Brian Lynch’s novel The Winner of Sorrow (kindly sent to me as an ARC from Dalkey Archive Press) was originally published in 2005 in Ireland, and is now going to be released in the U.S. this coming February. It’s a fictional retelling of the life of William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), an eighteenth-century British poet. My studies in the field never took me very far into Cowper’s work, so I came to this novel ready to learn more about the poet and his times, which I did, and I also found a very enjoyable novel, all personal interest in the eighteenth century aside.
Cowper doesn’t get read a lot today, but he was influential and popular in his time and afterward (Jane Austen quoted him in several novels) and in a lot of ways he’s a typically Romantic figure — the poetic genius suffering from depression and teetering on the edge of madness. In other ways, he’s not at all: he was a devout evanglical and wrote many hymns. He lived from 1731-1800 and so is solidly an eighteenth-century writer, but many of his interests and preoccupations were picked up by later Romantic writers (a love of nature and animals in particular).
Lynch does a good job of squeezing an entire life into a novel that’s around 360 pages; he begins with Cowper as a old man suffering from insanity, and then he shifts back and forth between old Cowper and young Cowper, eventually settling into the story of the younger man and moving us forward in time. These shifts require some careful attention, and in fact the novel is full of jumps in time of various sorts without a whole lot of connecting material, but these jumps help you see connections among the various episodes in his life.
In Lynch’s telling, Cowper’s life was shaped by a few important events, including the early death of his mother and his sexual impotence. In 1763 when he was 32, he had a mental breakdown, attempted suicide several times, and was sent to an asylum to recover. Afterwards, he settled with the Unwin family and spent much of the rest of his life with Mary Unwin, whose husband died early, leaving the two of them to form a socially suspicious alliance that never quite ended in marriage. Mary Unwin, according to Lynch, was a mix of the long-lost mother figure and the forbidden bride, a version of the cousin Cowper was once engaged to but couldn’t quite marry either. Unwin was fiercely loyal to Cowper, longing for a more passionate relationship with him but making do with the affection he was able to offer. She did her best to fend off the other women who were drawn to Cowper, including a Lady Anna Austen and Lady Hesketh, sister of the beloved cousin. There was clearly something powerfully attractive about Cowper, because in spite of his depressive tendencies and his complex relationships, he was surrounded by people who desperately wanted to be a part of his life.
As you can see, Cowper is a psychoanalyst’s dream, but Lynch never beats you over the head with facile explanations or easy conclusions. He also recreates a feeling of the time without going overboard with period detail; this is historical fiction, but it doesn’t feel like a lot of the historical novels I’ve read that pack the detail in to make sure you smell every authentic smell. Rather, you get a sense of the time from the characters themselves — their thoughts and conversations and letters. You can tell that Lynch is a poet himself from the way the writing is spare and beautiful, capable of communicating so much in a small space. He leaves room for you to make connections and put ideas together. The novel tends to work through juxtaposition; its short chapters ask readers to situate themselves in the story again and again, without providing much to ease the transition into a new scene with new characters. This can be jarring, but it’s also exhilarating — this is a novel that asks something of the reader but has much to offer too.