Posted by: zhiv | April 30, 2011

Masterpiece Theater note: Winifred Holtby, South Riding

At the end of the fairly excellent new Upstairs Downstairs they played the preview for the literary miniseries that begins this weekend, South Riding, and I knew it sounded familiar. It’s all familiar, of course, the steady stream of adaptations of British novels, and I notice that I have been on an extended hiatus from watching them, well over a decade unless I’m mistaken, and possibly two, which is not to say that I’m not liable to plotz in front of the TV on a regular, ongoing nightly basis with a dumb smile plastered on my face. But all of a sudden I find myself in Masterpiece Theater mode. It started with Daunton Abbey, an update of Trollope that went right up to August 1914, and I was reading WWI Lit and thus a prime target. It was engaging and good enough, but looks a little sloppy and shabby now next to the crisper elegance of Upstairs Downstairs. I remember the original UD being on TV back in the day, but never watched it once, and didn’t watch I Claudius either, and I’m curious about both of them now. I guess I’m also counting Mildred Pierce in this new group too.

None of this is anything I would go out of the way to mention here on the zhivblog–it’s super embarassing to sense myself even leaning towards becoming my mother, who watched MT religiously. If I start smoking cigarettes and drinking tequila while watching (and no longer reading) British literary drama, with a shag carpet between me and the bigscreen, I will shoot myself. Seriously–but South Riding is somewhat intriguing. I would have guessed it was an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, or some other writer I had heard of but didn’t know very well at all. Could have been Mrs. Humphrey Ward, right?

I saw a review this morning, and it turns out that South Riding is by Winifred Holtby. I don’t know a whole lot about Winifred Holtby, but apparently I know just enough to have made the title vaguely familiar. Holtby became Vera Brittain’s intimate crony when VB went to Oxford after WWI, and they set up an amazing literary partnership when they moved to London together. Holtby is a crucial presence in the last third of VB’s Testament of Youth, and she’s an interesting, slightly enigmatic character. Brittain’s passion and emotional devastation is repeatedly set against Holtby’s steady understanding, support, and sympthy. But because Testament is Brittain’s story, we don’t get inside Holtby’s thoughts or her work, her own struggles or even the nature of her attachment to Brittain.

One of the beauties of Testament is these two young “kids,” the wasteland of war having made them old and ghostly before their time, setting up shop together and working at the lit trade, with a strong bent towards journalism, feminism and pacifism. But they’re both cranking out novels at the same time, Holtby apparently more efficiently and effectively. Holtby was, from what I can tell, a better and more successful novelist, while Brittain was slowly and painfully evolving towards writing a definitive romantic feminist war memoir. Holtby died young, at 37, soon after Brittain was married with children and firmly established. So I’ve been curious about Holtby and her work and life, her own story and perspective, for a while now, and I want to see if her books are read and how well she’s known. I would have already done it, and had copies of her books in my hand at the library on my last trip (should have remembered South Riding then), if my plate wasn’t already full to overflowing. Some Sunday night momentum and a handy TV adaptation is a good way to get started.

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