The usual line taken towards Patrick Gale as a gay UK author is that he is one of those UK novelists who has risen above genre fiction, meaning that his writing has aspired higher than works exemplified by titles such as Wet with My Servant or Coming Out then Coming In (erotic trash fiction written by female writers for an undiscerning gay audience). In truth, Gale has, in his own words, been an author that has dealt largely with orthodox issues, such as family, in his novels. His works have included gay characters, well-drawn gay characters, but have followed the mainstream concerns of fiction. Gale has been accepted as a confident, social novelist suitable for the masses: Notes from an Exhibition and A Perfect Man made the hallowed walls of The Richard and Judy Bookclub in 2008 and 2012--- a good indication that respectability (if not literary worth) has been achieved. (Both novels were selected because they featured Cornwall and Judy and Richard like to holiday there). Gale’s latest novel, A place Called Winter (2015), just released in paperback, is one that would not make The Richard and Judy List and one that qualifies as a serious work of gay fiction.
A Place Called Winter began as an imagined biography of Gale’s great-grandfather Harry Cane. Gaps in the family history became areas for speculation: Why did he suddenly disappear to Canada before The First World War? Why was his return to England after The Second World War so unwelcome? What could have been the skeleton in the cupboard? The result is an intriguing story that investigates fictional sexual identity within the context of real history.
The novel’s central action takes place somewhere in 1908. After a sexual scandal with Hector Browning, Harry Cane is forced to leave wife and child for an isolated life in Canada. The Cane family’s working-class fortune was built on selling horse dung. Harry was educated among the “fllthy” idle and rich. The sexual scandal erupts as sexual dirt that contaminates and can only be dealt with by exile. For Gale, Harry’s quest for a new life and a more honest identity is a kind of alchemical freezing, a putrefaction that Jung once termed “the sentimental winter”. Harry must survive the bitter, outer cold of a desolate outpost called Winter and the sharp, inner chill of his own love for men.
Structurally, the novel is split between Harry’s present in a therapeutic community and a past that leads up to the present’s turmoil. Chapter One, Bethel, ends with a telling dialogue:
“Do you understand?”
“Tell me who you love.”
It suggests a first person narrative and confession is about to begin. In fact what follows is what begins the novel: a third person narrative in which the author dominates. There is a dilemma at the centre of this novel for Gale. This he alludes to in a sort-of Q and A essay at the close of the book:
“The great challenge in this novel was to write about sexuality while inhabiting the head of a man who realistically would not have had anything like the psycho-sexual vocabulary that we take fro granted now. (APCW, p.364).
Harry is a reserved character, true to the Edwardian period in which he reaches maturity. More was known at the time about homosexuality than reached public ears. Strangely, in an interview, Gale claims that there was no name for male-to-male feelings at the time in which this novel is based. There was: Urning or Uranian, terms adopted by the radical thinker and socialist, Edward Carpenter. In the Bethel episodes that date around 1918-19, Gideon Ormshaw quotes from the revolutionary work of Edward Carpenter. The therapist’s attitudes to Harry and the “compulsive transvestitism” of James/Little Bear/Ursula are based on Carpenter’s Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk and given that Gideon reads from a pamphlet, not a book, from the American Journal of Religious Psychology (1911) in which Chapter 1 was published. But much understanding remained underground as a result of the 1895 Wilde trial. In his writings, Carpenter cursed the damage done by the gushing, effete behaviour of Wilde, and Harry is very much in keeping with the historical times. He is, like the preferred Uranian portrayed by Carpenter, emotionally reserved, yet physically unrepressed; and unaware of the supportive arguments for homogenic love. Gale draws his version of Harry Cane with great skill and truthfulness. The strong narrative voice captures the pressure and restraint of Harry Cane expertly. It exerts the necessary control. It tells a story that Harry could not really tell. But there is a price to pay for this: conversations are often bleak (which fits) and brief (frustratingly so) and the plotting becomes forced because events cannot emerge out of dialogue and interaction. The romance sections at Strawberry Vale seem like Austen without the verbal wit and the tragic moments resemble Hardy at his heaviest.
A Place Called Winter is an ambitious novel By Gale and a risky one for him as an author. The reception on Amazon indicates a certain amount of perplexity. The many 5 Star Reviews have a lot to say about technique and not much about the gay theme. The lower Star Reviews have nothing much to say about technical aspects and a lot about the shocking gay content! This is a forcefully narrated novel with a sensitive gay theme. Gale should be applauded for taking a risk and placing a gay novel at the heart of his novelistic output. If it has upset the Richard and Judy readers who have liked his ”gay-ish” novels, so much the better. The novel is well-researched and imagined with only a few jarring elements. It is unlikely that The Giggler, at Bethel, would have casually pulled out a pack of Tarot cards, in post-war times, unless this was London and the Modernist circles of W.B.Yeats. Harry visits the Gaiety Theatre to see Gladys Cooper's star-turn when, in fact, she had only a minor role in the gaiety scene and her critical acclaim came after A Place Called Winter finishes. Even so, this novel is highly readable and in the conflict between Harry Cane and Troels Munk, Gale has created a provocative study of masculinity and the intimidation that thrives where self-identity is fragile.