Friday 18 February 2011, 10:07
When, as a voracious teenage reader, I first read South Riding I took many of its themes for granted and thought it was a great story folded around a great love story.
But re-reading it when I was wondering whether to develop it as a drama, I found the resonances go so much deeper.
I am the controller of series and serials for BBC Drama production and, just occasionally, I get the chance to help push a passion onto the screen.
As the title suggests, South Riding is a portrait of a community.
But, as Andrew Davies has so brilliantly realised in this three-hour adaptation, this is a community into which blows one of the greatest literary heroines ever created.
Sarah Burton, superbly played by Anna Maxwell Martin, is as real a character as ever lived: modern, quixotic, romantic, intelligent, infuriating, elegant, colourful and as wrong as often as she is right.
She bursts into the story - and onto the screen - like the "little firecracker" the older, wiser Mrs Beddows describes her as.
Having lost her fiancé in the First World War she has turned her back on the past to become a teacher, throwing herself into the cause of female education.
Full of hope, she thinks she has it all worked out, but life has other plans and she finds herself sideswiped by love - love for a man who ironically cannot escape his own past, and it is this love that almost undoes her.
The great novelist and journalist Winifred Holtby wrote the novel in 1934 and died in 1935, only for it to be published in 1936 and become a huge success.
Often novelists write about the recent past but Winifred - maybe seeing her world with an intensity born of the fact her health was failing - set this novel right slap in her present.
Yet she still managed to give it an epic sweep and a tone that is hopeful, determined, campaigning and optimistic.
When I read it as a girl I connected with the love story but now, just as much, it is the themes that move me.
It is astonishing to be reminded that, when young women are doing so brilliantly at school and at university, only 70 years ago, a proper aspirational education for all girls was a novelty.
As one of the Holtby family told me at a screening a few weeks ago, Winifred was, at the time, disparagingly referred to as "clever".
She also reminded me that, in the 1920s, "farmers' daughters didn't go to Oxford".
But, as Winifred shows us, female education isn't about feeding the mind of the bluestocking but about making women a relevant, dynamic part of society.
I hope that you find this a thrilling, involving, passionate drama but I also hope it brings you to read Winifred's brave, moving, pioneering novel.
Kate Harwood is controller of series and serials for BBC drama.
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