In his introduction to my copy, Andrew Davies compares Winifred Holtby to George Eliot in terms of her scope. This was something that couldn't come across in the television series because of time restrictions. However, the sheer number of characters Holtby manages to portray in her novel is impressive. She shows all sides of humanity from the lower rungs of the Holly family up to Robert Carne of Maythorpe and everything in between. The catalyst for the novel South Riding is Sarah Burton, a young and somewhat idealistic yet firm headteacher, taking over the local girls high school. She encounters problems in the school itself and with the wider community, including Robert Carne himself. Carne is completely at odds with Sarah's view of the world, yet she finds herself falling in love with him as he faces financial ruin.
Going to the book with pictures in my head of the characters from the adaptation certainly made reading this an enjoyable experience. However, the book also added plausibility to the characters. Sarah's turmoil in relation to Carne is raw in the novel and something little more than hinted at in the adaptation. Carne himself came across as a very worthy and honest man, if a little inarticulate and stern. Mrs Beddows was by far my favourite character in both book and adaptation. This probably has something to do with her excellent portrayal by Penelope Wilton but it also has a lot to do with the layers of the character. She loves Carne deeply, she's dissatisfied with her family, she wants to do what she can for the community. She is a female face on the county council and by far the most energetic of the council members portrayed. Councillor Huggins, merely a hypocrite and a fool in the adaptation, has more to him than that and the belief in God and himself he extols throughout make his actions believable. There is one beautiful scene in the book which I don't think was covered in the series (please correct me if I'm wrong): Huggins labouring to the top of a cliff to see Carne at Maythorpe. If it was shown on screen then the image in my head conjured by Holtby's excellent description has surpassed it.
All of her characters are well-sketched and events follow a logical pattern. One thing I found tiresome was the rather long epilogue and the sections prior to that which seemed long-winded. I did appreciate the different ending to the adaptation as it was much less melodramatic and suited the characters. However, I feel as though the ending lingered a little too long, as though Holtby had difficulty letting go of the characters - as I myself did, to be fair.
Holtby wrote three other novels before her death at the age of 37. I certainly plan to read more of her work.