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Fiction Historical

Undersong

by (author) Kathleen Winter

Publisher
Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2021
Category
Historical, Biographical, Literary
  • Hardback

    ISBN
    9780735278226
    Publish Date
    Aug 2021
    List Price
    $32.00

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Description

“A stunning, spellbinding, poetic triumph." —Toronto Star
 
From Giller-shortlisted author Kathleen Winter (author of the bestseller Annabel): A stunning novel reimagining the lost years of misunderstood Romantic Era genius Dorothy Wordsworth.

When young James Dixon, a local jack-of-all-trades recently returned from the Battle of Waterloo, meets Dorothy Wordsworth, he quickly realizes he’s never met another woman anything like her. In her early thirties, Dorothy has already lived a wildly unconventional life. And as her famous brother William Wordsworth’s confidante and creative collaborator—considered by some in their circle to be the secret to his success as a poet—she has carved a seemingly idyllic existence for herself, alongside William and his wife, in England’s Lake District. 
 
One day, Dixon is approached by William to do some handiwork around the Wordsworth estate. Soon he takes on more and more chores—and quickly understands that his real, unspoken responsibility is to keep an eye on Dorothy, who is growing frail and melancholic. The unlikely pair of misfits form a sympathetic bond despite the troubling chasm in social class between them, and soon Dixon is the quiet witness to everyday life in Dorothy’s family and glittering social circle, which includes literary legends Samuel Coleridge, Thomas de Quincy, William Blake, and Charles and Mary Lamb.
 
Through the fictional James Dixon—a gentle but troubled soul, more attuned to the wonders of the garden he faithfully tends than to vexing worldly matters—we step inside the Wordsworth family, witnessing their dramatic emotional and artistic struggles, hidden traumas, private betrayals and triumphs. At the same time, Winter slowly weaves a darker, complex “undersong” through the novel, one as earthy and elemental as flower and tree, gradually revealing the pattern of Dorothy's rich, hidden life—that of a woman determined, against all odds, to exist on her own terms. But the unsettling effects of Dorothy’s tragically repressed brilliance take their toll, and when at last her true voice sings out, it is so searing and bright that Dixon must make an impossible choice.

About the author

Kathleen Winter is the author of the international bestseller, Annabel, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Orange Prize for Fiction, and CBC’s Canada Reads. Her first collection of stories, boYs, won both the Winterset Award and the Metcalf–Rooke Award. A long-time resident of St. John’s, Newfoundland, she now lives in Montreal.

Kathleen Winter's profile page

Excerpt: Undersong (by (author) Kathleen Winter)

ONE
Look at that, will ye! James Dixon points at a diamond of glittering frost on a low twig on one of the sycamore’s low twigs, and delight flashes through his tears. Rotha’s world aglitter! And me, I fell in! Inside the shimmering. Right in I fell, that very first time I ever saw her . . . she lying in the road with her brother. I was only five!

And I says to my mam, Are they all right?

Never mind them two, Mam says. Cracked as two pisspots, the pair of ’em.

But what are they doing? I asked her.

Hoping the road’ll rattle! Then they know the postman’s coming. Letters is all those two cares about.

But how will the road rattle, Mam?

Very feeble it’ll shake, son, from ’es wheels in the distance . . .

Really?

Get up, son! You’re as daft as they are. Honestly, I just washed them trousers. Slaving away!

I felt it, Mam! It rattled a bit like you said. 

And sure enough the two arose, he like a black crow and she tiny all in white as if the crow had married a moth, and off they flew toward Dove Cottage . . .

Aye, off she flitted like a moth. Or like a quick, flighty bird racing over the hill. But then stopping while her brother ran ahead. She different from him, stoppin’ and startin’ and stoppin’ and startin’ just like a little wild creature. A linnet hopping along or a little rabbit, starting and stopping. Twitching almost, but—she had no idea we saw her. And those eyes! Coal-black but the coal burned with a flame full of its own blackness. Me and Mam hid behind a boulder. Rotha still had her real teeth then and we saw her laughing to the sky and Mam said, She’s right off her head. And him, her brother, look—he’s gone and run off and left his lovely cloak lying on the ground. Forgets everything, him, he’s that daft. But her, she’s more than daft, she’s mad.

But someone mad is not what I saw. I saw somebody that was a snippet of the whole day. A piece of everything. A bit of birdwing, of leaf, of cloud. Everything shimmering around her. The whole world made of gems!

Such a windy day. She was like something the wind had blown through the day. She would bend in the funniest way! She was, all at once, like a stick and a wing. Like bone and wing somehow laced together and set free on the fell.

After that I glimpsed the shimmer all by myself in droplets on the feathery carrot leaves in me mam’s ordinary yard.

I saw it in the quivery bird that stopped right in front of me in the woods.

But later I went to places where I never saw it, nobody could. Places where no one could find any shimmer in the world. And I feared the shimmer had been only an enchantment, it had never been real, or it was only for children. Aye, I saw bad places. Things that are here already and worse things to come. Things I see very plain whenever I shut my eyes! Or whenever I’ve been to see my own born-family, Mam or my sister Penny. Nightmares they have had to live. And I haven’t helped Mam or Penny, have I? No.

And in all the years since I saw Rotha Wordsworth that very first time when I was five, I never met the glimmer in anyone except her. Even her brother the crow borrowed it from her. William. I wonder if I stole my own bit of glimmer when I nabbed his cloak! When we got up close to it, Mam and me, its lining shone, satin Rotha had mended by hand. Anything glitters that Rotha looks upon with her silver needle or her pen or even only her black and fantastic eyes. And now, where has she gone? Can ye tell me that?

Look how Rydal Lake gleams with frost. And down there, that line of froth—the silver frill— lapping onshore. In Rotha’s world everything was all eyes and ears. Things pay attention and you have to answer them. Unless you become dead to the glimmer. And things that deaden you, well, there’s no end to those, is there . . . Please don’t let me go dead.

* * *

The second time I ever saw Rotha . . . this was a long time ago, mind, long before I came here to work for her. This was when you could still call her a young woman and I was twelve. Seven years after that first time I saw her running for the mail. This time we weren’t on the fells, we were in Lady Wood. I was crouched in the ferns hunting mushrooms for me and Mam’s tea when I heard the two of them talking, Rotha and her brother.

She sat on a stone covered in moss and her brother loomed over her and he wasn’t happy. I heard her whimper. She was crying fit to break her heart, in fact, and he couldn’t stand it. He wasn’t having it. Some men get that way when a woman is sad. Even if they once had a bit of sympathy they can no longer muster it and they become impatient. They want to get on with their lives, away from a crying woman. I had heard that kind of conversation before and I knew better than to reveal myself because it was private and now William sounded irritated like.

Stop it, he said. It’s only nervous blubbering. You are even worse than when our John died.

At this she cried harder, for John was their brother who had died at sea and she had loved him.

John’s death was much worse for me, William said. For me, it was business. For you it’s only the loss of your own joys and feelings. He sounded very angry.

I lay very still and by and by he left her stooped there and after a few minutes I slithered on my belly a few paces and rose up from behind a slant in the ground as if I’d just come upon the scene. And I made as if to veer off without having seen her but she stopped me. She had wiped her face and she had that quivery transparent whiteness of a flower that has begun shaking raindrops off itself. She seemed interested in the treasure I had gathered up in my shirt.

Are those mushrooms?

This was the first time I ever heard her voice. It’s not like any other voice. Ye know that. Her voice is like a gurgling bit of river. Was like. Is. Was. What do ye think? I mean it was so much like a bit of river that for all we know it is still so. When she passed might her voice have slipped back where it came from, into the river? Rotha’s voice into the River Rotha. Aye, I’ll wager that might be happening now as I talk to ye.

Mushrooms, aye, I says to her then. A few little ones.

What kind—can you let me look?

I haven’t got very many. Me mam’s very particular about not bringing home maggoty ones.

She had in her own lap a few plants whose roots sprawled in all directions and she untangled a blue flower to show me. I’m transplanting gentians to our new house, she says, but the day is too warm for it. They’re wilting even before I can get them out of this wood.

I says, Miss, what you want is to lay a small quilt of moss round them, here.

And I laid down my mushrooms and scooped some moss up and coaxed the blooms from her. I wondered that she did not know you are never supposed to move that kind of flower. I slipped the coldish cushion, green and refreshing like, under the plants in her hand.

Cover them with this mossy flap I says, folding it over them. Her hand was fine and small and she had on a brooch that looked like a drop of blood. Any blue flower, I says to her, is very difficult to move. It wants with all its heart to stay where it is.

I wanted with all my heart, says she in return, to stay just down that lane here in Dove Cottage, but we have been obliged to move.

She had a like to sob so I says, Try and leave that bundle in the moss and don’t plant them until night, and they might have a chance.

We were two souls in a shady wood and I got a bit frightened and I don’t know why but I said, I have to go home to my dinner now, me mam’ll be waiting—although there was no dinner on our table of that you can be sure—and off I ran.

And I never saw her again after that ’til I was seventeen because me and my mam tried moving to Hawkshead but then the bad things happened with Mam like, with me and Penny having to go and live in the workhouse. And Rotha and her brother and his wife Mary moved around a lot an’ all. Aye, Rotha kept living with her beloved William even after he married Mary. Their whole lives. And they moved all over the place and so did I.

It was my uncle Jim who knew the odd little Wordsworth fam’ly and their whereabouts more than I did because he had them as customers. Him and his best pal Tommy Thistlethwaite sold them hares and coal and fresh crab. A few times when I left the workhouse to try and stay with Uncle Jim, I tagged along selling his wares. The Wordsworths lived at the old rectory then, but I never saw inside. That rectory was a forlorn place. William and Mary had a baby who died there, Baby Catherine. And their little lad an’ all, young Thomas. Both died and Uncle Jim said the house was damp, it rested in a bog and filled with smoke if they lit a fire, so anyone living there got bad lungs and that’s what the bairns died of. He saw all that but I never got another glimpse of Rotha or her brother until I was older.

But I never forgot Rotha in Lady Wood. I did not forget her hands or her eyes that were dark as coal but bright as flame.

Are ye lot feeling sorry for my tears?

Look, don’t feel sad on my account. I am heartbroken but ye know as well as I do that before the day is out I’ll be all right. I’ll be singing my song again on my own. I’ve got hare broth simmering in my hut as we speak and I’m looking forward to dropping an onion and sage in it and drinking it with the big cooking spoon. Ye know me and my aloneness and my hut and my song.

Flax, chicory oats ’n’ corn
Grains for all ye know and thine
Flour, sugar and barley sown
Ring around the old Oak shine . . .

Editorial Reviews

PRAISE FOR UNDERSONG

“[C]onsistently elegant and original. It is very much a book about language and atmosphere. Winter mimics period style beautifully, and she also infuses the novel with unconventional touches—like the brief interstitial sections narrated by a sycamore tree on the Wordsworth property—that arguably conjure the idiosyncratic spirit of her heroine better than any first-person narration could have achieved.” —Quill & Quire (starred review)

"Kathleen Winter is a rare talent. . . . [Her] version of Dorothy Wordsworth’s story reveals the rich, hidden life of a woman determined against all societal expectations to live on her own terms. . . . Compelling, gracefully written, poignant and profound, Winter’s novel glimmers and beckons. . . . . Undersong is a stunning, spellbinding, poetic triumph." —Toronto Star

"[A]n engrossing delight. . . . Dorothy [Wordsworth]’s exuberant imagination blooms on the page. . . .  [A] tantalizing glimpse into a life as it could have been." —Literary Review of Canada
PRAISE FOR BOUNDLESS

Boundless is digressive and philosophical. . . . Winter is a confident and engaging stylist, and her treatment of the material is kind and empathetic. She finds the bizarrely beautiful in each person and in the land. Her story is filled with surprising and delightful humour, even while it deals with very significant problems. . . . Ultimately, the journey that Kathleen Winter takes on a last-minute whim is transformative. Her precise and vivid prose allows the reader to share in that transformation. . . . Boundless is a tremendous gift.” —Quill & Quire (starred review
 
“[G]raceful, poetic and shimmering prose.” —Toronto Star

“Filled with elegance and insight, Boundless is an important contribution to the conversation about Canada’s north.” —CBC

Boundless reads, as the title suggests, as a book free of borders and limitations, with Winter slipping effortlessly between the personal and the external, between the closely observed and the historical. It is a deep book, meditative and thoughtful, but it is also compulsively readable, driven by an inexorable narrative drive and its keen attention to humanity in all its manifold complexities. It is the sort of book one will finish and return to. . . . It both heightens life and plumbs its deepest mysteries, laying bare the beauty of both the world and the soul.” —The Globe and Mail

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