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A questioning spirit in the 1930s

15 December 2011


From Elaine Ewart

Sir, — Far from being “clunkingly anachronistic”, as the Revd Dr Edward Dowler states (Books, 9 December), the Yorkshire head­mistress Sarah Burton’s command to “always question authority”, in Andrew Davies’s adaptation of South Riding, is in fact true to the text of Winifred Holtby’s original novel, first published in 1936.

In the novel (I have not seen the television adaptation), the rebellious head’s exhortation to her pupils takes place on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1935, just before the celebratory service is broadcast from St Paul’s cathedral.

Having lived through one World War and writing in the shadow of another, Holtby was very much engaged with the social and political issues of her time, and her portrayal of her fictional heroine reflects this. It should hardly need saying, but it is a mistake to assume that protest and legitimate questioning of authority are an invention of the 1960s, or a sign of immaturity.

58 Abbots Way
Ely CB6 3AJ

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