Poetic art of Dorothy Cowlin:
the novels.


Credit: MusicScotland

Back to home page.

A survey of the eight novels:
Penny to Spend.Rowanberry Wine.
Winter Solstice.An End and a Beginning.
The Holly and the Ivy. Draw the Well Dry.
The Slow Train Home. The Pair of Them.

About Dorothy Cowlin, novelist and poet.

The reason for this appreciation is a belief in Dorothy Cowlin's unique poetic talent, which may be discerned in her novels and journalism as well as the poems.
Dorothy had eight novels published by Jonathan Cape, the distinguished English house, from 1941 to 1956.

A few years previously, Cape published Mary Webb's poetic novels of nature. After her early death, an edition with introductions by Stanley Baldwin, G K Chesterton and John Buchan vouched for her work.

I tried Mary Webb's name on our local reader's club and no-one had heard of her. But they knew of Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm. This is a parody of Webb's novels and praised as such by The Reader's Encyclopedia, for instance. Indeed, Gibbons' comedy only leaves out Mary Webb's genius.

Mary Webb's novels are Somerset-based. Dorothy Cowlin moved about a bit more. Her novels circle from Lincolnshire to Lancashire to Yorkshire.
This left little time for poetry. But her later travels from the Orkneys to the Scillies inspired her verse. So, Cowlin is a British poet, as well as a more or less northern English novelist and local journalist.

A survey of Dorothy Cowlin's eight novels.

Penny To Spend.

Back to top of page.

A girl can never make up her mind what sweets to spend her penny on. When she grows up, she can't decide which man to marry. But fiction allows her the luxury of having her life twice. Of her two suitors, the one she marries, in part one of the novel, becomes her failed suitor and friend, in part two. And vice versa for the other suitor.

The novel was also published in Swedish, under a different title that conveyed the heroine was 'The Two-ways woman'. Alternate histories are a conception that modern theories of physics have to confront in their quest for the true nature of reality. However, Dorothy Cowlin was partly influenced by J B Priestley's time plays.

John Braine's biography of Priestley quotes his play that declaims on the sadness of the unrehearsed theatre of life. Or, as Richard Feynman says, about time, that is what life is like: you make your mistakes and then you die.

Pascal and J B Bury claimed the course of history would have been changed with the length of Cleopatra's nose. And in Cowlin's novel an insignificant incident changes her life history. When the heroine is being courted in the park, a swan drifts by. This breaks the spell of courtship with one suitor. But in the alternative scenario, it makes the spell that decides her choice of suitor.

The poetic quality of the novel's background reminded me of Mendelssohn's music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Like fairyland is the dancing on ice-rinks in misty parks, the melting snow and swan drifts.
The young woman's second suitor appears, in that setting, as a monstrous spider, as he stands under the black drape over his box camera on tripod.

The poetic touch is light to the point of unreality, like old photos bordered by halos. But, whatever choice the maiden bargains for reality, she cannot escape the dullness and drudgery of her fate.

Her choice of partner, in part one, the more showy man grossly declines in marriage. In part two, as the failed suitor, he is cleverly transformed into some semblance of an idealistic admirer. But, the photographer, who wins the heroine's hand, this time, has the bad luck ( for himself and his wife ) to be punished and broken in prison.

As a not very satisfying foot-note, Dorothy Cowlin's first novel draws on the small Lincolnshire town of Grantham, home also to Isaac Newton and Margaret Thatcher. She was slightly older than the Roberts girl and went to the same grammar school.

Dorothy was top of her class but broke her right arm before the exams came up. This would have been an honorable excuse for not taking them. Dorothy, tho, was not going to let anyone forget that she was top. So, she started writing with her left hand. Anyone who has seen Dorothy's scrawl with her right hand can imagine how readable were her left-handed efforts. But she made her point.

And no, she never knew Margaret Roberts at school. Nor did she know the Roberts' grocers shop. Her first female character, with a penny to spend, was not served by girls.

Winter Solstice.

Back to top of page.

Dorothy Cowlin got the idea for her second novel from her mother. She told Dorothy about a young Grantham woman's spontaneous recovery from a psychosomatic illness. During the first world war, a bed-ridden girl heard the soldiers marching by. She wanted to see them and got up to look.

Such germs of truth more than once grew into the plants of her fiction. The heroine is bed-ridden, tho there is nothing physically wrong with her. It is all in her mind why she cannot rise up and walk.

The author has assimilated the ideas of depth psychology admirably. You feel that common sense is being used to arrive at an intelligent understanding of the invalid. For that reason alone, the book would be worth reading.

The novel starts from the severely limited world view of the sick bed. This does not suit the modern craving for action. As mankind gets more crowded and domesticated, entertainment becomes more escapist. Adventure stories become more sensational and, as movies, crammed with impossible special effects, which are no longer special.

But Winter Solstice confronts, in aggravated form, rather than distracts from the freedom-starved condition of urban settlement. Cowlin's novel structure compares to breaking the conventional order of symphonic movements, by starting with the adagio instead of the allegro con brio.

As a young excitement addict, I wouldnt have appreciated this novel. It finds Arnold Bennett's interest in the ordinary. ( Bennett was one of Dorothy's favorites. ) The invalid has no choice but to follow the changes in her fire-lit room, the starry skylight, and the morning stirrings thru a partial window view on an industrial district. With this unpromising material, the author exercises our imagination to some poetic effect. She makes a lot out of a little.

Show business gets ever closer to replacing imagination with virtual reality. The fans perhaps become so fanatical because their imaginations have been taken over by some commercial fantasy. To be our individual selves, with independent imaginations, we need to learn from the poet's ability to recover the magical from the routine. She makes the common-place wonderful, in a world which is making the wonderful common-place.

The invalid is looked-after by her twin brothers, the querks of one compared to the other, being among her most successful characterisations. ( The author drew on a visit to two master tailors. )
The idea of having the bed-ridden girl noticed by a customer, who is a pioneer woman pilot, is inspired. One need think only of 'flying bedsteads' to make the contrast perfect.

Not surprisingly, the girl falls in love with this role model, who is everything, freedom-wise she would like to be. The aviator is literally a woman of the world. And of course she had her real life counter-parts. 'Amy, wonderful Amy', the musical's title sums up the public regard for such women as Amy Johnson.
That didnt mean you could take liberties, tho. When the English-woman finally made it, somehow, to land in Australia, the man, who ran up to kiss her, got slapped.

The patient breaks into her forbidding memories of the slums.
She recovers to confront squalid scenes of her former life. Bridges take on symbolic meanings. The 'brutal grandeur' of the railway viaduct dominates the skyline and pours smoke on the hovels clustered about its feet.

A bridge, over the brown wash of filth and chemicals, is frequented by rats. This is going to be covered. Yes, replies the patient, on her first walks, but it will still be there. The covered pollution compares to her own ugly memories, which she covered-up, as if that would make them go away, when it only allowed them to run riot, for not being attended to.

The painter, Lowry was possessed by the old industrial landscape of the north. As an experiment, he was placed, with a canvas, in the middle of the country-side.
More smoking brick-work was the result.

But Winter Solstice is Dorothy Cowlin's only sustained prose poem of the black lands.
This masterpiece is an unrecognised pioneer of the urban poetry that has superceded traditional nature poetry - if only because most of us are now townies. The unnamed town, that the story drew on, was Stockport.

Valerie Grove wrote a little masterpiece of a comic poem in Jamaican English, about a working woman shopping in Longsight Market. This is in a sort of no-man's land between Stockport and Manchester.

Dorothy Cowlin's second novel has two foot-notes.
Shortly after writing her novel of an invalid, the author's mother actually became bed-ridden. She had to look after her and a child, while her husband was away on service. It is just another instance of the disadvantages professional women have faced. She was not able to publish another novel for eight years.

The second foot-note to Winter Solstice: a friend of the author told her the book had been re-published. This was 49 years after its first appearance in 1942. The cover said 'She died in 1962.' No source was given for this falsehood, not repeated by the re-print's Introduction, a forbidding ax-grind of feminist doctrine, with a lesbian slant.
Eventually, the local and national press got wind of this occasion to repeat Mark Twain's disclaimer: News of my death has been greatly exaggerated.

The introduction writer had been a student of a college teacher of social history. He had found the book, out of print, admired it, and used its vividness for his lectures. The student had told a new re-print publishers of forgotten classics of radical literature.
It turned out that the publisher was an ill man. He had a financial backer, who was taking on much of the book production. But he had no experience of that business. At any rate, an American run had to be pulped because the pages were collated wrongly.
Or so I understand.

The original edition of Winter Solstice was also published by Macmillan in the United States. In war-time Britain, book production was halved. For authors, like almost everyone else, it was a bad time to be starting one's career. Then there was the post-war austerity. Even more so for personal reasons, Dorothy Cowlin's third novel didnt come out till 1950.

The Holly and the Ivy.

Back to top of page.

For The Holly and the Ivy, Dorothy Cowlin took the advice given by a character in Lord Jim: In the destructive fluid immerse. Conrad's reference is to romanticism. For Dorothy, the destructive fluid, to her novel-writing, was the woman's domestic burden. But, on the principle of writing about what you know, 'woman's work' was precisely in what she immersed her third novel.

This story is like a boating trip. An adventure gets lost among a lot of little islands. Gradually the channel clears under the pull of the current of birth and death, even unto the approach of a final fall.
Actually, the novel starts with a couple on a walking holiday between youth hostels. How important these getaways were for the industrial working class may be judged by the fact that they are featured in all eight of the Cowlin novels.

The 'honeymoon' proves to be the cynics' sweetness that doesnt last. The newly wed Sylvia is rather more sexy and charming than one would expect for that still puritan period. But this does not survive the ordeal of child-bearing, which is quite enough for her to manage, without having to respond to her husband's further erotic interest. For which, he is liable to be snapped at.

But the main relief for her irritation is the poor mother-in-law. Prickly Sylvia is absorbed in her own motherhood. She resents an over-growth of mother-in-law's reminiscences. Hence, The Holly and the Ivy. This new birth is her show. Probably for the same reason, she resents the kindly offer of hand-me-down baby clothes.
Also, conservative tradition is giving way to wasteful commercial snobbery against anything 'old-fashioned'.

One of Sylvia's friends intends to write a novel describing child-birth, which she claims hasnt been done before. Sylvia's factory production line birth-giving, in a row of other new mothers, gives some idea of a municipal hospital before the national health service.
A hint from one of Cowlin's later novels suggests that her editor made her tone down the account. This is a pity. Nevertheless, she brings out the terror and the triumph, the humiliation and the humor of the woman's lot.

The distractions of real life, from contemplation, show in the author's struggle to get going, till about half way thru the book. Sylvia tells off the grandma for singing baby to sleep in the middle of the night. After that, the momentum is maintained with the mother's jealousy. Jealousy is to be found elsewhere in the novels.

This is a see-saw of a novel that swings from estatic heights to depressive depths. Sylvia is preoccupied with the emotional 'ecology' or personal balance of life. That is the pleasant things in life enable us to endure the unpleasant ones. The latter, in this story, is, most of all, the helpless decline and death of the mother-in-law.

Sylvia realises she has been selfish towards her. The unsentimental ending locks us into the mind of the old woman, who knows she has never been so ill, but doesnt realise a blackbird's song is her farewell.
This may be the most moving passage in all Dorothy Cowlin's writings. Tho, on the whole, her third novel is the weakest of her first four.

The Slow Train Home.

Back to top of page.

The meaning of the title is in a father eventually coming to take responsibility for his illegitimate son. His awakening interest is plausibly done. But it is the emotional development of the single mother that drives the story. As in Winter Solstice, the author leads us into the heroine's unconscious mind, which is the engine room of her behavior. At first, her awareness is limited to that of a passenger on the ship of her destiny. And we see why her life isnt working as well for her as it might.

In the second part of The Introductory Lectures to Psycho-analysis, Freud speaks of a woman patient making improper advances. He makes the rare admission that it is, after all, love which we all are seeking. It's a question of finding acceptable forms of love for those available to give and receive it.
In both Winter Solstice and The Slow Train Home, there is no jargon of psychic mechanisms to distract us from the message that love is at the heart of things.

To write this kind of novel, you need to catch the nuances of expression that pass between characters. And Cowlin reads them like a book. She is, in effect, an interpretive psychologist. The poet also makes a welcome return to this work. When the two leads meet again on a rural Yorkshire station platform, a train of coaches rattles thru like the slides of a mad projectionist.

The title is not only a metaphor. We are introduced to the family that runs the signal box and railway crossing. Mrs Carr is presented to us in full glory of her Broad Yorkshire accent, which is authentic.
Charles Dickens gave it a pretty faithful rendering with John Browdie in Nicholas Nickleby. He spent three weeks in Yorkshire transcribing the dialect, using his phonetic shorthand, from his reporting days in the courts and parliament.

But from Mrs Carr, in her dramatic decline, you also catch the dour side of the Yorkshire character.
Fifty years after this novel was written, missed railway signals remain an item in the news, following on from disasters caused by them. In the story, the cross-roads are not sealed against the thru-train and there is an appalling smash.

The accident is all the more incongruous against the tranquil country back-ground. Whereas, Winter Solstice is set in the midst of an urban disaster area, that has a disasterous effect on the inhabitants' lives. The scale of the tragedy is altogether greater and is successfully transcribed into a greater book.

Rowanberry Wine.

Back to top of page.

Dorothy Cowlin's fifth novel is a holiday book. An archeological group spend a summer under canvas, on the Yorkshire moors, investigating a barrow. The author loves this heather high land closest to a few free-circling birds. And her description is itself like a pleasant holiday memory.

For once, the reader escapes the three great verities of marriage, birth and death. Birth is reduced to a few family photos on the farmer's wife's piano. Death seems as remote as the few bones dug up from the barrow.

We are assured the heroine's marriage is happy and successful. Yet she is perplexed by symptoms of discontent. Given the mercilessly unattractive disposition of her husband, this should be no surprise to the reader. Presumably, she is used to him and takes no account of her inner rebel.

She has a young admirer in the team. And thru him, tho it takes its time a-coming, her 'symptoms' have their fling. Way up, there is a hollow, with no one but the sun to spy on chance bathers in its pool.
This episode has as dubious a tang about it, as home-made rowanberry wine. Hence, the tale's title. But there is a hint of fire in the heroine's verdict on men, who have mass-produced food and drink at the expense of quality in the homely arts, which women did well with love.

A hostile husband is confronted with her indiscretion. They have quite a tiff, under the tent flaps, in early morning bleakness before holiday ending.
On leave-takings, the youth finds the chance to express thanks for his treat. This 1952 novel just precedes the first 'angry young men' of English literature, noticably short on gratitude for their common-place adulteries.

The well-regarded novelist Pamela Hansford-Johnson warmly reviewed Dorothy Cowlin's novels. Dorothy's favorite of her own works was The Slow Train Home. But Johnson much prefered Rowanberry Wine.

An End and a Beginning.

Back to top of page.

When I first read Rowanberry Wine, I thought it a light-weight work. Dorothy's editor's at Cape said the same. Moreover, Dorothy wanted to write a book of short stories. But her publishers told her they dont sell. Her sixth novel, however, is essentially such a collection unified by taking place in a boarding house. There, people keep to themselves and lead their own separate lives, about which information only gradually leaks out, like secretive British government and society, in general.

The heroine, Olga Ward goes off the rails of a steady job at the library to write books, rather than lend other peoples. Meanwhile, she takes on a small lodging house.
More than that, she adopts a conscientious and intelligent womanly approach to the problems of her paying guests. Again one feels that Dorothy Cowlin is a psychologist who has missed her calling. There is the makings of a television soap opera about an amateur psychiatric practise run by a land-lady with an instinctive gift for it. Like a traditional British 'soap', the episodes teach by examples of how to get on with people, especially if they are occasionally difficult.

Hence, the improbable cast of visitors under one roof: a kleptomaniac; a flasher; adulterers, deserting and remorseful or suicidal and murderous; a bogus widow, really a spiteful spinster; a separated and alienated husband with unorthodox views on marriage. I was not much mollified when this dismal gentleman renounced a liaison with the young heroine.

Perhaps the best writing in the novel is Olga's day-dreams about meeting her dead husband.

The aspiring Olga's publisher 'blenched' at the realistic birth and death scenes in her novel, and asked that they be toned down. This sounds like a hint at what happened to Cowlin's earlier novel, The Holly and the Ivy.
Perhaps, Dorothy anticipated a similar reaction to the episode of the 'flasher'. The very word didnt come into British currency till the 1970s. There being no name, for men who over-exposed themselves, suggests how the subject was once unmentionable. The plausible narration, not least the flasher's panic, was confirmed as based on a true story - as were some of the other episodes.

It may have been fateful for Dorothy's career as a novelist that she was not given free rein. Very soon, 'the angry young men' would sweep aside convention. And there would be no more place for a gentle middle-aged woman on the publishers lists.

Over thirty years after Cowlin's novels, I heard an editor, of formula romances, expected her writers to abide by the convention that the hero was not young, because young men do not have money or status.

Draw the Well Dry.

Back to top of page.

The idea for Draw The Well Dry came from a news-paper report.
A new parson finds boarded-over, in the garden, an old well, once favored for miraculous healing properties. He has to decide what line to take, on this troublesome discovery. This most undogmatic of clergy-men swings on the scales, he weights, in turn, with evidence for a wonderful or common sense explanation.

This is reflected in the recognisable character-type of Mrs Clough, who took this reader amusingly by surprise. Her animosity to the parson is abruptly changed by wanting the well water.

How well the author keeps to the point of the story. At first, one is inclined to echo the parson's wife that the whole thing doesnt matter much. And the parson seems weak and lost in triviality. But as he grapples with the dilemma, his character develops. The wife was rather the novelist's window view on the story. But we come out into the parson's world, as his character takes over.

In the end, the self-doubting man has explored the issue thoroly and is more a master of it than the dogmatist. Like the Lion in Lewis' Narnia tales, God is seen as someone who does not break His own laws of nature.
There is a moral here for governments not breaking their human laws that have been freely consented to.

This is Dorothy Cowlin's most intellectual and least imaginative novel. It grows, in an unforced way, to a conclusion. Her equally spare, poetic first novel, Penny to Spend is also about a dilemma - not one that can be argued to and fro between two beliefs, but which must be parted into two existences.

Dorothy was never one for religious observances, rather a religious attitude to life, expressed in supporting good causes, such as peace or the environment. She did write a poem about a Quaker meeting. Rather like Philip Larkin, she followed the religious heritage trail, if only for the glory of its art or the natural holiness of its settings.

Indeed, Dorothy Cowlin comes from the north's cultured urban working class, the same kind of folks described in the Bradford of J B Priestley's youth, which was in the vanguard of the British Labour party. Dorothy's grand-mother joined the Labour party in the first year of its existence. Her father was a local trades union organiser of engineering draughtsmen. Her daughter carried on the left-wing family tradition.

This tradition was not only in politics. Music was a strong bond between her parents. Dorothy's mother was a very good amateur singer. Like Priestley's writings, Cowlin's also have a reference to the local choral societies vying to be the first to put on The Messiah before Christmas.

As a footnote to Dorothy's novel of religious doubting, I cannot resist the anecdote about her mother appearing at a choral concert, such as her writing describes. A woman, in the audience, told her mother: Oh, I do like you to wear black when you are singing. It shows up your aura so well.
Sometimes, this story seemed to be too much for Dorothy, tho she repeated it. Modern laboratories can measure the body's electro-magnetic fields. There are people so sensitive that they can pick up faint signals, such as radio waves without a receiver. When a person is happily singing out, it does seem their aura brightens and perhaps becomes beautiful, to those with the eyes to see it.

The halos of saints visibly communicate they are blessed in their bliss. Even the association of the halo with the sun may be significant, because we are bathed in its life-giving electro-magnetic aura.

The Pair of Them.

Back to top of page

Like a pair of Buddhas at a house-clearing sale, a primary school teacher and her young man are meant to be together but become parted.
The second chapter on education among the slums harks back all too briefly to the descriptions in Winter Solstice. The humorist also comes to the fore again. The genial semi-literate opportunist of a head-master had the makings of a great character study.
But one feels that the author was only too glad to escape even the memories of her own exhausting teaching days. This is literature's loss.

After her working hours cease to be such a knock-out, the story turns to recreation. The League of Nations of the nineteen-thirties had its junior section, to which the author once belonged. Her novel's heroine joins a similar organisation. The young people rapidly form into pairs. They visit the theatre. The heroine observes a couple in the row ahead. She notices the man is feeling his date's breast - 'the fortunate flesh', as she calls it.

She herself comes in for seduction and divines that each step along the road to intimacy is going to be more enticing and less resistible. It does, however, take the novel some time to pose its problem, even one so time-honored.
The novel has some vivid scenes, to pass thru, like a time travelog. One re-lives the past.

But did Dorothy know where she was going as a novelist? It didnt matter, because time had run out. The book trade was facing rising costs of production and a shrinking market. The circulating libraries, such as Boots, were vanishing. By the mid-fifties, a majority of households were entertained by television, soon to be almost universal.

Richard Lung

Back to top of page.

Back to home page.