The Winter Swan by Sam Youd.
The SYLE Press, 2018 (1949)
Beyond the windows the grey, immense afternoon folded like a cloth across the quiet square, the railed-in trees and the glimpse of meticulous grass. A carriage clipped along the road, its miniature thunder trailed flamboyantly before and after it. When it had gone the clock in the corner of the room ticked more distinctly, marking off the seconds, scratching in the odd corners of infinity.Chapter Twelve
1949. Rosemary Hallam is buried as the thawing snow starts slipping off the church roof, Cedic Garland her only mourner. Somewhere, somehow, her consciousness drifts into those odd corners of infinity, pausing at key moments in her life, seeing herself as others saw her: she becomes, in death more than in life, “a spy, a reluctant, bewildered eavesdropper on the lives of others.”
Sam Youd’s debut novel, begun when he was only 24 and completed a mere matter of months later, is an assured, lyrical and wise work. In revealing both the agonies and joys of its characters it underlines what the author identified as its main theme — that “relationships matter more than anything and spiritual isolation is hell” — an axiom that remains as pertinent to us now as it did then to the author.
Yet Rosemary, its principal character, does seem spiritually isolated, whether because, orphaned at 13, she has determined not to be bullied by life or whether she is by nature calm and unruffled or, as others mostly see her, cool and aloof. Her last admirer, Cedric, is reminded of a serene swan riding effortlessly over waves; during the course of this novel we get to see how troubled those waves were.
Over thirteen chapters (perhaps corresponding to the earliest age she’s depicted in these pages) we wander back through time, from 1949 when she dies aged 66 to 1883, observing her retrospectively as widow, mother, lover, wife and orphan; we travel through two world wars, recession and conflict with the Boers, as she survives familial tragedies and the deaths of friends and lovers. Punctuating the narrative are references to clockfaces — barometer, speedometer, wrist- and pocket-watches, timepieces that are battered, brass-geared, chariot-clocks — even currents of traffic travelling clockwise round the Piccadilly statue of Eros emphasise the passage of time, as do fielders changing ends at a cricket match:
The white-flannelled figures moved in patterns, like figures at a dance. A defiance of time — a remembrance of the past, a promise of the future.Chapter Nine
At first the episodic nature of the story confuses even as it coalesces around fixed occasions such as a VE Day party, a hunt, a ball, cricket match, honeymoon, or a Victorian Christmas. But then we begin to see patterns of relationships as individuals who may merit just passing references in one chapter are afforded a more rounded characterisation in a later chapter. Unquiet spirit Rosemary coolly observes them, “all of them broken and ruined by their appetites and guilts,” but she too is judged, as one wearing a mask or veiled by a curtain, a person who “stays rigid in a kind of crystalline eternity.”
What has caused Rosemary to be so detached? Will we (or, crucially, she) ever discover? Is she a new woman, of the type her future father-in-law describes in 1905, one who is not going to be merely a comfort to her mate but more an intelligent companion?
“Women are going to be clever in future: you can no more stop it than you could keep red flags in front of those confounded motor-cars.”Chapter Eleven
The Winter Swan is a beautifully written novel, thought-provoking and reflective, full of strong images and lingering metaphors. It’s all the more impressive for being a first novel, extraordinary for being convincing although (as the author admitted) describing “a social milieu I only knew from books,” and relevant despite the passage of more than seven decades.
Today, 16th April, is the centenary of the birth of Sam Youd, who wrote under his own name and a number of aliases, including John Christopher. Find out more about the author from his literary estate at The SYLE Press, to which I am grateful for providing a copy of The Winter Swan; see their message below
In celebration of the centenary of Sam Youd (John Christopher), for one day only, Saturday 16th April, all SYLE Press titles will be available on Kindle at rock-bottom prices!
And from Saturday to Monday, Messages of Love will be #freeonKindle.