“He unfolded like a raven waking up.”
Cece Chats with Kathleen Winter, author of the Just Released historical novel, Undersong. On sale Today.
“He unfolded like a raven waking up.”
Describing herself as a tall, rangy person, whom her friends depict as being like Auntie Em from The Wizard of Oz when she’s riding her old three-speed bicycle that is equipped with a bike basket, Kathleen Winter is the classic introverted writer, thoughtful and introspective.
“It takes me a long time to warm up socially, but I really love conversations with people if it’s not small talk. And I am more and more appreciative of the living beings existing in their natural worlds, whether that’s the trees, or ferns, or things in the forest and rivers. The things that we take for granted that are really important when it comes to nourishing humanity,” Kathleen says.
It takes no time at all, however, for Kathleen to settle into a warm and deep conversation with me, one that is full of intriguingly rich details around the main characters in her new novel, Undersong. There is Dorothy Wordsworth, the close-to-cojoined-sister of William Wordsworth, the famous romantic poet. In conjunction with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, these two poets were instrumental in launching the Romantic Age in English literature.
Now in case you’re worried that Undersong sounds too much like a high school tome that you were tasked to read in Grade 11, stay with me.
Kathleen is well versed in a diverse array of writing careers, a fact that adds depth and brilliant imagery to her books. Born in the north of England, and raised in Newfoundland and Labrador, Kathleen was a script writer for Sesame Street before becoming a columnist for The Telegram in St. John’s Newfoundland.
Her 2010 novel, Annabel, won the Thomas Head Raddall Award and was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the 2010 Governor General’s Awards. In fact, Annabel was the only novel to make the short list of all three awards in 2010.
Undersong promises to deliver that kind of critical acclaim when it comes out today, August 17th.
The actual title of the book comes from a word that Dorothy Wordsworth used in her diaries, and one that Kathleen found that people used in the 1700s and 1800s to mean a natural sound, an undercurrent under the sounds that we hear.
“For example, for Dorothy, it would be the whispering grasses and a distant stream flowing under the sound of perhaps, the conversation and the birds that were singing directly around her,” Kathleen says. “It’s an unconscious natural sound underneath that’s affecting us although we might not know it. But it is also a metaphor for Dorothy’s own song, her own expression, her own artistic expression that would be quietly going on under the surface, while William was being celebrated as the artist.”
While Undersong is officially classified as a historical novel, what is intriguing and resonates for me is the absolute dedication of Dorothy Wordsworth to her brother, and interestingly, in tandem with William’s dedication to his sister, his untoward manipulation of his sister’s talents and his management of her delicate mental health in a way that suited his needs. In among that mix, the hired hand, James Dixon, initially hired by William, is always at the ready with his enchanted and undying support for Dorothy. In fact, not only does he fret over the large quantities of Laudanum, an opium tincture, that William is fond of medicating his sister with, James goes decidedly out of his comfort zone on many occasions, accompanying Dorothy on a trip to the city to visit her friend, Mary Lamb, who also struggles with mental health issues, and in fact has spent time in an ‘institution.’
Now while Laudanum was a popular and common medication in the 1800’s, similar to what Aspirin is today, there is definitely an undercurrent to what is really going on in William’s dispensing of ‘said’ medicine to his sister.
“If you read about mental health and about women of that time period in that place, there’s definitely a story of convenience around medicating women whose emotions were upsetting to the household. And that happens today, right? That hasn’t changed very much. I tried to write the book without accusing William outright of doing mischievous things. But at the same time, I showed that it was much more convenient for him to have Dorothy sedated and medicated than it was for him to have her in pain and uncomfortable, both emotionally and physically. Give the whole household a little bit of relief from the dreadful sadness that this one person was experiencing,” Kathleen says.
Interestingly, this is how Dorothy describes her mental state to her devoted companion James.
“If I were to describe to you my inner state, I would tell you that my fatigue is so thick as to resemble a fog bank coming in off the sea.”
And what about what feels like the too-close co-dependent relationship Dorothy has with William, and he for her?
“Well, it’s mysterious,” Kathleen says. “I had a lot of sifting to do because everything has been said about that relationship regarding the fact that they were incredibly close. She lived with William all of her adult life, right until death. Dorothy lived with William and his wife after his marriage. And she lived with him before his marriage. So people said, “Was this one of the classic, romantic period, literary incestuous relationships?” It was always a question mark, but the more often it’s said, the more faint the question mark grows. To me, it is just a completely powerful psychological twinning of two people who are separated as children, and came together and realized that they saw the world in a completely sympathetic fashion poetically. While I had to contend with the fact of whether they were physically entwined in mysterious ways, and may or may not have had an incestuous relationship, what was important to me was their mental and spiritual relationship.”
While doing research for Undersong, which included referencing computer files and photographs of Dorothy’s journals, which Kathleen magnified and studied, Kathleen encountered a variety of surprises.
“I was surprised at the everyday famous visitors that would come by; people from our history books would come by for tea,” Kathleen says. “They were just mentioned in an offhand normal way. But the thing that surprised me the most, happened within Dorothy’s late journals, which are not published yet. They remain in the vault of the Wordsworth Trust, and not transcribed after 200 years. They are in Dorothy’s handwriting, and are contained in a little hand-stitched book that she sewed herself. All of the journals that I had read before researching this book were from when she was young, and they’re published journals such as the Grasmere Journal. But there are late journals that remain unpublished. When I read these, I was astonished that they are unpublished, because had it been written by a man, they would have been published 200 years ago, there are such interesting things in them. And it’s just such stunning prose about everyday things. It is Dorothy’s 250th birthday coming up, Christmas Day, in 2021 and I think it’s time for these journals to be made public.”
English poet and literary critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, along with William and Dorothy, called themselves the ‘concern’ a trio who shared their thoughts communally. And while Dorothy wrote her diaries and William used those diaries, it was William who was considered the author.
While so much has changed throughout the centuries in so many ways, the relationship between men and women, and the power, or lack thereof, not to mention the ever prevalent desire to chase our youth, remains to some degree, an unchanging truth.
“For me, the interesting questions dwell in the spaces between what we know and don’t know — what might have happened.”
About that tome that we were forced to read in Grade 11?
I can only wish that Kathleen Winter’s Undersong had been on the curriculum when I was in school. It is a book chock full of imaginative imagery, delightful metaphors, and an intriguing story line, that while fictionalized, contains strong elements of historical resonance.
SPECIAL BOOK CLUB FREE VIRTUAL EVENT
Katherine Ashenburg, whose new novel, Her Turn, is receiving kudos and acclaim from both readers as well as major publications, will be sharing her experiences around the writing of both Her Turn and The Mourner’s Dance, a book that examines mourning and the grieving customs within different cultures, (a journey inspired by the death of her daughter’s fiancée), on August 26th, at 2 p.m. with Creative Aging Books & Ideas host Jen Tindall and myself.
Cece chats with Katherine here: Cece chats with Katherine Ashenburg author of Her Turn (cecescott.com)
“Time doesn’t heal; grieving does,” Katherine’s daughter told her mother at the time.
To register for the August 26th Book Club email me.
Genevieve Graham, author of 12 books, including her new historical fiction book, Letters across the Sea, will be chatting with Cece on August 24th. Make sure to sign up HERE – to stay up to date on the best-of-the-best books and authors.
Cece is the feature cover writer for several prestigious publications and is an informed, connected and enthusiastic book blogger at cecescott.com. Her first book, The Love Story, was published in 2019. Her second book will be coming out in the spring of 2021.
Cece is also working on a book of Daily Reflections for Auto Immune Condition Warriors.
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