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The Chat with Kathleen Winter

Kathleen Winter_ © Roger LeMoyne

Undersong is garnering rave reviews. Janet Somerville, writing in the Toronto Star, says the novel is "compelling, gracefully written, poignant and profound ... a stunning, spellbinding, poetic triumph." A starred review in Quill & Quire calls the novel "luminous" and "consistently elegant and original."

Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Orange Prize, and numerous other awards. It was also a Globe and Mail "Best Book," a New York Times "Notable" book, a Quill & Quire "Book of the Year" and a #1 bestseller in Canada. It has been published and translated worldwide. Her Arctic memoir Boundless (2014) was shortlisted for Canada's Weston and Taylor non-fiction prizes, and her last novel Lost in September (2017) was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. Born in the UK, Winter now lives in Montreal after many years in Newfoundland.

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Trevor Corkum: Undersong brings us into the early nineteenth century world of Romantic Era poet Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William. What drew you to this particular era and story?  

Kathleen Winter: I read and loved Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals when in my early 20s and have loved them ever since, for their visionary immediacy and plain yet incandescent prose, which I think of as poetry. I sense that the marginalization of her work during and following her lifetime happened because people thought of poetry in constrained ways. The fragmentary, the ephemeral, the unresolved: these are her terrain. Dorothy Wordsworth writes without the static ego, the certain “I” of the male Romantic era poets. Her inner world merges with the natural world outside herself in a timeless way.

TC: The book is told from the point of view of James Dixon, Dorothy’s fictional confidante and a dedicated and observant servant to the Wordsworth family. Why was it important to tell the story through the eyes, ears, and voice of James?

KW: I should point out that James Dixon was a real person: he was the devoted factotum, or handyman, of the Wordsworths for forty years. He was raised in a workhouse, made up songs in his head, and decorated Easter eggs—called "pace eggs" in Cumbria—by engraving ornate feathers, birds, leaves and natural forms into their painted shells. He did in fact transport Dorothy around in a small cart. All these things in the novel are true. The flyleaf calls James fictional, but the way in which he is fictional is that I freely imagined his thoughts and observations which—because he was an ordinary working-class person—remain largely undocumented. I chose his point of view as the primary of three narrators (the others being an old sycamore tree, and Dorothy’s own voice at the novel’s culmination) because he represents the voice of the unmoneyed working person during the brutal Industrial Revolution that was taking place at the time outside the Wordsworths’ carefully guarded paradise.

TC: I can only imagine the intense amount of research involved in producing a novel so rich in personal and contextual detail. How much of what you write is based in historical fact or primary source text, and what liberties did you take in imagining the events described in the novel?

KW: I did an immense amount of research on details of working-class life and the lives of the Wordsworths and their circle during Britain’s Industrial Revolution/Regency era. Of course for every detail in the novel I learned a hundred others that remain unused in my rough notes or early drafts. It was a fascinating time, with great schisms between those who lost land and property and health, versus those who managed to profit by the sweeping changes afoot.

For instance when Dorothy visits London and goes to various shops, the shops are all places that existed. The kaleidoscope really was all the rage. The shipwreck in which William at first believes Mary and Dorothy to have been lost was documented in Ernest de Selincourt’s biography of Dorothy. I do not make many events or details up out of thin air. Rather, I combine them to reconstitute what I hope might approach the atmosphere of the times. Of course, there are some things I had to invent, but these I try to tuck into spaces existing in the documented record where they could possibly have happened but not been written down.

TC: The "undersong" in part refers to Dorothy’s pivotal role in inspiring and/or providing material for her brother’s own poetry. Can you talk more about her involvement in his work and how and why she has been denied proper recognition?

KW: Dorothy willingly wrote her early diaries for William’s use and enjoyment. When he would go away, she documented weather and events and details of the land to share with him on his return. He freely admitted that she was—especially as his sight and hearing began to somewhat fail him—his eyes and his ears. But more crucially, he admitted that Dorothy retained a freshness of vision and imagination that faded from him as he matured. She possessed a kind of perception that he could no longer conjure up: some incandescent vestige of youth. Even early on, William, Dorothy, and Sam Coleridge thought of themselves as a sort of trinity—they called themselves “the Concern” and they shared perceptions on their long rambles and reveries in the Lake District and beyond.

Ultimately though, the male literary establishment regarded the work of the men as "finished" while Dorothy’s diaries were thought of as a different, incomplete, and inconclusive genre. Yet all three authors’ bodies of work shared imagery and idea. William’s famous daffodil poem, for instance–one of his greatest hits—is known to have been developed not as he "wandered lonely as a cloud" at all, but rather as he walked in intimate conversation with Dorothy, who wrote of the daffodils in her journals and whose documentation of them was echoed in William’s famous poem. It is only in hindsight that we now find ourselves asking questions about true authorship or co-authorship.

TC: The novel is also very much concerned with Dorothy’s mental health, the physical and emotional toll of her sensitive identification with the natural world, which in Dorothy’s time was under intense assault by the destructive forces of the Industrial Revolution. In what ways is this aspect of Undersong also a story for our present time?

KW: We are now, according to many governments and public/private think tanks like the World Economic Forum, in what might be called a fourth industrial revolution. Like the one in Dorothy Wordsworth’s time, ours—a technological revolution—is said to usher in progress and improvement. But for whom and at what cost to humanity?

In my novel, James Dixon’s sister Penny works in a Manchester factory and ends up becoming part of the machine, her ruined body continuing to operate it in her sleep. (I modelled her fate after that of workers described in Friedrich Engels’ devastating 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England.) The current pandemic has been noted as having accelerated a parallel situation in which living as biological beings has come to be considered more dangerous than relating to each other via technology. A different kind of "becoming one with the machine" has arrived, with its own questions attached. Who benefits from our increased reliance on a virtual world? How does the Wordsworths’ paradise compare with our current attempts to create various forms of refuge in a pandemic world? Who gets to draw the boundary lines allowing or denying access to what has until now been considered the real, beautiful world, the commons?

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Excerpt from Undersong

James Dixon’s face moves in tiny expressive ways, one moment smooth as a new loaf and the next ruffled like windblown Rydal Water. He was far from bald in 1816, when he first came to Rydal to work for Rotha Wordsworth. Then he had a headful of wavy hair and he smelled like sweet baccy, a scent all the garden creatures loved, including myself, Sycamore, oldest tree of our garden.  That summer was a very cold one because of a faraway event that humans here did not know about, though anyone with wings or pollen knew: Volcano! Locals knew it as the year without a summer, and were it not for James Dixon’s arrival, many of us living things here in the Wordsworth garden might not have survived. James noticed details you ought to, if you’re to be of use to a garden. Small things. Beautiful things. He worked hard and did very little harm. But now James Dixon is in his fifties, and he sports one of those wool caps that keep the chill off the bald bit. Poor bald head! How poignant the forward rush of human time. James was with the Wordsworths for so long—nearly forty years—that he became intimate with their patterns.

Patterns are the most useful thing in the world. They help us recall what is about to happen. That is why, on this so-called twenty-fifth of January in 1855, as James sits under my branches later than his usual hour, we know something has changed.  The bees know.  The slumbering seeds are aware. And I plainly see. His cap is atilt, his step rusty, and he has a funny, burnt scent. We feel his distress before he says a word. It whooshes through my branches like wind, rattling my few dead leaves. One or two bees scouting for signs of spring sense he is not right, and they bolt for my centre here the hive congregates, keeping itself warm.  Snowdrops probe green nubs above the hard soil. It will be a week before they hoist their pale ghost flags. James sits on what he loves to call my knee. His trousers are well-worn, like the creases in his face and hands. He does not possess new clothing or give off a shiny air. Bees love it when old softness emerges and continues on into new time. We all do. Soon the bee scouts venture back out of their entrance and settle on his lap. Do ye mind, he says at last, if I just sit quiet for a minute before I take on our last chore of all? He has a round basket at his side and on top of it lies a red book bright as a rosehip, and he also carries his old tinderbox with a few matches he made from splinters of my deadwood, dipped in the bees’ wax. Little Miss Belle noses out of Rydal Mount’s side door and sits a distance away on the grass. Normally that dog is never far from Rotha’s side. As soon as he sees Belle, James calls out Rotha’s name.

Excerpted from Undersong. Copyright © 2021 Kathleen Winter. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

September 20, 2021
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