THE WINNER OF SORROW
Published October 11, 2005
New Island Books
The Winner of Sorrow can be ordered from New Island Books.
The Irish Book Review Eamonn Sweeney
The word Dickensian is much bandied about in the books pages these days and when I hear it I generally reach for my revolver. It denotes either a shapeless over-written pile of journalism masquerading as a novel, Tom Wolfe comes to mind, or an elongated pastiche which reveals the shocking fact that Victorian England had a darker side.
Yet less than thirty pages into Brian Lynch’s excellent first novel we’re presented with a situation which seems truly Dickensian in all its grotesquery, humanity and intractability. The book’s protagonist is presented with the chance of a well-paying legal sinecure. Being a shy sort, he’s worried about the possibility of having to come through an interview. Not at all, his uncle assures him, it’ll be pretty straightforward, just get through the interview before the Bar of the House of Lords.
‘Before the house of Lords? Before the whole House of Lords?’ Our hero is aghast and tries to commit suicide in order to avoid the interrogation.
This might sound like the stuff of ripest melodrama but it actually happened to William Cowper, one of the finest English poets of the Eighteenth Century and the subject of Lynch’s book. Cowper’s life, like that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who declared in the Biographia Literaria that his predecessor was one of ‘the first who combined natural thoughts with natural diction, the first who reconciled the heart with the head,’ is not short of sensational aspects. Madness, religious fanaticism, unorthodox domestic arrangements and struggles with Laudanum all occupied the poet during his life.
But it is one of Lynch’s most impressive achievements that he has from this sensational material wrought a novel whose abiding tone is one of austerity and seriousness, thus making its central character far more than just the sum of his obsessions and oddities.
Equally impressive is that there is nothing anachronistic about The Winner of Sorrow. The besetting sin of many historical novels is a refusal by the writer to genuinely engage with the mores of the age he’s writing about. Hence the preponderance of protagonists who have no truck with the sexism, racism or colonialism of their time and are not much more than twenty first century creations parachuted into the past to demonstrate the impeccable personal beliefs of the author.
Lynch steadfastly refuses to adopt such an approach. Most of Cowper’s life was bound up with personal religious struggles (he features briefly in Karen Armstrong’s great A History of God as a kind of poster boy for the dangers of Calvinism.) Lacking the certainty of a believer or the insouciance of the agnostic, Cowper ended up with the worst of both worlds. His embrace of predestination convinced him that he was damned to Hell. This fear could well have been responsible for both his madness and much of his poetry.
Religious enthusiasm is something modern novelists find it difficult to have any empathy for (though given the current state of the world we might have to work on that.) But Lynch portrays marvellously Cowper’s struggle while also allowing some of his acquaintances to muse on its ultimate pointlessness. When religious faith enables Cowper to recover his sanity, Dr. Cotton of the St. Albans asylum wonders, ‘was our friend saner when he was mad, or is he madder now he’s sane?’ It’s maybe the key question posed by Cowper’s career.
But if Lynch was merely interested in examining the literary, religious and historical aspects of the poet’s life then he’d have been better off writing a biography. For a novel to live and breathe it must do different things and these things Lynch achieves. He has the invaluable knack of creating living, breathing characters with a deft minimum of verbiage. Cowper’s status as one of those hapless impractical men surely over–represented in the literary life is affectionately sketched.
‘Passers-by withdrew to a safe distance from the gates of a livery stable and watched as an ostler led out a large and skittish horse. The ostler let go the bridle and Sam cried, ‘Hold him, sir. Don’t give him his head.’
“‘I don’t believe,’ said Cowper, ‘I have any choice in the matter.’
Nor did he. The horse galloped off down the street towards the open country.”
Lynch also manages the tricky task of delineating a consciousness formed by immersion in the Bible and the Classics, something which is vital if the reader is to get a sense of the influences on Cowper’s poetry. Too often the historical novelist tackles this by the following formula: ‘It’s a fine day Mister X.’ ‘Yes it is Mister Y, it sets me to thinking of Horace when he said (insert fifteen line quotation here.)’ Lynch’s introduction of Virgil, for example, into the conversation is far less intrusive and seems much more natural. I’d hazard a guess that this may be because he’s a man of some erudition himself and probably read the authors in question rather than googling them on the internet.
Similarly, I’d imagine that Lynch’s interest in Cowper predates the decision to write a novel about him by some years. The Winner of Sorrow bears the impressive mark of a book which was a long time in the mind of the author before he set a word down on paper. This would partly account for the richness of characterisation.
There is, however, another reason for the richness of characterisation, which is that some of the characters in Cowper’s life could hardly have been dreamed of by the most gamey author. John Newton, for example, could hardly fail to illuminate almost every page he appears on. A reformed slave trader who whisks Cowper off to the town of Olney to help him in a religious mission, Newton is the meeting point for the world of Henry Fielding with that of John Wesley. And by the way, he’s the man who wrote, Amazing Grace.
There is a certain black comedy about Newton’s absolute religious certainty.
‘I have just received news of the death of my niece. My brother’s daughter.’
Newton smiled ironically. ‘The infant has gone to a better place.’
‘Poor, poor child,’ Mary said.
‘She is in heaven, I have no doubt. And yet when I told my brother that this was the best place for her, he was, I fear somewhat taken aback.’
Yet for all the obvious drawbacks of Newton’s worldview, Lynch is never censorious about this extraordinary preacher. He never takes that cliched shortcut of ascribing hypocrisy to the Evangelicals Cowper moves among (unlike, for example, Ronan Bennett whose Havoc In Its Third Year is an assembly of lazy middlebrow generalisations). Newton is allowed his beliefs, the author does not step in to reprimand him.
Newton, like Cowper, may be an Evangelical but he is far from being a Puritan. In fact there’s enough wine and whiskey downed in this book to keep a James Kelman character in bed for a week. The desire for the other world goes hand in hand with a beautifully evoked sensuous delight in the things of this realm, something which increases our awareness of the dichotomy within Cowper which is tearing him apart. One brief reverie by Cowper perfectly captures the battle between the profane and the sacred and the conflict it creates for an artist in particular.
‘Then, too, he felt irresistibly drawn to the classics. Since his conversion he had hardly dared to look at them. Homer, somehow, remained undreadful. Virgil too. But Horace still had to be guarded against. He looked into the Satires and they were too sharp a joy.’
Throughout the book there is a felt quality to the prose, a real imaginative commitment to time and place which captures the grimy texture of eighteenth century life with its, ‘women with their few eggs in baskets, half of them rotten, and their skirt clutching children, bright–eyed and placid with hunger.’ Lynch, somehow, avoids the enormous condescension of posterity and instead seems to write about this world as though he were its contemporary.
He also writes well about the process of writing, the technical exigencies of turning inspiration into poetry. Others may well find this the most impressive thing about The Winner of Sorrow. Myself, I’d expect a writer to be able to write well about writing. It is Lynch’s ability to travel outside himself which really makes this not just a wonderful debut but a brilliant novel full stop.
Eventually Cowper’s religious enthusiasms diminish and, besides his writing, his main preoccupation becomes his relationship with Mary Unwin, the widow of a preacher also associated with John Newton. They grow old together and the second half of the book becomes a touching examination of what is lost and gained by experience. Mary Unwin, like so many other characters in the book, is depicted with both precision and warmth, a combination difficult to achieve.
‘She had prepared herself for regret and hardly felt it, because, despite the dulled steel in her hair, she was still the same person and, more, she was actually improved, at least in the sense that she now knew what she wanted, which then had been something only imagined from reading novels.’
All the while, Cowper is tormented by nightmares, the horrors of which Lynch does not stint on. The poet retains an ability to arouse the interest, (and perhaps mothering instincts), of women. Even when writing his best poems he defends them in terms of fidelity to Lutheran theology . There are fine conversational set pieces, his self–important cousin Lady Hesketh condemns herself out of her own mouth as surely as any character from Thackeray or Austen. At times it’s so bracing and witty it’s as though you’re reading fragments of a biography James Boswell might have conceived as a follow–up to his life of Doctor Johnson.
For all the vivacity of those who surround him and the fevered nature of his intellectual preoccupations, it’s Cowper’s struggles with his demons which come to overshadow the rest of his existence. (They are almost literally demons, he names the voices which mock him, the Grumbler, the Accuser, the Mocker, the Judge, the Director.) The author does not flinch from depicting the difficulties of the man’s life and there is no RD Laing nonsense about the superior access to truth of the mentally ill. Austerity remains the foundation of The Winner of Sorrow as indeed it was of Cowper’s poetry.
It is a tribute to Lynch’s achievement that you close the book with the conviction that reading the work of William Cowper is not simply advisable but necessary. He has written a magnificent novel and, in doing so, stayed true to the spirit of a man whose view of existence was captured in his marvellous late poem, The Castaway, which compares the plight of a sailor washed overboard with that of the soul abandoned by God.
No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone,
When snatched from all effectual aid,
We perish, each, alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulphs than he.
Eamonn Sweeney is a writer. He is currently working on a novel entitled, The Ways That We Went.
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