Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2016

A Winter’s Tale, by Jon Godden

A Winter's TaleJon Godden’s A Winter’s Tale is an old book in more ways than one.  Published in hardback in 1960, and apparently not reissued in any other editions, it was an Op Shop find, still with its original somewhat battered dust-jacket.   I picked it up because I’d enjoyed the novels of the author’s more famous sister Rumer Godden, and I’d read the memoir Two Under the Indian Sun which was a collaboration by the duo. (Yes, another writing duo!)  But the book is not just old in age, it’s old-fashioned in style.  I can’t imagine anyone writing a story with this plot and characterisation today.

Jerome is a successful writer of plays and novels, living in a remote country house in the English countryside with his former batman Peter, who brings in additional income for the household by breeding orchids.  Peter was disfigured by a shocking accident during the war, and since his wife left him he prefers to live an isolated life, venturing only to nearby farmhouses for supplies.  Jerome needs peace and quiet to write, visiting London only occasionally to see his plays on opening nights, and to have casual, light-hearted affairs with a succession of women.  No one has ever visited the house since Jerome bought it as a workplace.  With only a magnificent Alsatian dog called Sylvie for company, they live together in contentment, Peter doing all the household drudgery, and Jerome writing his books and plays.

Into this apparently idyllic life blunders Una, a foolish young actress [sic] who fancies herself in love with Jerome.  On the day that she arrives, a severe snowstorm makes the house snowbound, and the men are forced to give her shelter.  Although she is ditzy and irritating, the inevitable happens and the dynamics in the house change, most notably regarding the dog.  From being the sole focus of attention, Sylvie has to compete for Jerome’s affections with Una.  Peter also resents Una’s presence and doesn’t try to hide it, and Jerome resents being challenged over his casual dismissal of a dog that is devoted to him.

Out of this unpromising material, Godden makes a compelling psychological thriller.  With all four characters confined inside the house, the mood is sombre and claustrophobic, and the tension builds to a climax with unexpected repercussions.  It is skilfully done.

What makes the novel so old-fashioned is the heavy-handed sexism in the characterisation of the girl.  Unlikely to gain any reader sympathy except perhaps for her naïveté, Una behaves like an annoying child rather than an adult.  She can’t amuse herself, she never stops talking, and she is entirely dependent on Jerome for her self-esteem.   Narcissistic and immature, she is the antithesis of today’s modern young women, and Godden, putting sexist commentary into the mouths of Jerome and Peter, goes out of her way to depict her without dignity.

But the novel has redeeming features.  Back in 1999, I read Anne Chisholm’s biography, Rumer Godden: A Storyteller’s Life and learned that Rumer Godden was aghast when she found herself pregnant with her last child because she had thought she was free at last to devote herself entirely to her writing.  So I was interested to see this motif of a writer’s needs crop up in Jon’s book too.  Una reminds him that Jane Austen wrote amid her family, but Jerome says he cannot do it.  To think and write he must have not only silence, but also no threat that the silence might be broken.  Although he’s not a reader himself, Peter gives the necessary self-absorption of the writer full rein so that Jerome can work uninterrupted when the muse calls.  Grateful because the arrangement lets him lead the kind of life he wants, Peter’s complete lack of resentment at being at Jerome’s beck and call has made him more of a friend than a servant, even though they seem to have nothing much in common apart from a love of orchids.

But Una’s mere presence prevents Jerome from working altogether, even if she doesn’t chatter like a foolish bird.  If she’s not in the workroom, he can’t settle to his task because he just knows she’s going to come in and interrupt for something.  If he allows her to stay, she can’t sit still, she makes small noises and she disturbs the ambience of the work room by her complete lack of understanding of a writer’s needs.  When Una lashes out at Jerome, the reader senses that someone has said these very words to one or other of the Godden women:

“…I’ll tell you a thing or two – it’s time someone did. You only hide up here in the woods to make yourself more interesting and important, and when you are in London you might as well be here.  You go about with the same old crowd, people who eat your food and drink your drink and tell you only what you want to hear.  You ought to go out in the world and find out what real people, young people, are thinking and doing.  You are old but it’s not too late.  I don’t suppose that anyone under thirty has read a book of yours, and the young will tell you that in a few years there will probably be no writers left, a few real poets of course, and people who write for television but certainly no novelists, the world doesn’t need them any more. As for your plays, they are clever and witty but where will they be in a hundred years or event twenty?  Even if you were another Shakespeare that doesn’t give you the right to behave like God!”  (p. 200)

Both the Godden sisters had failed marriages, and sometimes bitterness leaks into the dialogue:

“… just one word of warning or advice, because, believe it or not, I want you to have what you want from life, to be successful and happy.  You have youth, looks, intelligence, some talent, and a good deal of will power, but if you want to please and use men, as normal women do, you must learn that men do not want to hear the truth about themselves, that truth is the last thing they want from women.  The women who succeed in life are the sly and artful ones who hide their motives, cover up, keep things comfortable and never, never tell the truth, not to a man anyway.” (p.231)

Jealousy, betrayal and revenge; loyalty, fidelity and unconditional love. Themes worthy of the Shakespearean title. Just not executed in a way that can stand the test of time…

Author: Jon Godden
Title: A Winter’s Tale, a novel
Publisher: Knopf, 1961
ISBN: none
Source: personal library, $2.00 from the Op Shop.

Availability:

Out of print.  Try the Op Shop.

 


Responses

  1. I love the cover; it looks strangely contemporary.

    • It’s by George Salter, and on the back there’s a lovely photo of Jon Godden looking through a Cotwoldish sort of cottage window. She has her blonde hair in a chignon, and her outfit, what I can see of it, is 1950s fashion. It’s good book design, in the way of most hardbacks of that era.

    • I like the cover as well. It reminded me of a cover I’d seen and liked in lizzysiddal’s blog review of a book by Robert Seethaler called A Whole Life.

      • Jonathan, do you think you are influenced to buy/read by a book-cover?

  2. Definitely Lisa. The cover, the type of paper, the font used etc. These are all things that can influence me but in the end the writing has to be good.

    • Yes, me too. But I can be put off by certain types of covers. I associate all large gold lettering with Sidney Sheldon et al, and I associate nearly all stock photo covers of females with limp romance!

      • I’ve noticed that a lot of modern book covers have figures facing away from us. Have you noticed that?

        • Yup, they’re everywhere in popular fiction and sometimes LitFiction too, though it’s generally the bigger publishers that do it, not the indies. They are a major turnoff for me.


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