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National Provincial

by Lettice Cooper
Persephone book no:

129 130 131


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A Well Full of Leaves
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PREFACE BY RACHEL REEVES
624pp
ISBN 9781910263204

National Provincial (1938) is first and foremost ‘a social-political novel, a sprawling panorama of West Riding life and politics in the mid 1930s’ as Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West, writes in the Preface.

This 600-page book begins with an enticing description of the central character's arrival home (Lettice Cooper draws us so inexorably into the Aire world that we are gripped from the first line). Mary has left her job as a journalist in London to take up a position on the Yorkshire Guardian close to her childhood home, mostly so she can help care for her mother, who has rheumatoid arthritis, when her sister marries a well-known local cricket star. Just like Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1866) and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936), the novel evokes Yorkshire life in all its facets, as well as the everyday experience of a young woman living there.

The climax of the book is a strike. But the main focus throughout is on snobbery, and very British kinds of snobbery; like Dorothy Whipple (another Northern writer), Lettice Cooper is clearly amused by this, and yet her interest remains very much in the political and social aspect of it all.

Rachel Reeves ends her Preface with a beautifully written description of present-day Leeds, a city which ‘has a proud history and confident future, but the inequalities of wealth and power that the Left Book Club attendees in Lettice Cooper’s novel sought to abolish are still with us. In an age in which tensions between the national and the provincial persist, her story is of timeless relevance today.’

When National Provincial was first published, the Times Literary Supplement said that the author ‘brings quick feeling to her commentary on a scene that is obviously in her bones’ while the Manchester Guardian reviewer wrote that she ‘has done for a contemporary industrial town pretty much what Middlemarch did for a nineteenth century country town. It is a story that she tells beautifully and movingly, and it is a story that is hers as well as her characters.’ National Provincial is a great favourite of book groups: despite its length, it is oddly page-turning, with plenty to discuss (domestic feminism, social inequality, women in journalism, and so on) and there's even a love story in there too. We can't recommend it highly enough. 

Endpaper

An early 1930s design by John Churton for the Silver Studio, intended for production as a woven cloth. © MODA, Middlesex University

Picture Caption

General Post Office, City Square, Leeds, opened 1896


Read What Readers Say

Lindsaygail via Goodreads

This, for me, was one of those rare books. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, kept sneaking away to read it while I should have been doing other things, and stayed up way too late finishing it. I kept thinking that 1937 England felt so similar to modern day America, but eventually decided this kind of story, about a bunch of well-meaning but sometimes terribly flawed and divided people disagreeing about how best to make a better world, (and indeed the need for change at all) is simply timeless.

Shatterlings via Instagram

Really enjoyable despite it being about not very much, just people in a northern industrial town living their lives in 1936… charming characters…. The social divisions are so well told, one of my favourites being where a character is jealous of “matching drinks glasses with cocks on”…

Categories: Grey Books Childhood Country Life Education Family History North of England Politics Single Women Working Women

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