I've mentioned it in passing (here), but now that I've finished reading it, it's time to say a little more about Brian Lynch's The Winner of Sorrow.
This novel takes us into the world of William Cowper, an 18th-century poet whose large output of well-wrought verse brought him fame in his day - and great popularity through the Victorian era - but is for the most part unread now. That it contains much that is well worth reading - and some that simply takes the breath away - is a fact known only to those who have made the effort to engage with this unfashionable (and, admittedly, sometimes pedestrian) poet.
But who was William Cowper? The first paragraph of The Winner of Sorrow introduces us to the poet in old age and tells us right away what we need to know:
'It was the first day of a new century and in East Dereham the Christians were going to church. Amongst them, but not of them, was an old man, William Cowper, who believed in Christ and his infinite mercy, although he was also convinced that God hated him personally and was intent on sending him to hell, soon, for all eternity. That the belief and the conviction contradicted each other he understood clearly. He understood, too, that he was completely insane, or rather almost completely, but not quite. In the same nearly perfect way, he was sure that he had always been too contemptible to be loved by any living creature, but that loving him had destroyed the lives of four women, three wild hares and a linnet. These were passive destructions, but he had once actually killed something - he had cut the head off a big snake with a garden hoe. Apart from that, he had never been physically violent, except to himself.'
The episode with the snake is related later in the novel, with an astonished onlooker describing how Cowper decapitated the snake, which was threatening a family of kittens, then, 'while the body coiled and uncoiled upon itself and the eye in the head looked on at its own death, he flung the hoe across the yard and, crying out repeatedly 'Aaah!', kicked out with his legs and flailed his arms about as if trying to rid himself of some filthy, oozing, gluey substance'. But, by the next morning, he has made of this clearly traumatic episode an amusing bit of mock-heroic verse (The Colubriad).
This incident encapsulates the peculiar tension between Cowper the tortured, hypersensitive man-child and the polished urbanity of (most of) his verse. His contradictory character is illuminated with great skill and conviction in Lynch's novel, which, beginning in Cowper's old age, takes us looping back through his childhood and early years, with their terrible mental torments, to his retirement from the world, initially in the small town of Olney in Buckinghamshire, and his discovery of his vocation as a poet. His torments never retreat far or for long, and he fends them off initially with intense evangelicalism (under the influence of John Newton), then with an ever deeper immersion in domesticity, gardening and the care of a succession of pet animals.
All the while, as the pit of utter despair forever threatens to open under him, a widening sea of adoration grows around the poet, as a succession of women - the four women mentioned in the opening paragraph - fall under his strange spell. He has a sexual abnormality, which Lynch never quite spells out - probably a form of hermaphroditism - and is terrified of adult sexuality, as of just about everything else, but he basks happily in the quasi-maternal love of these women. The widowed Mrs Unwin is chief among them - and the most maternal - and remains with Cowper until her death, fighting off the competition ferociously and effectively.
What attracted these women, and the poet's many male devotees? Lynch's Cowper has a curious but potent charm, compounded of his brilliant conversation, his combination of sharp intellect and tender sensibility, his child-like vulnerability, frail beauty and unthreatening sexual allure. But he also had a child-like vanity (and a Skimpole-like attitude to money) and a self-serving streak that managed to work every situation to his advantage, and enabled him to play his admirers off against each other. As the story unfold, his hands remain clean in the thick of some positively barbaric psychodramas - Cowper will come so close, but no closer.
Lynch's creation of a convincing 18th-century world is pitch-perfect, with no anachronisms (as far as I could make out), dialogue that flows and seems fully of its period, and details of 18th-century provincial life touched in without drawing attention to themselves. The Winner of Sorrow is a feat of total immersion, a re-creation of a life and a world. Happily Lynch writes in the third person (and the past tense), keeping a necessary distance from Cowper's tormented consciousness, and freeing himself to create a range of fully realised characters around the poet.
This novel began life as a screenplay for television (a shame it was never produced), and its origins show in the way it proceeds episodically from scene to vivid scene. Lynch is perhaps best known as a poet, but this doesn't read like a 'poet's novel' in the pejorative sense. There is no verbal lushness here, but a rare insight into an off-kilter mind, embodied in a profusion of arresting images.
Here, to give a flavour of the writing, is Lynch's description of the death of the Reverend Unwin, the death that leaves Mrs Unwin free to devote herself to Cowper:
'On this fine Sunday morning, after he had gone about a mile from home, the Reverend Unwin gave his placid old mare her head and, as he often did on this familiar journey, began reading a book. The church steeple came into view and the horse, needing only the merest nudge from his heel, ambled off the turnpike and headed down a narrow rutted track. Plodding along between high banks of lacy cow parsley, the mare shook her head just once as a hungry cleg found its way into the velvety coolness of her ear.
Five minutes later, as they were rounding a bend, he looked up and saw a small golden-haired boy pissing figures of eight into the dust on the track. Just then the cleg found a vein in the mare's ear and pierced it. The mare reared up her great bulk and Mr Unwin was thrown off backwards.
The boy was seven years old. In one pocket of his ragged coat he had a crust of bread and a chunk of cheese wrapped in the scrap of red flannel he slept with every night. In the other pocket, because he was running away from home, he had stowed his best treasure, a glass marble, perfectly blue. He stood there for a moment, then ran off, still unbuttoned, back to his mother.
The Reverend Unwin's book, the Ars Amatoria, lay open beside a large stone, fanning its pages at the behest of the mild movements of the air. On the title page, beneath the author's name, Publius Ovidius Naso, was a speck of fresh blood.'
This is an extraordinary, gripping novel, which deserves to be much more widely known. And you don't have to take my word for it - Patrick Kurp (of Anecdotal Evidence) recommends it highly, not to mention Nuala O'Faolain, Paul Durcan, Dermot Bolger and the late Clare Boylan...