First published in June 2019.
I have wanted to read Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow for years, but had never got around to doing so, as copies proved difficult to find, and rather expensive. Only the selection of the novel for my online book club pushed me to source a (thankfully free) copy from OpenLibrary, and I began it way ahead of time.
This novella, the only work published by American author Emily Holmes Coleman, is semi-autobiographical. It focuses on a period of her life in which she was institutionalised due to contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her son in 1924, and suffering a nervous breakdown as a result. Our protagonist, Marthe Gail, has postpartum psychosis, and is forced to spend her time away from her baby son in a mental hospital in New York. Here, she tries, with varying levels of success, to persuade others that she is well.
Marthe’s condition, and its manifestation, is startling. She believes herself to be a sort of amalgamation of God and Jesus Christ. From the outset, The Shutter of Snow is unsettling, and quickly establishes a sense of the place in which Marthe is trapped: ‘The voice on the other side of her wall was shouting for someone. It never stopped all night. It became entangled in the blankets and whistled the ice prongs on the wind. The rest of the voices were not so distinct. It was very still out in the hall when the voices stopped.’ There is a sense, for Marthe, of being completely alone and adrift, whilst also being surrounded by many other people.
The imagery which Holmes Coleman creates often has a shock value to it: ‘She had been a foetus and had knitted herself together in the bed’, and ‘Clean cheeks and a little river in her teeth. Pine needles dripping in the Caucasus’, stood out particularly to me. I also found the following nightmarish scene incredibly chilling: ‘How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it? They didnt [sic] know. She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross. There had been the burial. She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face. She was carried quietly out and put in the casket. Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her. Down and the dirt fell in above. Down and the worms began to tremble in and out. Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten. It must all be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.’
As well as the horror which permeates it, there are moments of strange beauty in Holmes Coleman’s descriptions; for example, when she writes: ‘The only thing to do is to put hammers in the porridge and when there are enough hammers we shall break down the windows and all of us shall dance in the snow.’ The use of recurring motifs within the novella was highly effective – for instance, Marthe’s dancing, and the unusual imagery of orange peel in the snow.
The Shutter of Snow presents a striking character study of a woman in the depths of mania. Holmes Coleman’s prose is effective; she uses a stream-of-consciousness-esque style, with the subconscious and unconscious embedded within its omniscient perspective. I’m not sure that I would categorise this as a stream-of-consciousness work, per se, but it certainly can be recognised as a Modernist work. There is a real urgency to her writing. I can see why her style, with its omission of speech marks and no clear delineation between what is real and imagined, might be off-putting to many readers, but as a huge fan of Modernist writing, I found it immediately immersive. The mixture of reality and psychiatric episodes are chilling, and blend into one another seamlessly.
Given that The Shutter of Snow was published in 1930, it feels startlingly modern. I agree entirely with the two reviews I read prior to beginning the novella. Fay Weldon remarked that is an ‘extraordinary and visionary book, written out of those edges where madness and poetry meet’, and The Nation commented that ‘The Shutter of Snow is a profoundly moving book, supplying as it does a glimpse of what a temporary derangement and its consequences mean to the sufferer.’ I found the entirety of this book to be poignant and affecting, and it has become a firm favourite of mine. I expected that it might be difficult to read, and whilst there are some shocking incidents at work in the novella, the constantly shifting prose works perfectly to demonstrate the fog in Marthe’s brain.
There are relatively few novellas that say so much as Holmes Coleman does so fluidly and fluently in The Shutter of Snow. She speaks volumes about the human condition, and the frailty and fragility which go hand in hand with it. The Shutter of Snow is a literary whirlwind, a completely absorbing and often quite frightening story. An obvious comparison to give is its similarities to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, which deals with similar themes in that the narrator is forced to undertake a rest cure following childbirth. There are flashes here of a similar beguiling style as Djuna Barnes’, and some of Virginia Woolf’s more complicated scenes – in Orlando, for example. In some ways, however, The Shutter of Snow is quite unlike anything which I have ever read, and it is all the stronger for this unusual quality. There is so much within it which is all its own, and it is a real shame that Holmes Coleman never again put her pen to paper following the publication of this staggeringly powerful and phenomenal novella.