Anderby Wold, by Winifred Holtby

Review published on April 1, 2012. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

Despite being relatively popular in her day, Winifred Holtby shot to the limelight in the United Kingdom last year. This is due in part to Virago’s beautiful reprinted editions of several of her novels, and also because of the delightful BBC adaptation of her most famous book, South Riding. The Yorkshire-born author always writes with such astonishing clarity which allows the thoughts and feelings of her characters to rise to prominence as her stories progress. She writes about those situations which she has experience of, and the characters which feature in her novels seem all the more real because of it.

Anderby Wold takes place in the small village of Anderby in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The novel opens with the formidable character of Sarah Bannister who seems intent upon bossing her husband Tom around. Sarah has ‘too much respect for her own judgment to acknowledge an error’ in her character. Details like this which feature heavily throughout Holtby’s narrative set her writing apart from other novels. She is not too blatant or obvious with the details which she mentions, and her writing certainly benefits as a result.

The inhabitants of Anderby Wold, John and Mary Robson, are soon introduced. They are cousins who are currently trapped in a loveless marriage with one another. Sarah, John’s sister, and Tom are travelling to their farm for a celebratory ‘tea party’. The plot revolves around the Robson family, all of whom are used to rural life and are intent upon preserving the familial intermarrying which has occurred for generations. Mary is discontent with her lot in life until she chances upon the young, rebellious author David Rossiter, sixteen years her junior. The relationship between Mary and David is crafted wonderfully. They mock each other and bring a real sense of joviality and comradeship to the novel. A wonderful example of this is when David tells Mary: ‘as it is, every time you are nice to me, I have to recite little pieces of Marx to myself to convince me what an abomination you really are’.

The novel sparkles from the outset. The reader is in the company of a wonderful author who crafts such believable stories and peoples them with rich and wonderful characters. Despite using the third person perspective, Holtby is able to capture the most in-depth thoughts and intricacies of feelings of each of her characters. Her descriptions are sublime. She builds up marvellous pasts for her characters and uses these to build friction and tension between them. The characters in Anderby Wold are all diverse and range from self-important Sarah and clumsy maid Violet to quiet John and keen-to-please Mary. Mary is intent upon being her own person in the village and not becoming like the women around her who fill their lives with empty chatter about ‘maids, their sisters… [and] the price of wool for socks’. Sarah is obstinate and disapproving and is unable to see the positive side in any given situation, but she is a vivid character from the outset. Even without Holtby’s character descriptions, one can imagine each of the people she has created as realistically as if they had just passed them by in the street.

The dialects used throughout are written well. They are not over-exaggerated and do not detract from what is actually being said. The conversations between characters are often amusing and, by the same token, incredibly heartfelt. Holtby’s choice of vocabulary and the order in which she puts them are often surprising. Among the best examples of this are a character who ‘bowed severely’ and ‘Mrs Toby’s four unattractive little daughters possessed the sole talent of acquiring infectious diseases’.

As in South Riding, many characters feature in the novel, some of them briefly and some throughout. Similarly, the sense of community is incredibly strong, and clashes exist between the people and the County Council as well as those of differing classes and social standings. Like South Riding’s Sarah Burton, Anderby Wold’s main protagonist Mary is a teacher. Both novels are stylistically and thematically similar.

Many themes gain prominence throughout Anderby Wold. These include ageing, family, presuppositions, the building of relationships, life and death, community, the notion of outsiders, altering perceptions, class and social change. Social nuances, many of them rather silly, are included throughout to build up a realistic feel of the period in which the novel is set. Anderby Wold is a many-layered book which intrigues and informs in equal measure.

Anderby Wold was Holtby’s first novel and was published in 1923. There is nothing old-fashioned about it, however. The issues which she addresses are still of interest to the majority and the characters which she has fashioned so lovingly are fresh and continually intriguing. The novel is a must read.

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