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National Provincial

by Lettice Cooper

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Civic Hall, Leeds, opened 1933

PREFACE BY RACHEL REEVES
624pp
ISBN 9781910263204

National Provincial (1938), PB No. 130, is first and foremost ‘a social-political novel, a sprawling panorama of West Riding life and politics in the mid 1930s’ (Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West in her Preface); the feminist plea is made almost obliquely because the author takes feminism for granted: it is thus a subtle feminism.

This 600-page book begins with an enticing description of Mary’s arrival home (Lettice Cooper draws us so inexorably into the Aire world that we are gripped from the first line), her difficulties with her invalid mother and then her re-entry into local life. Just like Mrs Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, published in 1936, the novel evokes Yorkshire life in all its facets, as well as the everyday experience of a young woman living there.

But the climax of the book is a strike (as in Mrs Gaskell’s North and South). And the main focus is on snobbery, and very British kinds of snobbery, Like Dorothy Whipple (another Northern writer) Lettice Cooper is amused by all this although ‘her main focus is political: she is strongly committed to the centre-left and distrusts all extremists, especially the Communists’ (Reading 1900–1950)

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.’

The Times Literary Supplement (making National Provincial the lead review and Princes in the Land, PB No. 63 a secondary review – a questionable decision!) said that the author ‘brings quick feeling to her commentary on a scene that is obviously in her bones’ while the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Lettice Cooper observes that ‘it dramatises the political differences and shades of feeling during the period.’ The Manchester Guardian reviewer said that she ‘has done for a contemporary industrial town pretty much what Middlemarch did for a C19th 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.’ 

 

Endpaper

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

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