Friday, 9 January 2015

Book Review: Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards as fiction often serves composers as a source of inspiration music stimulates the imagination of many authors. Several works of literature owe their titles to music pieces that had an important part in their creation, be it bringing the idea of the story or arousing the desire to pay them homage. Sometimes writers with expertise in music even venture at transposing musical form into fiction. For today’s review I chose one such work that was written following the rules of composition, namely Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards. In it the almost forgotten Welsh writer tells the unspectacular story of a young man who moves to a remote village for the winter hoping to stand a better chance there than in town to keep the illnesses of the cold season at bay.

Dorothy Edwards was born in Ogmore Vale, South Wales, U.K., in August 1903 where she was imbibed with socialist ideas by her father, an active member of the Labour movement and headmaster of the local school. Several months after his early death in 1917, the family moved from the mining community to Cardiff. As from 1920 Dorothy Edwards studied Greek and philosophy at university there and wrote regularly for the college magazine. She graduated in 1924 and instead of taking singing lessons in Milan turned to writing. Three of her short stories were published in a periodical and in 1927 her collection of short stories titled Rhapsody appeared. The author’s only novel, Winter Sonata, came out in 1928. Following long suffering from repeated bouts of deep depression, which kept her from writing, Dorothy Edwards took her life throwing herself in front of a train near Caerphilly railway station on the Cardiff line in Wales, U.K., in January 1934.

The story of Winter Sonata begins in a typical English village on one of the last sunny and warm days before winter. Arnold Nettle has just moved there from town in the hope of getting through the cold season without falling ill as every year. The shy young man is the new telegraph clerk in the post-office which his uncle manages. Since his uncle’s home is already too crowded, Arnold Nettle rented a room in the house of Mrs Clark and is quite content with the greater privacy there. Already on his first day in the village he notices beautiful Olivia Neran passing by the post-office in a white dress. When a couple of days later she sends a telegram, the excitable young man takes a fancy to her at once although he is fully aware that the young woman is out of reach for him. Unlike him she belongs to a middle-class family residing in a big white house with fir-trees on a hill over the village. Olivia Neran lives there with her teenaged sister Eleanor who has just finished school and with the Curles, the paternal aunt and her son George, who moved in with the girls only the year before, after their uncle died. Aunt and cousin are used to bustling life in town and seize every opportunity to break the monotony of the countryside. So when Mrs Curle sees Arnold Nettle carrying a cello across the street to church, she addresses him and invites him to entertain them one night. Already a few days later she sends for him to come to the house with his cello in the evening which he does. He is very nervous and feels even more unfit for conversation than usual, but he leaves a good impression playing the cello and is asked to return soon. Mrs Curle also suggests that he brings Pauline, his landlady’s teenaged daughter, to sing for them since he told them that she was reputed for her voice. For Pauline it is a dream coming true since she has always been curious to see the Neran house from inside. Days pass by and winter advances. A friend of George Curle, Mr David Premiss, arrives from town and broadens the circle of listeners. Then Arnold Nettle falls ill which makes an end to the musical evenings, but life continues for all of them.

With its four chapters Winter Sonata is structured according to the rules applying to the classical musical form in four movements. In the first chapter the theme is exposed, developed and recapitulated in words instead of notes as it ought to be. It is followed by a chapter in which the plot advances at a slower pace, whereas the third chapter gains momentum again like in a dance. The final chapter is also the quickest and shortest both regarding narrated time as well as the number of pages. The story itself is one of everyday life without many highlights and it is set in the typically changeable scenery of English winter weather which the author depicts with the skill of an impressionistic painter. The third-person narrative is told from the point of view of the male protagonist Arnold Nettle who – as is natural for a sensitive and introverted person – passes much of his time alone in quiet introspection which emphasises his isolation and loneliness. It is striking that also all other characters of the novel feel, each in their own way, isolated and lonely. Class distinction and gender roles ask their toll just like the lack of sympathy and understanding for the people closest to them. The language of Dorothy Edwards is musical and picturesque as can be expected from an author with a deep love for music. In any case it’s a pleasure to read although the general tone is a bit melancholic, if not sad.

It was by mere accident that I came across Winter Sonata by Dorothy Edwards, but having read it now I can say that it has been a very lucky discovery. Admittedly, it isn’t a novel likely to cheer up a reader, but it’s a quiet and tender story which raises some questions regarding the condition of the human soul and how we all keep other people at distance. It’s a pity that this slim Welsh novel doesn’t receive more attention today. It would deserve it and therefore I recommend it.

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