I can’t quite recall how and where I first saw this title mentioned, except that it was in the rather solemnly pompous pronouncement of some self-appointed male arbiter of tasteful writing, who commended ‘Winter Love’ for “its delicate and sensitive treatment of a difficult subject”, by which of course he meant he was praising it for being the kind of novel which, despite its lesbian subject, ended ‘circumspectly’, and thus did not transgress the decent and proper constraints of heterosexual values and good taste.
At any rate, by a lucky chance, I became aware of this particularly well-written and semi- autobiographical lesbian novel I had not even heard of before.
This tautly written novel is set in the bleak sulphurous greyness of WWII England and its dangerous uncertainties, where two young women, Mara and Red, meet in medical school. The writer, Elizabeth Comber, who wrote under the nom de plume/guerre of Han Suyin, was the daughter of a Belgian mother and a Chinese father. She unceremoniously plunges us, her readers, into the miasmic atmosphere of dreariness and near-Dickensian shabbiness of the world which was Britain during WWII; a microcosm of which is the squalid boarding house in which Red lives.
Red’s grubbiness is in contrast to elegant and perfumed Mara, whose prosperous businessman husband can afford a warm and comfortable flat with hot running water. Red, an orphan, doggedly fends for herself, and her barely suppressed anger is a prickly foil to Mara’s tender nature.
Red has had previous relationships with women, (Mara has not) but she is resistant to looking at either her experiences or herself in the context of what those relationships signify. She cannot grasp the truth about herself, and is therefore unable either to see or accept herself in a way that would allow her to be happy and self-affirming. She is pursued by the ghosts of her previous involvements, and when the inevitable happens and Mara and Red fall in love with each other, Red is unable to to keep the taint of her past from infecting her present.
Mara secretly rents a flat where they can be together when Mara’s husband Karl is away on business. Mara, though married to a man, has a clear sense of her own unfolding, and of who and what she is. She is determined to find a way to live an authentic life with Red. She is open and willing to love, and to be affectionate, and to express the sexual feelings which are the natural accompaniment to romantic love. She is beautifully lucid and open to the flowering of her emotions and feelings, and to where they are leading her to her self-identification as a lesbian. In sharp contrast, Red is angry and overcome with jealousy that Mara for the present has to maintain the illusion of a marriage ( albeit completely hollow and loveless ) with her husband Karl. Red expresses her anger and insecurity and jealousy by lashing out at Mara and subjecting her to emotional cruelty. Her sexual feelings are twisted and confused.
Mara’s love is unaffected by Red’s venom and her unkindness. She refuses to allow herself to be drawn into the distortions that Red’s tormented and tormenting behaviour create for the two of them. Mara possesses a sanity and generosity that Red, who is parsimonious and bitter, completely lacks.
When the two of them leave together for a holiday in rural Wales, (which turns out to be quite dreadful and dogged with mishaps), more evidence is offered of the tragi-comedic absurdity of human relationships, and the frailty of human nature, and in particular the oafishness of men.
We as readers know, as Red does not, that against such odds, in order for her relationship with Mara to survive in such an inhospitable climate, Red would have to be tenacious and determined. She simply doesn’t know that if she were to have a chance of being happy, would have to keep old wounds from festering, and allow herself to be healed in the love lavished on her by Mara. If love were to endure, it would have to be rooted in the soul at a depth beyond the reach of frost, and not in the shallow rocky hard-scrabble of Red’s self-disowning heart.
Winter Love, published in 1952, is a pre-figuring or Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’. Both are stories set in WWII England of damaged people and their failed and failing relationships. Both stories begin backwards in the present and move into the past. They both ask and answer the question of how the characters came to end up as they did. They both examine the disastrous consequences of blighted love, and the ways in which it destroys the human heart and human potential.
The narrative of ‘Winter Love’ begins many years after Red’s and Mara’s love affair has ended. Now Red is a middle-aged woman. Both women have made their choices, and Red knows that hers has not been the right one. The story is related in her voice, with the dry touch of retrospective bitterness that a certain degree of self-loathing makes inevitable, and yet it is also a cri du coeur of longing and regret.
The knowledge that unfulfilled love has resulted in an incomplete self has come too late to Red, and the chance of salvation has been lost with the irreclaimable past. In a futile protest Red cries out her belated recrimination at Mara for not having fought her rejection – But Mara and her past have been left behind in that long-ago Winter in which contentment may have been found if only Red had paid the the price of honesty and courage, and so it happened that the kingdom was lost for a nail. Despite her name, (which means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew,) it is not Mara who is bitter, because she had the courage to take her personal version of Pascal’s wager, and so she hazarded the self she knew would be lost anyway, if she like Red had decided to repudiate her true self in return for the dubious inducements of a hollow social institution and to societal imperatives of compulsory heterosexuality. Interestingly Han Suyin herself had four failed heterosexual marriages: the first to a Chinese man, the second to an Australian, third to an Englishmen, and the fourth to an Indian.
There is an incident when Red leaves town to spend Christmas in the country with the spinster aunt who took her in after the deaths (at different times) of her parents. Mara, in what to Red is an act of huge extravagance, calls her long distance. In the course of their strained inane un-private conversation, interrupted every three minutes by the operator who asks Mara if she wants to pay for the next three minutes. Mara tries to ‘break through’ by asking Red if she likes Blake and tigers, obviously referring to William Blake’s metaphysical poem “Tyger Tyger”. The profound significance of the insight she is trying to communicate is obvious. Blake’s Tyger is a marvel of creation, and a powerful, beautiful creature, though set apart from the lambs. But Red is only uncomprehending and irritated. All she can hear Mara asking is a pointless and stupid question about tigers. If only she had sought some clarification.
This incident more than anything else illustrates for me the tense impasse between the two women, which is caused by Red’s inability to see beyond the imperfect, and Mara’s inspired grasp of the imperative, the conditional and the future.
A case could be made that this novel is about the perversity of human nature and the futility of love. All the marriages in it are ghastly, and all the relationships repellent. Red’s past and present offer her ample evidence that ordinary people fail each other in horrible ways due to lack of honesty and decency and kindness. It is clear to us as readers that in this respect, Mara’s unfailing decency shows her as far from being an ordinary person. Yet Red ignores it all. She is grubby and literal, and lamentably, she completely misses all the magic. I wonder if Han Suyin had her regrets as well.