In Memoriam by Alice Winn: Review & Author Event
I read In Memoriam by Alice Winn last month, then had the chance to see the author in conversation at Hungerford Town Hall, an event hosted by Hungerford Bookshop, on Friday evening. Here’s what I thought of the novel, which is on my Best of 2023 list.
Heartstopper on the Western Front; swoon! It’s literary fiction set in the trenches of WWI, yes, but also a will-they-won’t they romance that opens at an English boarding school. Oh they will (have sex, that is), before the one-third point, but the lingering questions are: will Sidney Ellwood and Henry Gaunt both acknowledge this is love and not just sex, as it is for many teenage boys at their school (either consensually, as buddies; or forced by bullies); and will one or both survive the war? “It was ridiculous, incongruous for Ellwood to be bandying about words like ‘love’ when they were preparing to venture out into No Man’s Land.”
Winn is barely past 30 (and looks like a Victorian waif in her daguerreotype-like author photo), yet keeps a tight control of her tone and plot in this debut novel. She depicts the full horror of war, with detailed accounts of battles at Loos, Ypres and the Somme, and the mental health effects on soldiers, but in between there is light-heartedness: banter, friendship, poetry. Some moments are downright jolly. I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that Adam Bede is the only novel available and most of them have read it four times. Gaunt is always the more pessimistic of the two, while Ellwood’s initially flippant sunniness darkens through what he sees and suffers.
I only learned from the Acknowledgements and Historical Note that Preshute is based on Marlborough College, a posh school local to me that Winn attended, and that certain particulars are drawn from Siegfried Sassoon, as well as other war literature. It’s clear the book has been thoroughly, even obsessively, researched. But Winn has a light touch with it, and characters who bring social issues into the narrative aren’t just 2D representatives of them but well rounded and essential: Gaunt (xenophobia), Ellwood (antisemitism), Hayes (classism), Devi (racism); not to mention disability and mental health for several.
I also loved how Ellwood is devoted to Tennyson and often quotes from his work, including the book-length elegy In Memoriam itself. This plus the “In Memoriam” columns of the school newspaper give the title extra resonance. I thought I was done with war fiction, but really what I was done with was worthy, redundant Faulks-ian war fiction. This was engaging, thrilling (a prison escape!), and, yes, romantic. (Public library)
Readalike: The New Life by Tom Crewe, another of my early favourites of 2023, is set in a similar time period and also considers homosexual relationships. It, too, has epistolary elements and feels completely true to the historical record.
Some favourite lines:
“If Ellwood were a girl, he might have held his hand, kissed his temple. He might have bought a ring and tied their lives together. But Ellwood was Ellwood, and Gaunt had to be satisfied with the weight of his head on his shoulder.”
“Gaunt wished the War had been what Ellwood wanted it to be. He wished they could have ridden across a battlefield on horseback, brandishing a sword alongside their gallant king. He put on his gas mask. His men followed.”
Buy In Memoriam from Bookshop.org [affiliate link]
Winn is in the UK on a short book tour; although she is English, she now lives in Brooklyn and recently had a baby. She was in conversation with AJ West, the author of The Spirit Engineer, also set on the cusp of WWI. Unrecognizable from her author photo – now blonde with glasses – she is petite rather than willowy. As I was leaving, two ladies remarked to each other how articulate she was. Indeed, she was well spoken and witty and, I expect, has always been precocious and a high achiever. I think she’s 32. Before this she wrote three novels that remain unpublished. She amazed us all by admitting she wrote the bulk of In Memoriam in just two weeks, pausing only to research trench warfare, then edited it for a year and a half.
West asked her about the genesis of the novel and she explained her obsession with the wartime newspapers of Sassoon’s school and then the letters sent home by soldiers, tracking the shift in tenor from early starry-eyed gallantry to feeling surrounded by death. She noted that it was a struggle for her to find a balance between the horrors of the Front and the fact that these young men come across in their written traces as so funny. She got that balance just right.
Was she being consciously anti-zeitgeist in focusing on privileged white men rather than writing women and minorities back into the narrative, as is so popular with publishers today, West asked? She demurred, but added that she wanted to achieve something midway between being of that time and a 2023 point-of-view in terms of the sexuality. Reading between the lines and from secondary sources, she posited that it was perhaps easier to get away with homosexuality than one might think, in that it wasn’t expected and so long as it was secret, temporary (before marrying a woman), or an experiment, it was tolerated. However, she took poetic licence in giving Gaunt and Ellwood supportive friends.
Speaking of … West (a gay man) jokingly asked Winn if she is actually a gay man, because she got their experiences and feelings spot on. She said that she has some generous friends who helped her with the authenticity of the sex scenes. In the novel she has Ellwood interpret Tennyson’s In Memoriam as crypto-homosexual, but scholars do not believe that it is; Gaunt’s twin sister Maud also, unconsciously in that case, has a Tennysonian name. This was in response to an audience question; this plus another one asking if Winn had read The New Life reassured me that my reaction was well founded! (Yes, she has, and will in fact be in conversation with Crewe in London on the 23rd. She’s also appearing at Hay Festival.)
If you’ve read the book and/or are curious, Winn revealed the inspirations for her three main characters, the real people who are “in their DNA,” as she put it: Gaunt = Robert Graves (half-German, interest in the Greek classics); Ellwood = Sassoon; Maud = Vera Brittain. She read a 5-minute passage incorporating a school scene between Gaunt and Sandys and a letter from the Front. She spoke a little too quickly and softly, such that I was glad I was within the first few rows. However, I’m sure this is a new-author thing and, should you be so lucky as to see her speak in future, you will be as impressed as I was.
Autumn Is Here, in Poetry and Prose
“The trees are undressing, and fling in many places –
On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill –
Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces”
~from “Last Week in October,” Thomas Hardy (1928)
I recently learned that there are two different official start dates for autumn. The meteorological beginning of the season was on September 1st, while the astronomical opening is not until the 22nd. For the purposes of this review I’ll incline towards the former. I’ve been watching leaves fall since early last month, after all, but now – after a weekend spent taking a chilly boat ride down the canal, stocking the freezer with blackberries and elderberries, and setting hops to dry in the shed – it truly feels like autumn is here in southern England. Luckily, I had just the right book in hand to read over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been settling into our new place, Autumn: An anthology for the changing seasons.
This is the third of four seasonal volumes issued this year by the UK’s Wildlife Trusts, in partnership with London-based publisher Elliott & Thompson and edited by Melissa Harrison (see also my review of Summer). The format of all the books is roughly the same: pieces range from one to a few pages and run the gamut from recurring phenological records (Gilbert White and Thomas Furly Forster) and extracts from classic literature (poems by Shelley, Tennyson and Yeats) to recent nature writers (an excerpt from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk; new work from Amy Liptrot and John Lewis-Stempel). Perhaps half the content has been contributed by talented amateurs, about 10 of them repeats from the first volumes.
This collection was slightly less memorable for me than Summer. A few pieces seem like school assignments, overly reliant on clichés of blackberry picking and crunching leaves underfoot. The best ones don’t attempt too much; they zero in on one species or experience and give a complete, self-contained story rather than general musings. A few stand-outs in this respect are Jo Cartnell chancing upon bank voles, Julian Jones on his obsession with eels, Laurence Arnold telling of his reptile surveying at London Wetland Center, and Lucy McRobert having a magic moment with dolphins off the Scilly Isles. I also enjoyed Kate Blincoe’s account of foraging for giant puffball mushrooms and Janet Willoner on pressing apples into juice – I’m looking forward to watching this at our town’s Apple Day in October.
I think all the contemporary writers would agree that you don’t have to live or go somewhere ‘special’ to commune with nature; there are marvels everywhere, even on your own tiny patch, if you will just go out and find them. For instance, South London seems an unlikely place for wildlife encounters, yet Will Harper-Penrose meets up with one of the country’s most strikingly exotic species (an introduced one), the ring-necked parakeet. Jane Adams comes across a persistent gang of wood mice in her very own attic, while Daphne Pleace spots red deer stags from the safety of her motorhome when on vacation in northwest Scotland.
Remarkably, the book’s disparate pieces together manage to convey a loose chronological progression, from the final days of lingering summer to the gradual onset of winter. Here’s Annie Worsley’s lovely portrayal of autumn’s approach: “In the woodlands the first trees to betray summer are silver birches: splashes of yellow dapple their fine, shimmering greenery. Here and there, long wavering larch tresses begin to change from deep green to orange and ochre.” At the other end of the autumnal continuum, David Gwilym Anthony’s somber climate change poem, “Warming,” provides a perfect close to the anthology: “These days I’ll take what Nature sends / to hoard for dour December: / a glow of warmth as autumn ends.”
A few more favorite lines:
- “Dusk, when the edges of all things blur. A time of mauve and moonlight, of shapeshiftings and stirrings, of magic.” (Alexi Francis)
- “Go down the village street on a late September afternoon and the warm burnt smell of jam-making oozes out of open cottage doors.” (Clare Leighton, 1933)
- “There are miniature Serengetis like this under most logs, if you take the time to look.” (Ryan Clark)
- “Ah, the full autumn Bisto bouquet comes powering to the nose: mouldering leaves, decaying mushrooms, rusting earth.” (John Lewis-Stempel)
My favorite essay of all, though, is by Jon Dunn: playful yet ultimately elegiac, it’s about returning to his croft on a remote Shetland island to find that an otter has been picking off his chickens.
Like Summer, this gives a good sense of autumn as a whole, including its metaphorical associations. As Harrison puts it in her introduction, autumn “makes tangible a suite of emotions – wistfulness, nostalgia, a comfortable kind of melancholy – that are, at other times of the year, just out of reach.” It’s been my favorite season since childhood, probably because it combines the start of the school year, my birthday, and American holidays like Halloween and Thanksgiving. Whatever your own experience of autumn – whether it’s a much loved season or not; even if you call it “fall” instead – I can highly recommend this anthology’s chorus of voices old and new. There’s no better way for a book lover to usher in the season.
With thanks to Jennie Condell at Elliott & Thompson for the free copy for review.
Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature
Bloxham Festival of Faith and Literature, “a literary festival with a theological slant,” has been running since 2011, but this past weekend marked the first time I managed to attend a few Saturday sessions. It was held at Oxfordshire’s very posh Bloxham School (sample course schedule: Mandarin, riding, and Shakespeare on Film). The theme for this year being “All the World’s a Stage,” all the events were given Shakespeare lines as titles. Hey, even the free chocolate bars from the Meaningful Chocolate Company were tailored to the Shakespeare theme!
The morning began with an interview with Sarah Perry. Now, I have to admit that I didn’t really get on with her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood. Still, I was intrigued by how she incorporates biblical themes and her religious background in her fiction, so I thought I’d give it a go. Perry herself wasn’t at all as I expected her to be. I’d only ever seen one tiny press photo, in which she had a somewhat tomboyish haircut and had a demurely downcast gaze. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she was voluble, learned, and confident; in a black lacey dress and with loosely pinned hair, she resembled a modern Gibson Girl with a Gothic twist.
Interviewed by the editor of the Church Times newspaper, Perry spoke a bit about her upcoming novel, The Essex Serpent (to be published in the UK by Serpent’s Tail on June 18th), set in 1890s London and an invented village on the Essex marshes. In keeping with the talk’s title, “I would not wish any companion in the world but you,” the book is about friendship, specifically that between a vicar and a widowed amateur naturalist. Inspired by her own relationship with her (male) best friend and by intimate ‘love letters’ she found that passed between friends (like St. Paul to the Philippians and D.H. Lawrence to Jack Murray, or Montaigne writing about his best friend), the novel seeks the goodness in its characters.
The two readings Perry gave were lush, Dickensian descriptions of the City under rain and a drunken man going for a dip in the marsh and seeing what appears to be a sea creature. Perry was surprised when her debut novel was described as Gothic, but she’s embraced the label now: her third book, currently in progress, is full-on Gothic horror. What links all of her work, she thinks, is the Gothic notion of the thing lurking over the shoulder. For Perry, that ever-present threat is Reformation theology: the idea that man is born in sin and deserves damnation. During her Strict Baptist upbringing (which she, not coincidentally, describes as being like living in the 1890s), she was cut off from contemporary culture and influenced primarily by the King James Bible and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Perry spent a short time as a missionary in the Philippines and was a biblical fundamentalist until age 25, when she and her husband (whom she met at 13 and married at 20) left the church. Stepping outside of that limiting community was the impetus she needed to start writing; although she had had stories looping around her head since the age of four, she had rarely written anything down. She completed a creative writing MA and PhD, all while working full time at the Inns of Court.
After Me Comes the Flood was rejected by 14 publishers; even her viva examiners, who passed her without corrections, were “ungracious,” she remarked. What it comes down to, she thinks, is simply that no one liked the book or knew what to make of it. It seemed unmarketable because it didn’t fit into a particular genre. At this point I was sheepishly keeping my head down, glad that Perry couldn’t possibly know about my largely unfavorable review in Third Way magazine. I confess that my reaction was roughly similar to the general consensus: “Not quite an allegory, [the book] still suffers from that genre’s pitfalls, such as one-dimensional characters,” I wrote.
A glowing Guardian review from poet John Burnside was enough to give Perry confidence to keep going as a novelist, and – having taken forever over writing her first book, an experience she likens to like pulling teeth because she had no idea what she was doing and could rarely overcome her natural laziness – she went on to write The Essex Serpent within just 10 months. And I’m glad she did, because this new book sounds right up my alley.
It will be interesting to see how she imagines a platonic friendship between the sexes in a historical setting, and the Dickensian and Gothic touches, even from the little taster I got, were delicious. I was especially intrigued to learn about her research into the friendship ‘triangle’ (betrayal! early death! forgiveness!) between William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, and Arthur Henry Hallam. Perry said she thinks the tide may be turning, that friendships rather than romantic love could be starting to dominate fiction; perhaps Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life from last year would be a good example.
In the other sessions I attended, a group of clergy revealed the shortlist for the £10,000 Michael Ramsey Prize for theology (to my surprise, I’d read one of the nominees, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford) and panelists introduced a forthcoming anthology of essays on Anglican women novelists from Charlotte Brontë onwards (to be published by Bloomsbury in January 2018). Jane Williams, wife of former archbishop Rowan Williams, will contribute a chapter on Barbara Pym, who obviously loved the Church but also sits at an anthropological distance to poke gentle fun at it. Her novels sound like great fun. Judith Maltby, one of the editors, convinced me that I need to read Rose Macauley’s The Towers of Trebizond (1956), while co-editor Alison Shell made the case for P.D. James’s late inclusion.
Chaired by contemporary Anglican novelist Catherine Fox, the panel noted two common threads in many of the featured novelists: detective fiction and humor. The striking number of crime novelists (including Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellis Peters), Shell suggested, one might attribute to an Anglican license to moralize or a preoccupation with ‘last things’. Humor, meanwhile, seems to arise from the little hypocrisies inherent to religious life and to the fact that liturgical seriousness can often tilt into comedy. Other repeated themes include the sacraments, the role of the spinster, and class – the clergy are often educated but poor. I came away with a list of authors to try; many of their works are available through Virago reprints.
All in all, it was a terrific, thought-provoking experience for me – a perfect mixture of literature and theology, and a great way to spend a blustery February Saturday.