Edwardian England. Introvert Harry Cane marries Winnie out of convention, but discovers he is gay. When an affair with his speech therapist, Mr Browning, is discovered, Harry is forced to abandon his wife and child. Harry signs up for emigration to the newly colonised Canadian prairies. His allotted homestead is near the small settlement of Winter. Here Harry befriends siblings Paul and Petra and falls in love.
The intriguing first chapter of Patrick Gale’s 17th novel, A Place Called Winter, presents a disturbing insight into the cruel treatment of patients deemed (here wrongly) to have ‘mental disorders’ at the turn of the 20th century. Harry, the novel’s protagonist, is undergoing a Turkish bath treatment because he has been ‘excitable’. He is strapped into a bath of hot water, covered with tarpaulin and held immobile in steam until subdued. When he wakes, he knows he has been in ‘hell’, his wrists are lacerated and his gaunt, aching body has been beaten by his attendants. Though his memories are vague, Harry is sure of one thing: he is not insane.
Harry’s ordeal at Essondale brought immediately to mind New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s incarceration in psychiatric institutions, “a concentrated course in the horrors of insanity and the dwelling-place of those judged insane,” movingly portrayed in Jane Companion’s film An Angel at My Table. Essondale patients are described as “a sad hybrid of untried prisoner and guinea pig.” The injustice and cruelty Harry experiences there is a sobering reminder of how far mental health provision has evolved in the last century. An interesting modern-day counterpoint would be the British mental health system crisis presented in Nathan Filer’s excellent Costa first-novel award winning The Shock of the Fall.
Alienated by the moral values of Edwardian England, which deemed homosexuality illegal, Harry must live an outwardly conventional existence.
The Cleveland Street Scandal, in which a gay male brothel was discovered by London police in 1889, fuelled hostility towards homosexuality and in 1890 Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was accused of being ‘fit for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys,’ in reference to the scandal. The climate was one of fear and dread amongst gay men of the era. Harry’s affair with Browning is laced with anxiety concerning not only the 5 years’ hard labour he could receive as punishment, but the complete loss of social respect.
And so, in one startling cut between chapters, Harry and Winnie (a kindred introvert) progress from being affable acquaintances to married with child. Gale edits their courtship to the bone to show theirs is a union of convenience in a mannered society obsessed with class, social status and wealth. In Harry’s words, the marriage is “a sham”, with Winnie being the first to declare her hand and say she loves another, less permissible suitor.
The pair settle into married monotony. Having inherited his father’s wealth, Harry is idle and listless, with nothing more to do than read newspapers and go for walks around Herne Bay, in reverie that he might one day escape. His life is so “without urgency”, however, that the narrative tension is compromised in the section based in England. Harry is, by nature, undramatic and “demonstrably not of the heroic type,” unlike his younger and more dynamic brother Jack. The splicing of the Bethel sequences, in which present-day Harry is undergoing experimental therapeutic “treatment” (actually more of a creepy, living human experiment), into an otherwise chronological narrative, heightens the intrigue. But it is not until Harry migrates to Canada did the story gain its true momentum – the story of Harry discovering and accepting his truest selves.
For it is the notion of Harry being ‘two-souls’ or ‘two-spirits’ , a concept found in Cree and other Native American tribes, which lies at the heart of the novel. Two souls being a recognition of a spiritual third gender. A person living a pan sexual life, who can understand the souls of both men and women.
Both man and woman or neither man nor woman.
The perspective among indigenous Americans was that having this third gender was a strength their society benefited from. The concept absorbed Gale and led to the novel’s working title of Harry Two Souls.
In an interview with Simon Savidge at Waterstones, Manchester, Gale described his shock at discovering two radically different photographs of a young two souls’ child whilst researching the novel; in the first photograph, the boy is dressed in traditional Cree costume, his long hair flowing freely, in a second photo the child’s hair is cut short and he is wearing an English flannel suit typical of the English boarding school he has been forced to attend, away from his tribe. The stripping away of an individual’s cultural and spiritual heritage was deeply shocking to Gale, as to most modern day readers. The character of Ursula, a female once called “Little Bear”, is based on the author’s research. She recognises Harry as a kindred spirit and in a moving scene describes being ‘two souls’ as both “a blessing and a curse.” It is an identity that produces inner fortitude but can lead to feelings of alienation, as if being “on the outside looking in. You watch so hard you forget to live.” Such is Harry’s predicament.
The novel is based on Patrick Gale’s own family history. The act of selecting story lines and editing lives must have felt near impossible, particularly when striving to honour family members. At times, the scenes depicting the Wells family (based on Gale’s maternal grandmother’s family) were overly heavy with anecdotal detail; though this helped to build a sense of time and place, the detail also slowed the story. Unconstrained by fact, Gale could well have tightened certain characters further; Frank and Jack (Winnie’s two brothers) could easily have been merged into one character for the purpose of the novel. Gale states he honoured all the facts he could find, but that it was the mystery that surrounded his late great grandfather which compelled him to write beyond the baseline narrative of a disgraced relative. The question, “what would I have done?” preoccupied the author and the result is a heartfelt outworking of this dilemma.
There’s an awful lot of me in therePatrick Gale
Harry, when banished from England, arrives in Canada wholly unprepared. An unready, untrained adventure hero in the making. His “city-soft hands” are unused to hard labour. He spends a year learning prairie farming from the Jorgensen family, but feels displaced in an environment where “a man is a man”. Gale’s depiction of a gruelling farming existence was utterly enticing, both here and later in the book where Gale masterfully brings to life “the rough sweaty work of harvesting.” Man against nature, starved of human contact, in an Herculean task of farming a quarter section of 160 acres.
However, Harry is no alpha male. In a letter to his brother Jack, congratulating him on his recent marriage, Harry says:
I have always been the more conventional and cautious of us two, and now am left feeling somehow the less manly. You are making your way in the world, Jack, standing in no man’s shadow, while I feel myself incomplete, barely formed, left behind you in an unappealing larval stage.
To be married was the height of manliness, any deviation led to being ostracised from society and, in Harry’s case, an inner burden of shame. The novel portrays with great poignancy the ongoing battle Harry faces between his inner emotional life, his “buried essence”, and the outer societal constraints enforced upon him. The fact that Harry internalises societal attitudes of shame and disgust concerning his sexuality is devastating and uncomfortable to read from a 21st century standpoint. So low is Harry’s self-worth that he even blames himself for bringing about a vicious sexual attack on himself.
The strain of secrecy regarding his sexuality has a crushing effect on his psyche. Harry’s natural response is to develop a fantasy of liberation in which catastrophe is his only release.
Secrecy, he began to see, was corrosive, less of his intimate relationships than of his self-respect. He had never felt so unmanly or immature.
If in London, Harry feels oppressed and listless, then by contrast the bleak, untamed landscapes of the Canadian prairies provide real opportunity for self-definition. Not only does Harry lay claim to land, he re-claims his identity.
Rich in historical observation and psychological truth, A Place Called Winter, wears its outer garment of humane family saga lightly, whilst at its heart, there lies a pressing discourse on power and gender. It is a valuable fictional addition to the queer history of the pioneer settlements – a topic doubtless unchartered by many readers.