This fin de siècle, first person, novel, is at its Austenesque heart a story of decay, hope and incestuous love.
Cathy lives in a large run down country house with her Grandfather, known locally as ‘the man from nowhere’. As Cathy looks back on past events in her life we encounter past inhabitants of the house; her brother Rob, the Irish housekeeper Kate, the mysterious Eileen and numerous servants employed from the local village.
Cathy and Rob’s mother, who was a baby when she arrived with Cathy’s grandfather at the country house, left when Cathy and Rob were very young. Their father has also ‘abandoned’ them due to his mental illness and is being treated at a sanatorium. Their grandfather has retreated into his study from which he very rarely emerges and so Rob and Cathy are largely left to their own devices apart from the able assistance and love of their housekeeper and friend, Kate.
Secrets and lies are cemented into the very brickwork and foundation of the house and its real and metaphysical decay begins to expose those two fragile elements to householders and visitors alike. These two sides of the same coin seep and bleed through the novel and their exposure is being hurried by the likes of Ms Eunice Gallagher, Cathy and Rob’s former tutor and governess.
This 1996 winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction is like the curate’s egg, excellent in parts. Helen Dunmore’s characters are wonderfully written. As you read through the novel it feels like each line is creating the skin and bone and organs of each character while each chapter is pumping blood through their perfectly, forming bodies. By the end of A Spell of Winter, one feels that one has not only read about the characters but has actually met them.
At times the novel does read like it is part of the Austen oeuvre. Being a lover of all things Austen, this is not a bad thing and may have been the author’s intention. One cannot read of the character Mr George Bullivant without thinking of the first line of Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. Mr Bullivant reminded me Mr Charles Bingley from the same novel, good natured, well mannered, kind and wealthy. His name is well chosen as it means, the good, faithful man. In fact Mr Bullivant is given one of the best lines of dialogue, ‘Thinking of people when they’re not there, it’s one of life’s great pleasures, isn’t it’.
The first line of the prologue, ‘I saw an arm fall off a man once’, sets out a major theme within the novel, decay. Decay of not only the grandfather’s house but of his mind and that of his sons. Decay in inhibitions and ultimately the morals of the two main characters, Cathy and her brother Rob.
The book’s title, A Spell of Winter, Cathy’s favourite time of the year, implies decay. And it is in that winter that Cathy can hide, physically and mentally, within its long hours of darkness.
There are times when the dialogue does not do justice to the rest of the novel. At times it reads like something from a sub romantic Barbara Cartland novel as this exchange between Mr Bullivant and Cathy attests to;
‘You’re cold,’ he said, noticing my shiver, ‘We’ll go into the house.’
‘No, I’m not cold. I like it here.’
‘You like the snow, don’t you? It suits you.’
‘I always think of you outside, in the woods or in the garden.’ said Mr Bullivant.
‘Yes, why do you sound so surprised?’
The novel’s incestuous story line could be considered a brave and bold move on the author’s part or simply a contrivance to generate publicity through tabloid moral outrage. Personally, I believe the former reason. Rightly or wrongly I wondered if this was the kind of book I should be reading and enjoying but I also had the same thoughts when reading Nabakov’s Lolita.
Do I recommend this book? Yes I do. Did it deserve to win to win the 1996 Orange Prize for Fiction? Too early to say as I have yet to read four of the six books that were nominated. But of the two books that I have read from the shortlist, The Spell of Winter and Julia Blackburn's The Book of Colour, Helen Dunmore's is my favourite.
No’ of pages – 313
Profanity – none
Sex scenes – 1 (there are also some mild sexual references)
Genre – Drama/Romance