My Favourite Virago Heroine

A question to ponder for Virago Reading Week

I have met so many remarkable women in the pages of Virago Modern Classics that it is very hard to pick just one. But I did.

Winifred Holtby’s South Riding seems to be the book of the moment. It’s just been reissued, the lovely Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing is reading it right now, and a new BBC adaptation is due to air very, very soon.

Now I know I’ve written about South Riding more than once before, but trust me, it really is that good.

And one of the wonderful women that I met between its pages has to be my favourite Virago heroine.

I wrote about her for Aarti‘s inspiring series Rosie’s Riveters … 

Rosie’s Riveters is a weekly posting written by Booklust readers about
riveting females in literature. Many readers have strong reactions to
the women in the books they read- either very positive or very
negative. These are the characters we find riveting, for good reasons
or bad ones, and they form the population of Rosie’s Riveters. Through
this weekly post, we can discuss females we love to hate, or love to
love. And maybe, just maybe – we can determine why we react so strongly
to them.

The concept and the questions just felt right for Virago Reading week and so, as I’ve not run this particular post on my own blog before, here is what I wrote. It still holds true.

Who is your Riveter?

Sarah Burton

What book does she feature in?

Sarah features in Winifred Holtby’s final novel, South Riding.

South Riding was published posthumously in 1936, and widely acclaimed as Winifred Holtby’s masterpiece.

Do you love her or hate her?

I very definitely love her.

Describe her personality – how would you describe her to a friend?

Sarah’s a striking figure. A small woman with a fine head of red hair. She has the quick temper to go with that hair, and she has strong opinions, but she really is a lovely person and a very good friend.

She comes from Yorkshire – the South Riding. Her mother was her nurse and a father a blacksmith, but he drank and so Sarah had to make her own way in life. And make her own way she did! She became a teacher. She’s taught in tough schools in London and in South Africa, but now she’s come home and got a job as a headmistress here in the South Riding. She’s a wonderful teacher and would do anything for her girls.

Her problem though is men. A classic case of loving not wisely but too well.

Can you compare her to a celebrity?

None that I can think of.

What makes her riveting?

Sarah is a determined woman with a true vocation. She’s a truly dedicated teacher, and she really believes that she can improve her girls’ futures through education. Her job as headmistress isn’t without its problems though.

Emma Beddows is the first woman alderman in the district and a governor of the school. She appreciates Sarah’s qualities as a teacher, but she has rather different views on a lot of things – and she’s just as stubborn as Sarah.

Robert Carne is a county councilor and a struggling gentleman farmer. His wife is in an asylum and he worries that their daughter Midge will inherit her mental illness. He’s very protective of his daughter and believes that Sarah is pushing her too hard.

Lydia Holly loves learning and Sarah believes she has more potential than any other child she has taught but, when her mother dies after one pregnancy too many, her father pulls her out of school to look after her younger siblings. Sarah is not happy!

And, of course, she ruffles the feathers of some of the school staff who are rather set in their ways.

What do you most admire/despise about her?

You can’t help but admire Sarah’s spirit and vitality. And her vocation and her willingness to work so hard for her girls really is inspiring.

There’s nothing to despise. She can be stubborn and she doesn’t always appreciate other people’s different points of view, but she does have the best of intentions.

Would you recommend reading the book in which the Riveter features?

Yes! Winifred Holtby is a wonderful author, and this is marvellous tale.

Do you have a quote by or about your Riveter that you’d like to share?

“Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by a still inadequately enlightened State for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their bodies and to innoulate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight.”

If you haven’t already read South Riding, please do! It’s a genuine classic, a wonderful piece of storytelling, and it’s themes have as much to say today as they ever did.

And please tell me – who is your favourite Virago heroine?

12 responses

  1. I’m definitely in the Sarah Burton fan club. Two other memorable heroines are Mrs. Palfrey (Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont) and Lady Slane (All Passion Spent), who as much older women are quite different from Sarah. But they are strong and independent and I admired them greatly as I read those two books.

    • I definitely agree with you on Lady Slane, but I was less taken by Mrs Palfrey. I think now that I may have read Mrs Palfrey too young and I shall definitely give her another try one day.

  2. I’d love to read South Riding, if only I could find a copy! Since I haven’t read many VMCs yet, maybe I will cheat a bit and say Lucy Snowe from Charlotte Bronte’s Villette.

    • I am so pleased you mention Lucy Snowe. I have signed up for a readalong of Vilette next month and it had quite forgotten that it was a VMC.

  3. Sarah sounds wonderful. I’ve heard so much about South Riding that I’m now desperate to read it. I’m annoyed that I didn’t read it years ago, when I first started reading Winifred Holtby. Then I would be able to share in all the interesting discussions going on right now!

    • Rachel, you will love her!

      I’m spreading out the Holtbys as there aren’t too many of them, and I hate the idea of running out, but having only read The Crowded Street and South Riding I’ve seen a wonderful progression.

  4. Pingback: Virago Reading Week: Round Up #3 « A Few of my Favourite Books

  5. I’ve had my eye on South Riding for a little while now, it sounds wonderful! Cornflower had a lovely older version of the cover on her blog, so charming.

    As for my favourite Virago heroine? You’ve given me something to thing about while I take Deacon for a walk.

  6. Sarah Burton sounds like a very deserving favourite heroine and I know for sure that my library has a copy of South Riding – even better. Thank you for sharing. I’m new to the delights of the Viragos, am embarking on a wonderful journey it seems!

  7. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: My Favourite Virago «

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