Posts Tagged ‘Dorothy Edwards’

As well as being read Ireland month it is also Dewithon – hosted by Paula at bookjotter – a celebration of Welsh literature and Welsh writers. Last year I read Rhapsody a collection of stories by Dorothy Edwards one of just two books published by the Welsh writer in the 1920s. I was fairly sure I had read her only novel Winter Sonata many years ago – but had no recollection of it, and no longer owned a copy. When I finally got round to buying a copy, I bought the edition re-issued by Honno classics in 2011.

Winter Sonata is a quiet, restrained novel – in which nothing very much happens – if you like heavily plot driven narratives, this isn’t the book for you. I very much like this kind of novel – in which the reader has the sense that no word has been written carelessly, every phase considered by the author. As the title suggests there is also a musical quality to the novel – which is told in four long chapters, like movements. Music was clearly an important part of Edwards’ life – and it seems to have greatly influenced her writing.

Winter is also key – the novel starts on the last day of summer as Arnold Nettle a shy young telegraph clerk arrives in an unnamed English village to work in his uncle’s post office. Despite Dorothy Edwards being a Welsh woman, nowhere in this novel is there a mention of her native land. Albert’s one ambition on arriving is to make it through the coming winter without illness. He has suffered from ill health throughout his life to this point.

“He had arrived only the night before. It had been cold, rainy and depressing, but now on the first day here it was beautiful, as if to welcome him. Everywhere the trees were nearly bare, but a few golden leaves still clung to the black branches. The black curving lines and the gold leaves looked as if they were painted on the cold, grey sky. The sun shone quite warmly through thin clouds, but the earth had already hardened itself for winter, and did not respond.”

With not enough room for Arnold to live at his uncle’s house, he has taken lodgings in the house of Mrs Clark. Mrs Clark lives here with her flirtatious teenage daughter Pauline and her young son Alexander. The Clark’s are a working class family – and Arnold finds them rather jarring to his nerves and is happy to have any opportunity to be out of the house after his day in the post office. Pauline tries to involve him in the little secrets she keeps from her mother – while Mrs Clark frequently annoyed by Pauline is often to be heard shrieking after her.

Soon after his arrival in the village – Arnold first sees Olivia Neran through the post office window. A few days later she comes to the post office to send a telegram. For Arnold that first sight of her seemed to herald at least the possibility of good health. From here, he is hopelessly besotted, but far too shy to do anything about it. Olivia lives with her younger sister Eleanor, their aunt Mrs Curle and her son George, who is a little pompous but really quite likeable. Arnold Nettle finds himself drawn into this family circle when he is invited to come and play his cello for their entertainment. A friendship begins to develop between Arnold, George and the Neran sisters.

Arnold longs to belong to this sophisticated circle – which is soon joined by David Premiss, a literary critic and friend of the family who comes to stay for the winter. David is an especially confident young man, very used to having the admiration of women – he is also something of a flirt. He becomes an unsettling presence – though socially quite popular. It is Premiss who helps to draw Pauline Clark into their little musical evenings – she is invited to sing. Pauline is their social inferior – but that doesn’t stop her having her head turned by the attention. Small gifts from the Neran sisters and their cousin, a box of chocolates, a dress no longer wanted, some beads – remind us of Pauline’s place in the world. Her simple joy in these gifts, her anxiety to hide them from her critical mother – and her little brother’s awe at the sight of them – is beautifully portrayed.

“She lay with her eyes open until she heard her mother go to bed, and then lighting the candle, she went to the drawer to see what the chocolates looked like and if there were two layers. She removed all the paper from the top and looked at them. They were arranged in the form of a star and wrapped in different coloured papers. And there was a layer underneath. She would have gone back to bed, but she felt the need of talking about the evening and showing someone the chocolates, so she woke Alexander with as little noise as possible and, cautioning him to be quiet, she held open the box on the bed for him to see. He looked up at her with wide-open sleepy eyes and then down at the beautiful star.

‘Where did you get it? he whispered.

‘Up at the Nerans,’ she said. ‘I’ve been there to sing, and the gentlemen gave me this.’

 Pauline Clark is very different to the Neran sisters – there is something irrepressible about her, she is the most overtly sexual character, and also the warmest character in the novel for me. Olivia is cool, very conventional, very much a product of her respectable upbringing and middle class home. She does very little – but move quietly from place to place. Her large sad eyes – described by Edwards on several occasions remind us of her burgeoning suffocation. It is only Eleanor, the younger sister, who perhaps begins to sense the inequalities in the behaviours and expectations of men and women.

The novel ends with the promise of spring – time has moved on, and not much has happened, yet we are left with a beautiful image of a time and a place. A richly rewarding reading experience, Winter Sonata is more complex than it might at first appear.

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Dorothy Edwards was a welsh writer – associated with some of the Bloomsbury group – who I suspect is little read now. Her writing is carefully restrained. In Rhapsody we have ten beautiful tales of loneliness and desire, stories with little plot – but so much pared back emotion. Aside from this collection of stories – she published only one novel Winter Sonata a year later (which I may have read many moons ago, but no longer own, sadly). Her life appears to have been quite unhappy, and in 1934 at the age of thirty-one, she threw herself under a train. The note she left behind read:

“I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship, and even love, without gratitude and given nothing in return.”

How truly sad. This sadness certainly seeps into her writing, in a number of ways, particularly in the relationships which so often never find fulfilment.

It is perhaps odd that these stories don’t reflect the world that Dorothy Edwards herself lived in. Here we have the polite, ordered world of the English country house – worlds that are often disrupted by an outsider, a visitor usually. These are characters who unlike Edwards’ family, had no money worries, their money was unearned, and they live deep in the English countryside of Dorothy Edwards imagination. Her narrators are male, which I admit threw me in the first story Rhapsody. I’m so used to women writers of about this period writing from a female perspective that I simply assumed the first-person narrator of the title story was woman, a couple of pages in I became a tad confused and had to do a rapid reassessment.

Music was important to Edwards and in this collection, music, either the playing of it or the appreciation of it is, a recurring theme. In the title story, a young man (as I finally realised) named Elliott, recently returned from abroad, meets a Mr Everett, a music enthusiast who lives in the country outside of London with his invalid wife. Everett invites his new friend to spend part of his holiday with him and his wife. Elliott is a fellow musical enthusiast and occasional singer, as Everett learns soon after meeting him. Everett’s love of music, verges on the obsessional and he engages a governess for his young son whose accomplishments are more musical than academic – Everett is enchanted by her voice. The days become devoted more and more to music, and Everett watches in some discomfort as the two grow closer – while poor Mrs Everett fades daily.

There are great similarities between the story of Rhapsody and many of the other stories, where an outsider, either disrupts or bears witness to the disruption of a marriage. In A Country House, an electrician employed to bring electric light to a large house, is the outsider who disrupts. In A Garland of Earth an old man remembers the son of one of his school friends, who in turn introduces him to his daughter Rahel – a scientist who her father believes will be as great as Curie. Though the point of view of these stories is largely male – the power is held lightly by the women.

In The Conquered another young man; Frederick, goes to stay with an aunt on the Welsh Borders. Here he is thrown into company with his cousins Jessica and Ruth, and through them meets Gwyneth who has been teaching Ruth how to sing. Frederick is enthralled by Gwyneth, though in time he starts to see her differently.

“I remember how one night I went out by myself down in the direction of her house, where my steps always seemed to take me. When I reached the traveller’s-nightshade it was growing dark. For a moment I looked towards her house and a flood of joy came into my soul, and I began to think how strange it was that, although I have met so many interesting people, I should come there simply by chance and meet her. I walked towards the entrance of a little wood, and, full of a profound joy and happiness, I walked in between the trees. I stayed there for a long time imagining her coming gaily into the wood where the moonlight shone through the branches.”
(The Conquered)

Treachery in the Forest was one of my favourite stories. Mr Wendover spends his holidays in a cottage in a forest. Here he meets Mr and Mrs Harding, a couple who spend their time painting. The Hardings invite Mr Wendover to their house to play Bach for them, and so he is drawn into their lives, enjoying their company, looking forward to when he will see them again, delighting in the gift of hens’ eggs for them.

“Very carefully, two in one hand and one in the other. People who passed him, especially people in charabancs, laughed at him, though there was really nothing to laugh about.”
(Treachery in the Forest)

Another very memorable story is Summertime, in which Joseph Laurel goes to stay at a country house. Here he becomes smitten by a red-haired school girl, more than twenty years his junior. Joseph’s old friend Beatrice is of the party too, and Joseph can’t understand her sly little smiles, the amusement which, he suspects must be directed his way. Only when forced to recognise the girl’s youth, as he watches her walk away with a boy her own age, does he come to suspect the reason for Beatrice’s amused contempt.

These stories are quiet, beautifully controlled pieces. They will perhaps not suit everyone – especially those who like an obvious plot – but they are beautiful little masterpieces well worth seeking out.


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