst, who had disappeared, and who had, some said, been beaten to death at the Dachau concentration camp’.

That is prescient. Dachau’s infamy was still at an early stage. Many would not even have heard of it – including the original sub editors at Collins, who  delivered the whole 600 page book with scarcely a mistake. But they did miss one typo. In the original 1936 edition the line reads:

‘ … who had… been beaten to death in Dachan concentration camp.’

A glaring mistake today – but not in 1936. Winfred Holtby would have spotted it – but she died a few months before the proofs were ready.





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