I’ve slowly started collecting these gorgeous books released by McNally Editions, they are so beautifully produced, a pleasure to hold and read. Winter Love is the first title from their catalogue, and it’s a book I liked very much indeed.
Winter Love is a fascinating, elegantly written tale of doomed queer love, toxic relationships and self-destruction set in Britain at the end of the Second World War.
Our protagonist Brittany Jones (called ‘Red’ by her peers) is a young woman in her early 20s studying at Horsham Science College and living on bare means. The Second World War is on its last legs, but the ground reality in Britain remains stark, marked by food rations, poverty and decrepit boarding houses.
During her years at Horsham, as far as relationships are concerned, Red has always shown a preference for women, her latest interest being Louise Wells. But all that topples when she comes across Mara Daniels (“I knew it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen”).
There I stood with Daphne Meredith and Louise Wells, my chums. I’d known them both since school-days, and Louise said she was in love with me. But I walked away and stood by Mara, only of course I didn’t know her name.
In every aspect, Mara is unlike the other Horsham girls. She stands out by a mile. She is wealthy, dressed in well-cut clothes and exudes an aura of privilege, luxury and comfort. And to top it all, she is drop dead gorgeous. Red is instantly taken in by her much to the chagrin of the other girls.
Whereas Mara suggested…oh, so many things, envy-making things: warm beaches and cosmetics and music, and lots of clothes and no coupons, and eggs and tins from America, and French wines, and oh, so many things we were forgetting in the war or had never had.
We learn of Red’s traumatic background…Her mother abandons her father and runs off with a lover. The mother goes on to have a string of love affairs thereafter and Red has blurry memories of waking in desolate hotel rooms marked by scenes of her mother crying. Red has a soft spot for her father but once he remarries, her relationship with her step mother is pretty strained too. The only family relation who means anything to her is Aunt Muriel who decides to take on the responsibility of her care when Red was a child, and now every Christmas, Red travels to the countryside where Aunt Muriel resides to help her with the Christmas festivities.
Mara’s circumstances could not have been more different. She is a married woman living in an upscale apartment in London with her husband Karl. Given that she is well provided for, why she should choose to study in a university remains a mystery to the girls and Mara makes no attempt to dish out an explanation. Her casual attitude in class irritates their professor Eggie, and everyone is pretty sure that she is bound to fail in her exams. But Mara passes with flying colours much to everyone’s astonishment; an achievement that Red secretly revels in.
I couldn’t do anything but wait for Mara afterwards, wait for her by our locker, acquiescent, waiting, in acknowledgement of her strength: for in all of us there is this submission to someone who has earned our respect; the way the others made room for Mara, a scarcely perceptible hush in their voices even if they pretended to be unaware of her, proclaimed it too. She was somebody now. She had beaten us all, beaten back into us the ever-present, smug, pin-prick sadism towards someone different. She was different, but she was strong, and I was proud of her, even more than after the quiz.
Red is fascinated with Mara, more specifically her devil-may-care attitude and the two begin spending time together regularly. But it’s clear from the outset that this relationship is doomed.
Winter Love, in many ways, is a character study of both Red and Mara and how their significantly differing personalities and circumstances play a crucial role in disrupting their relationship. There’s no element of surprise here, we know that in the present Red is now married to Andy, a man who resided in the same boarding house as she did during her student days. Red is our narrator and her account of her short, troubled affair with Mara is a vivid memory from the past, a period forever etched in her memory, something that changed her life forever. But with sufficient years having passed since then and with the benefit of distance gained, Red can take a much more analytical view of what happened then, even if she doesn’t always have all the answers.
Only when my mind goes back to that London winter do I feel alive, instead of merely knowing as a fact that I live. In that closed memory do I count my heartbeats by the spirited blood’s surge, there once again I walk with Mara through the evening that is night, holding an electric torch in my hand, the blacked-out glass letting through a faint yellow ring at our feet, and I know what it is to love, to want to die for love. This is still so, and I’m a married woman with a child.
Red is a complex woman. She is extra careful about money, to the point of being a tad miserly, traits that to some extent can be attributed to her troubled childhood. But coming from her vantage point she fails to comprehend Mara’s extravagance. Red is tormented by her longing for Mara – she loves Mara passionately but at the same time, Mara’s docility and non-assertiveness fuels feelings of cruelty in Red. She is also prone to intense jealousy – Red can’t stand the idea of Mara living with her husband Karl but has no problem enjoying Karl’s money, enjoying as she does the comfort and richness of Mara’s luxurious married home. A part of her wants Mara to abandon Karl and yet the other part doesn’t because she knows that the two can’t survive on Red’s income alone.
Meanwhile, I rather pigged it. I had to be careful with money, one never knew what might happen, and I saved about a third of my allowance because I might need it. The way Mara took taxis, bought books, went to expensive places…whatever she had was expensive. I thought with pleasure, though, that I had a rich friend. I did not know that she could walk out of money and comfort as easily as losing a handkerchief (and she was always losing handkerchiefs). She dazzled me a little, I had not been accustomed to this kind of spending.
In sharp contrast, Mara is careless, dreamy and not assertive when she is with Red. Attuned to being comfortably provided for, Mara is clueless about the harsh realities of life. She detests Karl, can’t bear the physical intimacy with him, and is besotted with Red. But she is not bothered and troubled by how she would get by financially if she were to leave Karl. It’s also very hard to pinpoint her personality. At the beginning of the book, Mara stands out in the crowd not only because of her good looks and money, but also because of her insouciance, an air of indifference that accentuates her superior demeanor – qualities that greatly attract Red. And yet, she hardly ever displays that same confidence with Red and does not fight back when the latter is cruel towards her. While Mara is easily swayed by people and their problems and ready to lend a helping hand wherever she can; Red is suspicious, resentful and would rather not get involved in other people’s lives, she prefers to remain detached and maintain a distance.
Winter Love is a tale of myriad themes – lesbian relationships, doomed love, obsession, self-destruction, class and privilege, how men and women perceive relationships, and the crippling impact of war on everyday living. The topic of class and privilege is exemplified by Mara and Red’s circumstances and personalities, the crucial indicator of how their relationship is bound to eventually play out.
Winter Love is also an indictment of the tenuous relationships between men and women, the discontent between them, how women at that time had to play along and pander to what the men wanted. Given how queer relationships were considered scandalous then, Red and Mara can’t openly proclaim their love for one another; they can be seen in public as friends but not as a couple. Hence, to keep up appearances and conform to societal expectations, they marry men but that experience leaves both deeply disillusioned. Red, particularly, is scathing in her perceptions of men…
What saps men always are, and so incredibly selfish with all their man-made ideas of what women think and how a woman ought to be happy just to be with them. And it isn’t quite true, it never is wholly true, women aren’t happy just being married and having kids and doing the housework, they want something else too. But we’re so unsure of ourselves, we’ve always been so dependent on men for their approval, we feel guilty if we’re not happy as they tell us we ought to be. How few of us really try to find out what we’re like, really, inside?
The book is set in 1944 during a deepened London winter (“It was bitterly cold all the time; and dark, the sun never there, round-the-clock glumness, dim to dark and back again”), that lends the novel its name. The depiction of wartime London is also spot on – the seedy boarding houses, food shortages and rations, air raids that disrupt normal civilian life fairly regularly, the sheer randomness of bombs falling from the sky.
The cover of Winter Love in this gorgeous McNally Editions paperback perfectly encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the book; it’s akin to watching a classic black-and-white film, sophisticated and dripping with understated elegance. Red and Mara are not particularly likeable, but they make for utterly compelling characters driven by their fears, uncertainties and complex motives. What also works is the stylish writing; the clipped, polished sentences that enhance the novel’s narrative pull. In a nutshell, Winter Love is a captivating rendition of thwarted love, a sensual evocation of an era that is firmly rooted in the past but pulsating with certain themes that resonate even today.