South Riding religion

A slight digression in this post in my fictional clergy series, to take in Winifred Holtby’s fine South Riding. It was published posthumously in 1936, but is set in the years between 1932 and 1935 in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, which is inspired not by present-day South Yorkshire but rather the East Yorkshire coast and wolds.

It is well known that Alice Holtby, the author’s mother, disliked the novel intensely and opposed its publication. This was despite Winifred’s protestations that, though some of the details were clearly derived from her mother’s career, Alderman Beddows was not Alderman Holtby, the first female alderman on the East Riding County Council. Despite this, and despite the range of characters deployed, we are clearly invited to understand the headmistress Sarah Burton as the closest representative of Holtby’s own views, and this extends to Sarah’s religion, such as it is. Raised by her Methodist mother as an Anglican, as a means of social advantage, the girl grew into a young woman who was sceptical both of her mother’s faith and that into which she had raised. Her mother’s Methodism was both theologically complacent and (in its imaginative repertoire, of washing in the Blood of the Lamb), repellent. ‘Resignation, acceptance of avoidable suffering, timidity and indecision, she found contemptible. The world is what we make it, she would preach [to her pupils]. Take it – and pay for it.’ Her code was one of taking responsibility for one’s own decisions: ‘we must do it ourselves, she thought: we are our own redeemers.’ (Book 2, chapter 6)

Flamborough. Photo by akademy, via Flickr: CC BY-NC-ND-2.0


South Riding is unusual amongst novels of its time in taking the inner experience of faith seriously, even if in the final instance it is not to faith that Holtby looks for the solutions for the social problems in need of solving. The nature of providence runs through the thoughts of several characters, as they grapple with unfolding events. Sarah has no place for providence, if all that is meant is a resignation to one’s lot in the face of circumstances that, with greater determination, could be changed: ‘through her mind passed a procession of generations submitting patiently to all the old evils of the world – to wars, poverty, disease, ugliness and disappointment, and calling their surrender submission to Providence.’ (Book 4, chapter 2) And it is in Alfred Ezekiel Huggins, Methodist lay preacher, haulage contractor and local councillor, in which we see the antitype to Sarah’s bracing faith.

In other novels in this series (as in the case of Robert Tressell), belief is made nothing but a smokescreen to hide self-interest or class conflict. Holtby’s craft is subtler that this. Huggins’ desire to serve his community is every bit as genuine as Sarah’s, and his distress at the hardship he sees is real. His piety is also not feigned; indeed, it is ever-present. But his belief in the guidance of the Lord at every turn is no admirable quality here, no marker of the completeness of his devotion. Instead it emerges as both frivolous – a trivialising of the action of God in the world – and as a much too convenient rationalisation of the petty materialism, corruption and snobbery which others, with clearer sight than Huggins, are able to exploit.

Yet, Sarah’s scepticism is of a gentle kind; in particular, there is room still to feel the imaginative force of some of the Christian images as expressed in the arts: the ‘superb tumult and affirmation’ of Handel’s Messiah shook ‘even so fierce an individualist, so sceptical an agnostic’ as she. ‘He was despised for our transgressions … with His stripes were are healed’ was the text, and ‘her senses were swayed by the image, but her mind could not accept its implication.’ (Book 2, chapter 6) And it is not only the great works of religious music that retain a power: for another character, the popular religious ballad The Lost Chord, largely disdained by professional musicians, is nonetheless evocative of a ‘queerly huddled group, the solemnity of Sabbath, the memory of good religious thoughts’ (Book 6, chapter 5). This openness to aesthetic experience is contrasted with Mr Drew, another Methodist, and self-appointed moral overseer of the public libraries on behalf of the Watch Committee. The novels of Aldous Huxley, Virgina Woolf and Naomi Mitchison attract his ire, but without his needing to quite read them all the way through. (Book 5, chapter 4)

Though the several Nonconformist characters emerge more or less badly from Holtby’s story, they are least present, a social reality in the South Riding. The contrast is with the established Church of England, which serves a largely ceremonial role, part of the order of things but with no purchase on life as it is lived. In the golden autumn of 1933, as the harvest is brought in, the parish church of Yarrold is an ‘exquisite height… a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky.’ Land, church and town form a tableau in Holtby’s ‘English landscape’ (the book’s subtitle), ‘a gentle landscape of English rural life.’ (Book 5, chapter 6) But there are no characters for whom the parish churches play anything much more but an historic part. Miss Sigglesthwaite, impecunious daughter of a clergyman, dutifully attends church on Good Friday while she struggles with advancing age, domestic gloom and professional failure in Sarah’s school (Book 3, chapter 5). The farmer Robert Carne sits in the pew he owns, but his God is ‘the God of order who had created farmers lords of their labourers, the county and the gentry lords over the farmers, and the King lord above all his subjects under God.’ (Book 7, ch. 6) Meanwhile, of Mr Peckover, the rector, we learn little. He is a governor of the High School, of limited private means to send his own daughters anywhere better, and somewhat conscious of having a degree from Manchester, rather than Oxford or Cambridge. And of him there is little more. In the great struggle of local government to build a new Jerusalem, peopled by men and women of good will and initiative, the established Church counts for little. South Riding is a valuable corrective to the weight of novels set in the rural south of England, where the balance between church and chapel was quite the reverse.

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