I’m counting this as my first book read for the All Virago/All August event even though I finished it on the last day of July. It is the reason, however, that I visited the Librarything Virago group (to see if anyone else had recently read it) and found out about AV/AA so I believe it’s earned its place on the list.
Set just before WWI, the novel opens with a party in honor of Mary Robson and her husband, John. It’s their ten year anniversary, but more importantly, they’ve just bought Anderby Wold, Mary’s family home. As the relatives interact with each other at the party, we get a sense of their personalities and relation to each other which sets the scene for the rest of the novel.
Mary is quite a bit younger than her husband John, who is also her second cousin. She married him out of necessity and accepts his passive nature and rather boring demeanor because he doesn’t interfere with her running their two farms. John’s sister Sarah thinks that Mary treats him badly but she’s about the only one in their small villages in Yorkshire who thinks badly of her. Mary’s revered by the community for being service-minded, fair and capable. Underneath her practical nature, however, lurks a romantic streak that leads her to daydream about a great passion and to stubbornly sentimentalize her land and possessions.
Everything in her world starts to shift when a union man comes to the village and urges the farm workers to lobby for better wages or to strike during the upcoming harvest. David Rossitur is energetic, ambitious and idealistic and though he hates everything Mary stands for they are both young and charming and Mary quickly falls in love. The combination of the difficulty of the demands of the workforce and her violent hidden feelings for David upset Mary’s world to a remarkable degree yet she’s determined to carry on in the traditional ways of the village until a shocking tragedy demands a change.
Holtby is a wonderful storyteller, balancing the story of political upheaval and the inner struggles of individual characters with a perfect touch. Her story weaves the villagers lives together in such a way that if one of them is affected by something, they’re all affected and this really illuminates the idea that we’re all connected whether we realize it or not. I also like the way she places Mary’s wrestle with her personal problems against the backdrop of labor organizing to really intensify the understanding of how much the world was changing during this period in history.
This is a fantastic novel and I’m so glad I finally read my first Holtby. I’m now looking forward to reading the other Holtby novels that I have in my collection.