South Riding by Winifred Holtby (Virago, £9.99)

On a recent trip to Beverley, I noticed a plaque on the Town Hall. Winifred Holtby’s mother was an alderman there. That's unsurprising because Holtby’s wonderful book revolves around the workings of a local county council.

The 'South Riding' is an amalgam of places in Holtby’s imagination broadly based around the East Riding area. The landscape descriptions will be familiar to anyone who knows the area. The book spans 1933 and 1934 and was written near those years.

The characters have survived one world war and are still haunted by the long term effects. Now they are living through a time of change: the old rural ways are making way for the new and the balance of power within the class system is changing. Motor cars and mechanical tractors lead to a decline in the value of horses and aristocratic old money is struggling to keep up with newly wealthy entrepreneurs. There is talk of workers’ rights, the need for new housing and social change.

In many ways this is a radical book. Sarah Burton, the new headmistress, is the daughter of a blacksmith who returns to the county having made her way in the world successfully though hard work and education. She champions her brightest pupil, Lydia, and goes head to head with the school governor Carne.

Mrs Beddows is an Alderman with a marvellous drive to do good. She is progressive and highly respected, full of common sense. She carries on even when her heart is heavy.

The book is a big rolling saga of a novel. It illuminates the world it inhabits and does not get sentimental, but is a snapshot of how people lived before the NHS and benefit systems.

It is fascinating and illuminating, and one book certainly worth revisiting.

Philippa Morris