14 November, 2011Issue 17.3FictionLiterature

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The Frost of Winter

Grace Egan

Winter SonataDorothy Edwards
Winter Sonata
Honno Welsh Women’s Press, 2011
416 Pages
ISBN 978-1906784294


Dorothy Edwards’s only novel, Winter Sonata, has been overlooked in the past, but thanks to Honno Classics’s new edition, it has been brought in from the cold. Edwards was a promising but ill-fated writer of the modernist period, whose prose lends a brutal sense of rhythm to domestic routines and the fluctuations of weather. Edwards returns to the same hearths at breakfast and suppertime over several months; her writing reshapes ordinary days and nights with a methodical beauty. The four chapters of the novel are supposed to represent the recurring melodies of a four-movement sonata, but although music is an important theme in all of Edwards’s work, Winter Sonata tests the relationship between writing and music by suggesting the connection and then using a style which is deliberately harsh, plain, and in some senses, unmusical.

As Dr Claire Flay points out in her comprehensive introduction to this new edition, Winter Sonata is populated by characters who are almost entirely in a state of “emotional hibernation”. Edwards carries over the quiet resonance of her short stories into the interaction between the working-class Clark household (in which Mr Nettle is a lodger) and the Neran family (who are far richer). Mr Nettle’s arrival, illness, and recovery frame the narrative, and it is Nettle’s quiet and largely undisturbed introspection that epitomises the isolated state of all the characters in the novel. The action is very restrained, and the reader is denied the usual landmark plot events of births, marriages, and deaths. Instead, Edwards offers tableaux in which the Neran sisters, Olivia and Eleanor, search for something “interesting” to occupy them during the cold winter months. Pauline Clark and Nettle have musical talents which provide the Nerans with entertainment, but mostly serve to demonstrate the uncomfortable disparity in class between the two households. Edwards contrasts the stultifying atmosphere at the Nerans’ house with the sufferings of the adolescent Pauline, who scurries about searching for human affection “like a little cat”. Edwards excels in her straightforward observations of Pauline’s natural, if limited, hopes and desires and in her descriptions of Pauline’s relationship with her little brother.

The relationship between writing and painting—like that between writing and music—is interrogated, as Edwards repeatedly makes reference to the colour and shape of familiar objects, but never allows their symbolic qualities to flower, and indeed sometimes she undercuts such sentimental attachments completely. Edwards uses a painter’s eye to look into the hearts of her characters dispassionately, replicating the prejudices of symbolic attachments, rather than their beauty. For example, Mr Nettle’s admiration of Olivia’s pure white dress as something “different” is robbed of emotional eloquence by the concurrent feeling he has for Pauline and her mother, who “were…painted in the dull colours of everything that is too near.” Edwards describes only a small number of the physical traits of her characters; the blue of Eleanor Neran’s eyes, for example, never fails to be mentioned whenever she appears. However, their blueness says nothing about Eleanor’s internal life, and the fixation of her suitors upon the consistent colour of her eyes, rather than her changing perception of the world around her, is symptomatic of the way in which the novel’s characters are in large part passive observers of their own lives.

Olivia suffers with a depression that prevents her from finding “imagination and affection” enough to see the world with “life and depth”. This idea that the world—especially the winter landscape—may take on meaning (or be devoid of it) according to the view of the observer is what underlies all of Edwards’s detached landscapes. And yet, Edwards’s careful use of the pathetic fallacy does not follow well-trammeled paths; in fact her characters are shown to be reflections of nature’s moods, not the other way around.

Sunrise and sunset, the changing moons, and the bare branches of trees are described mostly in sober, measured sentences and with a restrained palette. While her prose does not have lilt or musical lyricism, Edwards uses the phonetic impact of words to mimic natural processes to great effect. Mr Nettle’s experience of the first frost, for example, is conveyed through the strict use of short modifiers:

When he had shut and locked the door there was no longer anyone to be seen. The sharp sickle of the moon shone coldly, and thin white clouds moved in cold silence across the sky. There were no stars, and if there had been, there was nothing for them to see with their cold cunning little eyes.

The alliterative force of sibilants and plosives simulate the sharp cold of a nippy night.

Edwards’s style has the frost of winter about it, in the way that she applies the same syntactic patterns to the rural backdrop and her bevy of characters with an equanimity that deadens their emotional agency. For example, Edwards prefaces the Nerans’ visit to Mr Nettle’s lodgings with a summary of the changing season:

[a]fter that it rained very heavily nearly every day until the short pale grass was sodden with rain, and often there were large, curiously-shaped pools on the low flat fields. There was water in every hollow on the roads, and with every movement of the wind the green trees in the churchyard sent down showers of drops on to the graves.

The insistent rhythm of rainfall is integral to this passage. Edwards conveys the monotony of rain and links it to those being rained upon by using a consistent pattern of double adjectives: the “short pale grass”, “low flat fields”, and “cold white sky” are implicitly connected to Olivia’s “large dark eyes”. Without the humanising breath of a comma, these adjectives give the impression of an incessant and uncontrollable force, like the weather. Olivia’s gaze is important here, too, as it is not Olivia herself, but her “large dark eyes” which “looked towards the window”. Her act of silent observation is paradigmatic of her situation; gazing passively upon the landscape, her emotional stillness is ratified by the bleakness of rain and snow. Into each life some rain must fall!

Edwards uses parataxis to depress her readers’ expectations of narrative contour and to express the distance and coolness that exists between her characters. Instead of flowing on from one another, her sentences seem to stand isolated, without cause or consequence. This structural trend is a representation of the distance between the Nerans, Mr Nettle, and Pauline’s family. The intellectual flirt, Mr Premiss, is able to exploit the loneliness of the villagers, because as a visitor his lifestyle is far less static. Part of his power comes from his ability to be direct and insightful about everyday social transactions: “Why, Miss Eleanor,” he said, “in this world we poor mortals stand alone, rather far from each other, and it is not altogether easy for us to meet…If you were ever so kind as to condescend to flirt with me, it would be like a little white dove flying towards me.” Premiss is unique in the novel in that he interacts with the Neran sisters and with Pauline without a discriminating sense of their social standing. The distance between people which Premiss comments upon is most apparent in Pauline’s encounters with the Nerans, as it is in these scenes that the awkwardness of class hierarchy is most acute and stifling. George’s visit to the ailing Mr Nettle is the occasion of conversational apathy between himself and Pauline, a scene set off exquisitely by Edwards’s characteristic blunt turn of phrase: “Pauline stood with her back to the sideboard and looked at him without much interest…He took no notice of her, in fact it did not occur to him to talk to her. So they remained silent and did not have the advantage of each other’s ideas.”

The power of ideas and conversation to reshape the winter landscape into something which can be understood in terms of “ambition and human aspiration” is stifled by the characters’ reluctance to engage in debate with one another. George tries to take a positive message from “seeing how the trees and things [do] the same thing year after year”, by using the shift back and forth between growth and hibernation in nature to excuse “a certain monotony in the results of [human] achievements.” Edwards contrasts this lone articulation of the relationship between humanity and nature with the daily, lived experience of her characters, which, for the most part, takes part in silence. The monotony of winter as it is expressed in the novel is best summed up by Olivia’s introspection, her passive gaze frustrating any attempt by the reader to ascribe “deeper implications” to “the place and the people around her”.

Grace Egan is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Wolfson College, Oxford.