Dorothy Edwards’ only novel, Winter Sonata, is the 205th book on the Virago Modern Classics list, and I was happy to be able to get my hands on one of the lovely green-spined copies. First published in 1928, it tells of Arnold Nettle, a ‘shy young telegraph clerk, [who] arrives in a secluded English village as summer ends.’ Upon his arrival, he glimpses a beautiful woman named Olivia, and her ‘appearance seems to herald a new hope for his life.’ Spanning a single winter, ‘with the slow approach of spring we see Mr Nettle’s fragile hopes, just as gently, fade away.’
Winter Sonata weaves in a major theme which was important to Edwards – ‘the loneliness of the human condition – with a subtle look at its consequences.’ David Garnett, one of Edwards’ contemporaries, calls the novel ‘a precise and perfect work of art’. It was also acclaimed by the likes of Leonard Woolf and Raymond Mortimer, both highly influential in their day. In her introduction to Winter Sonata, Elaine Morgan compares Edwards’ work to Chekhov’s, stating that ‘the events take place in a social backwater, the central characters have no specific tasks to occupy them, and they are thrown back on one another’s company. There is a sense that they are waiting for something to happen, even if it is only the return of spring.’
Winter Sonata opens with an introduction to Arnold: ‘He had a long thin neck and looked rather delicate, and he was in fact ill and had come to work here so as to escape winter in the town. He had arrived only the night before. It had been cold and rainy and depressing, but now on the first day here it was beautiful, as if to welcome him.’ He is painfully shy, preferring to listen to a conversation than to participate directly in it. I found him such an endearing protagonist, his quirks and peculiarities: ‘Sometimes, of course, he sat simply looking into the fire, and it seems that he was a little nervous even in his own society, because often he would begin to blush and smile shyly to himself.’
Sisters Olivia and Eleanor Neran live in one of the village’s grander houses with their ‘terse and literal-minded aunt and their cousin George’. When the novel begins, Olivia ‘came down the hill in a white woollen dress. As she came down between the bare grey trees and along the hard grey road it was difficult to tell whether the white figure was more like summer going sadly away from the earth or like winter stealing quietly upon it.’ At this moment, Arnold ‘turned his long thin neck to look at her, and when she had gone out of sight he sat down at his table again and blushed a little to himself.’ Edwards has such an awareness of Arnold, and the reticent way in which he inhabits the world.
Along with Eleanor and Olivia, we meet a cast of characters who live around Arnold in the village. They feel highly realistic, and each has their own memorable mannerisms. Of Pauline, the young woman who lives in the house Arnold rooms in, Edwards writes: ‘When she had cleared the ashes she began almost without knowing it to read the serial story in the newspaper with which she was supposed to be laying the new fire, and gradually she became more awake. When her mother came in to lay Mr Nettle’s breakfast she was still reading. She suddenly felt the paper snatched out of her hand and knocked against her head. She looked up a little dazed and astonished, and then sulkily shrugged her shoulders.’
There is an unusual quality, both to the characters and prose, throughout Winter Sonata, and its tone is suffused with melancholy. It is a short novel, but one which I could hardly bear to finish. On the novel’s blurb, Edwards’ prose is called ‘atmospheric and delicate’. I could not find wording more perfect to apply to this beautiful novel. Edwards’ descriptions, particularly of the natural world, are glorious. She writes, for example, ‘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 pale grey sky.’ Edwards also deftly captures the passing of time: ‘Everything stood immovable; nothing could break the hard winter stillness. The clock on the church tower struck off the hours, but the night seemed to stand still. Then suddenly there were scraps of the red in the lighter sky, the sun came up behind grey clouds, and it was morning already.’
As an aside, Edwards herself sounds like a wonderful woman; she was brought up to be an ardent socialist, and was educated at the boys’ school her father taught at. Some remember her as a ‘schoolgirl at left-wing rallies in Cardiff, thrillingly declaiming poems from William Morris.’ She tragically committed suicide at the age of 31. Morgan writes much more about Edwards and her life’s experiences in her introduction, which I found both insightful and heartbreakingly sad. Following her beloved father’s death, Edwards ‘was left to adjust to a world in which class distinctions and sexual divisions were as rigid as ever; and in adolescence it is rather late to learn to be a woman as womanhood was then understood.’ It is a great shame that Edwards only published one other book, a collection of short stories, for which she was acclaimed as ‘one of the three great writers of the year’. Edwards had so much worth as a writer, and I will certainly be visiting this gloriously enchanting and perfectly pitched novel again.