The book was a gift from Thomas of My Porch and I am so appreciative that he took the trouble to read my posts which whine on and off about the lack of English print books in Sri Lanka. Thank you ever so much for this book Thomas.
The cast of characters set out at the very beginning of the book could be a bit daunting for anyone - till one realizes that there are just a few predominant characters and the others are sort of supporting actors. It was an unusual introduction to a story as they are all listed.
Sarah Burton just 39 years old, with a burning ambition regarding the education of girls arrives in South Riding back to her roots as headmistress of the school. She herself is from humble beginnings (a blacksmith's daughter) and this is her first setback. There are those in the upper classes of South Riding who never forget this nor will they allow her to forget it.
The details of local government are meticulously described in the book as some of the principal characters are alderman or council members. They are striving in whatever way possible amidst a financial crisis to try to come to grips with poverty and unemployment and provide some form of benefit to those who deserve it the most. Into this comes Sarah fighting for better buildings, for more facilities for her girls and at every turn she is obstructed by Councillor Carne.
At times the reader will feel that Sarah Burton will be too overwhelmed by the job she has taken in hand and will just up and go but Sarah is made of sterner stuff - she is determined that someone will get educated in South Riding and her emphasis is on someone who may otherwise be neglected due to social stigma, or poverty or just neglect. The story of Sarah Burton mixed with a bit of romance in the form of Robert Carne (who incidentally is the only one on the Board of Governors of the school who opposed Sarah's appointment) just reiterates the hackneyed idea that opposites do attract. One is heartbroken along with Sarah when her blossoming romance is dashed but that would be a spoiler.
The book is a big one of 492 pages in an font which was passable! The book though set in another time would be easily understood by anyone today. The feelings of love and passion, the frustration of unrequited love, the poverty, and the dignity of a poor person not wanting to beg and the wanting to maintain standards despite the lack of money are features in all levels of society even today. That has not changed.
I enjoyed the book though I took a longer time to finish it as it needed slower reading on my part to appreciate the nuances of the story.