Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

A Spell of Winter

by Helen Dunmore

“[Dunmore] beautifully captures paranoia, how it feels to wonder if people smell guilt on your skin and–most powerfully–how you can rationalize an act until you convince yourself it never even happened. . . . [A] Gothic wonder of a novel.” –Salon

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 320
  • Publication Date January 22, 2002
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3876-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

Helen Dunmore’s most celebrated work is a compelling turn-of-the-century tale of innocence corrupted by secrecy, and the grace of second chances.

Catherine and her brother, Rob, do not know why they have been abandoned by their parents. In the house of their grandfather, “the man from nowhere,” they forge a passionate refuge for themselves against the terror of family secrets, and while the world outside moves to the brink of war, their sibling love becomes fraught with dangers. But as Catherine fights free of the past, the spell of winter that has held her in its grasp begins to break. The novel’s rich imagery moves between the stark, harsh winter world that Catherine loves and the summers she loathes, when the air is thick with the scent of roses and painful memories. Through decades of changing seasons, the two siblings mature within an enclosed world, surrounded by servants who guard the mysteries of their heritage. First Rob and later Catherine will dare to break through the wall that encircles their perversely stifled lives to move toward heartbreaking but final release.

Dunmore’s hypnotic, affecting prose is filled with unexpected tenderness and moments of beauty as she expertly evokes a melancholy era with a wholly original keenness. A Spell of Winter recasts the Gothic pastoral novel with breathtaking contemporary insight, exploring the moral complexities of human choice and action.

Tags Literary


A Spell of Winter reads so much like Jane Eyre that one feels one ought to shout: Charlotte Bront” is back!””Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Unsettling love and stifled horror create and then destroy the claustrophobic world of this lush, literary Gothic set in turn-of-the-century England. . . . In true Gothic fashion, terror, violence and eroticism collect beneath every dark surface. . . . A finely crafted, if disturbing, literary page-turner.””Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Dunmore] beautifully captures paranoia, how it feels to wonder if people smell guilt on your skin and’most powerfully”how you can rationalize an act until you convince yourself it never even happened. . . . [A] Gothic wonder of a novel.””Salon

“Not many novels grab the reader’s lapels with the opening sentence, but Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter is surely one. . . . We plunge headlong into Dunmore’s dark and creepy tale, an update of such Gothic literary classics as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. . . . Dunmore’s gifts are considerable.””Houston Chronicle

“An intensely gripping b

ook. Tense, dark and beautifully crafted, the book that won its author the Orange Prize is one that will be hard to forget . . . written so seductively that some passages sing out from the page, like music for the eyes.””The Sunday Times

“British Orange Prize winning Dunmore mixes the spirits of T. Hardy, E. Bront”, and D. H. Lawrence to offer up a country tale of loss, madness, and deep secrecy”all with a vividness that’s luscious and unflagging. . . . Dunmore is skilled at keeping her telling always restrained and thus real. . . . Romantic turmoil, but every square inch done with a sharp exactness of eye, word, and detail that give it the pleasures of a Merchant and Ivory on the page.””Kirkus Reviews

“The story is wreathed in mysteries with a possibility of violence, yet this is not just a bleak tale of incest or a murder mystery. Rather, it is a lyrical exploration of the meaning of love and the possibilities of life. Dunmore writes poetry as well as prose, and through poetic writing she has crafted a sensual narrative. This modern Gothic, which won the first Orange Prize in Britain in 1995, is recommended for must public and academic collections.””Library Journal

“[A] dark, poetic and deftly crafted Gothic novel . . . Dunmore, also a poet, uses metaphor to paint painfully vivid images and manages to convey depths of emotion and meaning in remarkably short sentences. . . .” Dunmore crafts her prose into beautiful imagery. . . . Although the story’s setting is reminiscent of a Gothic classic, the novel has a current flair in Catherine’s self-awareness and observations, and in the psychological complexity of each character. . . . Distinctly modern.””Associated Press

“[Dunmore’s] voice is distinctive”wild yet controlled”and its incantatory music does suggest “a spell.” . . . This is an erotic pastoral, the rhythms of the land contending with those of the body itself. . . . In the hands of an author less assured, this might be romantic melodrama or mere period piece; in Dunmore’s authoritative tell A Spell of Winter haunts.””The Washington Post Book World

‘dunmore’s dark, poetic and deftly crafted Gothic novel unfolds . . . in a style that aches like homesickness.””The Kingston Freeman (New York)

“Helen Dunmore clearly claims the Bront”an landscape, emotional as well as physical, as her territory. . . . Dunmore is wonderful at establishing a sense of place; you smell what she smell, se what she sees.””Book Reporter

“”Helen Dunmore’s spellbinding, lyrical prose is close to poetry. She writes like an angel and the compelling turn-of-the-century story she so skillfully unfolds in A Spell of Winter makes the emotions churn and tingle. . . . This is a marvelous novel about forbidden passions and the terrible consequences of thwarted love. It is also about the almost mystical bond between mothers and daughters, and I defy any woman to read the final paragraphs without tears streaming down her face. . . . Dunmore is one of our finest writers.””The Daily Mail

A Spell of Winter, suitable for Anne Tyler or Hilary Mantel readers, is highly accessible, immensely sad, quite beautiful, and deserves to be read by all lovers of good novels. [Dunmore] is an author to take note of and to watch for in the future.””The Bookseller

“A hugely involving story which often stops you in your tracks with the beauty of its writing.””The Observer (London)

“An electrifying and original talent, a writer whose style is characterized by a lyrical, dreamy intensity.””The Guardian

“Her prose is poetic in its emotional range and intensity.””The Times Literary Supplement

A Spell of Winter is a book which reads as if it was burning a hole through the writer’s desk. . . . Unforgettable, packed with lambent images and mysterious like the best poetry, or dreams.””Venue


The first-ever winner of the Orange Prize


`I saw an arm fall off a man once,’ said Kate. She turned the toasting-fork to see how the muffin was browning, then held it up to the fire again. We stared at her.

`Yes,’ she went on, `it was in my grandfather’s house in Dublin. They were bringing my uncle Joseph down the stairs. Narrow, twisty stairs they put in houses where they’d given no thought to the living or the dead. You couldn’t get a coffin up them. But my grandmother had kept the body too long in the house. She was mad with grief, she didn’t want him to go. She kept putting more flowers in the room, shovelling flowers in on top of him to hide the smell. Then she’d be sitting with him all night long.’

`Was that your grandmother O’Neill?’ I whispered to the flames.

`Who else would it be? You know my daddy was the eldest of the twelve. But this one, Joseph, was his next brother and the favourite. If there was meat or meal, it would be Joseph got the meat.

`Did you know him before he was dead?’

`Who’s telling this story? He was twenty-six when he died with a kick from a cart horse. How could I not know my own uncle?

`Well now, Joseph must have been up there a week or more, with my grandmother lighting fresh candles round him and saying prayers enough to wear out the saints. No one else’s prayers were good enough for Joseph, only hers. I remember the talk in the house. We were giving scandal. It was the middle of summer, and hot. My mother wouldn’t go near the house in her condition, and the smell had driven everyone but my grandmother from the room. That was when it was decided that they would force her to have him brought down and taken out of the house for burial. She wouldn’t even see the priest, so it was my father had to go up and talk to her. But she wouldn’t listen. In the end four of them had to take her by the ankles and elbows, kicking and screaming to wake the dead. They shut her in the scullery until it was done.’

`Did they lock her in?’

`There was no lock on the door. My aunts sat in with her and there were two men set to guard it so she couldn’t burst out. But the noise she made was terrible. So it was left to my father to bring Joseph down, with only Dodie to help. That was his next brother after Joseph.’

We nodded. We knew about Dodie, who never held a job or went out of the house if he could help it.

`They were bringing him down the curve of the stairs,’ said Kate. She laid the muffin down on the hearth and showed us with her hands how the men eased the body round the narrow top of the stairs. `There we were, all of us looking from the kitchen.’

I saw them in rows, Kate with her bold eyes staring the most.

`And the noise of my grandmother from the scullery, with her shawl thrown over her head though that didn’t muffle the screeching at all. And then there was a smack where Dodie stumbled. I heard my father curse and the wall shook as the pair of them fell to their knees trying to get their balance and keep poor Joseph from falling. And we heard a terrible soft sound like the leg being sucked off a cooked chicken, and there was Joseph’s arm bouncing down the stairs to the floor below. It lay on the floor in front of our very eyes,’ said Kate.

`What did it look like?’ asked Rob. His voice had gone growly with excitement. I said nothing. I stared at Kate, and I saw white strings like roots coming out of the arm as it bounced down the wooden stairs.

`It had a silver shine on it,’ said Kate, `like the shine on money. But underneath the flesh was puffed up and purple. And the hand was swollen bigger than any hand I’d ever seen.’

`Did they pick it up?’ I whispered.

`Oh yes, they had to do that. You can’t be burying bits of a body here and there. But for a long while no one moved, and the only sound was my grandmother drumming her heels against the flags in the scullery. Of course she knew nothing of what was happening, nor ever did, for no one told her. Not even the youngest child that was there that day.’ Kate held her empty toasting-fork up to the flames, forgotten.

`It was my aunt Kitty who picked up Joseph’s arm. She took one of the white baking cloths from the drawer and went forward and laid it over the arm. Then she picked it up wrapped in the cloth like a shroud and took it out of the house. As she went past us we saw a stain seeping through the white.’

`Was it blood?’ asked Rob.

`It was black,’ said Kate. `Black like tar.’

We sighed deeply. There was no sound but the puckering of the flames. The muffins were singed and dry, but who would want to eat them now? Then I thought of something.

`But where was your grandfather, Kate? Wasn’t he in the house to make them bury Joseph before his arm fell off?’ I knew that all twelve of them were afraid of their father, Kate’s grandfather. I could close my eyes and see him plain from what Kate had told me. A little, wiry, jockey of a man. He should have been tall, but he grew up in famine times when there was no food for a child to grow on, said Kate. His tall sons and daughters stood over him and he lashed them with the whip of his tongue as if they were slow horses.

`He was away,’ said Kate. Her face closed up and we knew she would tell us no more about where her grandfather had been. `They got Joseph out of the house as quick as they could, and into his coffin. I heard Aunt Kitty say it was God’s mercy he didn’t fall to pieces entirely, there on the stairs. He had a quick burial.’

`How old were you, Kate?’ asked Rob.

`Oh, eight or so. A little younger than you and a little older than this one,’ she said, tapping my head. She leaned forward and poked the fire. `These muffins are like leather. Away down to the kitchen, Cathy, and ask Mrs Blazer for fresh.’

I hesitated. `Kate …’ I wanted to ask more, but I didn’t know what questions to ask. Was she going to tell Rob, when I was out of the room, because he was older? And besides, there was the long flickering passage, and the dark turn of the stairs to go down …

`Well, are you going or not?’ she demanded impatiently. `It’s you that’s eating these muffins, not me.’

I moved slowly to the door. I looked back at Kate and Rob in the circle of firelight. A cold draught felt at my ankles. Kate’s strong white arms speared the dead muffins and tossed them unerringly into the wastepaper basket. She looked so sure and brave, even though she was the one who had seen the dead arm with her own eyes, when she was just my age. I wondered if I would be as sure as Kate when I was older, when my skirts were down over my boots the way hers were. I would wear stays then, like Kate, and have a shape that went in and out and made you want to put your arms tight around her waist to feel its narrow springiness. I was Cathy and she was Kate. We had the same name really. I was Catherine and she was Kathleen, but no one had called her that since she was baptized at two days old.

Mother was gone, and Father was away. There was Kate to look after us, and Eileen in the sewing-room, and the kitchen warm and humming with people. There was Grandfather in London. There was nothing to be frightened of here. The fluttering shadows only startled me because they were sudden, like moths’ wings.

`What’s wrong with the girl?’ snapped Kate at the fire, and it snapped back a slim tongue of flame, as sharp as hers. I went.

Chapter One

It is winter in the house. This morning the ice on my basin of water is so thick I can not break it. The windows stare back at me, blind with frost. Inside my nest of quilts I am warm, and Rob’s coat presses down on me like two hands. I huff out my breath and watch it smoke.

I can see nothing through the frost flowers on the glass. I wonder if it is snowing yet, but I think it is too cold. It will only take a minute to rake out last night’s fire and build up a fresh pyramid. There is always enough wood. All I have to do is walk out and gather it. There are five years of rotting trees and fallen branches which have been left to lie in the woods.

The coloured cloth spines of our childhood books look at me. Grimm, Hans Andersen, At the Back of the North Wind. But to get something to read I’d have to skate across the icy sea of oilcloth between me and the bookcase.

I kneel up in bed and put on Rob’s coat. Its thick, stiff wool is becoming supple again from the heat of my body night after night. I put the sleeve to my face and sniff. The smell is still there, undiluted. The coat crushes my nightdress to my body and prickles my breasts. I button it up the boys’ way and feel about on the floor for my slippers.

The paper is dry. I put paper and kindling by the fire last night, so it will light with clean blue and yellow flames as soon as I put a match to it. I coil the newspaper sheets into little balls without reading a single word. They are old newspapers, covered in long, thick columns of names. I never look at them. Then I make a pyre of coils and balance the kindling into a tent around it. I was always the best at making fires. It’s an instinct, knowing where to lay the flame of the match so that it catches the draught and flares up against the rough, flammable cheeks of white kindling.

I hold my hands to the flames as they begin to jump. There is no wind at all in the chimney, and this has always been an awkward grate. The flames lose heart and shrink back into the wood. I spread out a double sheet of newspaper and hold it over the grate to make it draw. The paper sucks in and I plaster it tight against the edge of the fireplace. In a couple of minutes the fire stirs behind it and begins to roar. I wait until it glows big and yellow behind the paper, singeing the newsprint brown. It would be so easy to read what was written, but I don’t. Not one word. My fire is roaring like the big range down in the kitchens, which is never lit now. It has hunched there for months, dusty as winter soft. No one has blackleaded it.

I put down the paper, sit back on my heels and open Rob’s coat. The flames are strong and they make yellow shadows on my white nightdress. The milky cold of the room is beginning to thaw. Soon the windows will grow little circles of plain glass.

I am getting hot. Rob’s thick coat tents the heat. The smell is coming out more strongly now. Wool and sweat. Although I’ve brushed the coat I have never cleaned it. The earth smell is still there, tike the smell on a bundle of tramp’s clothes you find in the woods.

Little prickles of heat run down my sides. I feel my face flushing, and I push back my heavy plait. I kneel up and wriggle out of my nightdress under the coat, the way we used to do when we were undressing on the beach at Sandgate, while Nanny knitted and watched. It is decent to dress and undress beneath a tent of bleached cambric. My nightdress slides into a small white heap. I tug Rob’s coat close around me. A row of spare buttons in the side seam presses into my hip. They will leave a mark on my flesh that will last under my clothes all day, secretly. He never needed to change the buttons. They are still held on with strong dark thread, the way they were when the coat was bought. The label scratches the top of my neck and the first bone of my spine. I remember how cool the air felt against the nape of my neck when I first put up my hair. I wore a white dress which I hated, and Rob came up behind me and touched the skin I had never seen.

`It’s so white,’ he said. `It’s never had the sun on it.’

Then I twisted away from his fingers and picked up the skirts of my dress and ran down the staircase like a girl who could not wait to get to the party.

Now I move my body inside Rob’s coat, so all my skin will touch the lining which has touched him. My breasts tip forward, catching on the hairy wool of the coat’s opening. My fire dances and grows strong, stronger than the worn brown oilcloth, bought for hard wear, stronger than the iron frames of our two beds, stronger than the chain of the gas lamp over the table. I prop two dry logs into the flames and sit cross-legged, naked to the heat of the fire and the heat of the coat. I listen to the scuff of mice in the attics above me, the creak and settle of long rows of rooms beneath me, the cry of rooks beyond the frost-bound windows.

I never wear Rob’s coat out of the house. I put on my thick navy-blue wool skirt with red braiding, and my black squirrel jacket. A big red sun hangs above the trees, catching in their spiky branches. I walk up the rhododendron path and through the Spanish chestnut grove. I climb over the gate into First Field. It should have been ploughed by now so that the frosts can break up the big clods of earth into sweet-smelling, crumbled spring soil. There is an awkward turn here by the hedge and the plough always swings out in a curve and spoils the clean line of furrows flowing up to the horizon. In a frost like this I could have walked on the wave-like crests of the furrow without crumbling them. The earth is iron hard, the frost a week deep. But no one has ploughed. The Semple boys are gone. Next year it will all come right, old Semple told me, spitting out of the side of his mouth as he’s done since he’d had his stroke. He will plough the field himself, he said, rather than see the land go to waste. But I know he never will.

The field is lumpy with half-remembered patterns of cultivation. It is fine soil, well-drained and rich. This is where we stood to shoot the pigeons that took the grain. They came out of the woods, never seeing us or remembering the deaths of a previous season. We must have shot hundreds over the years. Rank heaps of weeds blacken in the frost. The rabbits are bold enough to take the gun from your hand now, said old Semple. It will take years to root up the corn-cockle and poppies. We don’t need to call him old Semple any more, I think suddenly. There are no young Semples any more. George went first, then Michael, then Theodore. The Semple boys never had their names shortened, even when they were children in big boots kicking up the dust on their way through the lanes to school. They did not go to church with the other families in the village: they walked three miles across the fields to a tiny chapel where the same six families met week after week to share their passion for the Lord.

I think of the spittle running down the side of old Semple’s mouth and hanging in his rough beard. The beard is greyer than the hair on his head. It is a dirty ash grey, and bobbles of spittle tremble in it with the trembling of old Semple’s body. He has always been clean-shaven, but he will not let his wife shave him now.

This was where Rob shot the hare. It was bad luck to shoot a hare, they said in the kitchens even as they took it from us and exclaimed over its size and the fine roast it would make. He didn’t kill her cleanly. She came like running water over the rise in the field, her ears flat to her body, her big legs bounding in great sure leaps. We had only been after rabbits. Rob swung up his gun and shot her. We ran to where she was lying, big ripples running through her flesh as she felt the wound. She was hit in the back legs and there were white bits of bone bubbling in the dark mess of blood. She didn’t seem to know where she’d been shot and her body quivered all over as she struggled to make her legs run. Her lips were drawn back over her teeth.

`I’ll shoot her again,’ said Rob.

`Don’t, she’ll come to pieces,’ I said. `Hit her on the back of the neck like a rabbit.’

I took Rob’s gun and he got the hare by her ears and swung Grandfather’s blackthorn stick. She gave a buck in his hands then she was still and her eyes began to film at once, though blood dripped steadily out from the hole in her thigh.

`You’ve got all blood on Grandfather’s stick,’ I said. I thought of the hare’s form we’d come upon once, when it was still warm. I’d put my hand in it and felt it.

`She wouldn’t have young at this season,’ said Rob, as if he was arguing with someone. I thought of leverets lying still as death, waiting for their mother to come home. He bent down and pulled up a tuft of grass, then wiped the stick carefully with it until there was no trace of blood left.

`No,’ I said, my mind full of the blind, skinny leverets, `she won’t have any young. It’s the wrong time.’

`Do you want to carry her, Cathy?’

I knew that the hare sickened him. She was a bagful of blood, dripping, not the beautiful thing she had been. `All right. Give it to me.’ I took the hare by her front paws. She was heavy, and warm. Much heavier than I would have thought, from the way she leapt down the field. My arm ached as we walked back to the house, and the hare banged against my legs. She would be staining my coat, but I didn’t look down to see. It was black, and the blood wouldn’t show. Rob carried my gun as well as his own. Two of the Semple boys were working in the woods with their father. Theodore and Michael. They were planting young beech where Grandfather had had to take down an oak that was rotten to the heart. It might have been there a thousand years or more, Rob said. When it came down we’d count the rings, we said, but we never did, and it was soon sawn up and carted away for firewood. The Semple boys were twelve or thirteen then, a couple of years older than Rob. A short while ago they’d been children like us, but now they wore working clothes, like men. They stopped digging to look at the hare.

`Give it to Mrs Blazer, she’ll hang it and roast you a fine saddle of hare for Sunday,’ said old Semple. Theodore looked intently at it, as if he were imagining what it would taste like. We often gave them rabbits, but hare was richer, different, darker meat.

I thought of it hanging in the pantry, with blood coagulating in a white china dish under it. It was always cold in there, because the pantry faced north and there were big, chill marble slabs on which meat rested. Wire mesh covered a small window which looked out to a bank of earth. There was always a faint, iron smell of blood. You had to know how long to hang each creature. So long for a piece of venison, so long for a pheasant or a hare. Grandfather knew everything about hanging animals. But you didn’t call them animals once they were shot, you called them game. Like you called people corpses.

I walk up the frozen field. I cannot damage the earth, or anything that is in it. The rooks circle low, flapping their big wings emptily. Cold stings my cheeks and I walk faster, tucking my hands under my elbows to keep them warm in the squirrel fur. I should have brought my fur gloves, too. At the top of the field I stop and look back at the house, where one thin plume of smoke goes straight up into the sky. It is my fire. All the other chimneys are cold. Later Elsie Shell will come up from the village and light the kerosene stove in the back kitchen and cook my dinner. She will bring butter and eggs in her basket, and a new loaf. I told her I didn’t want fancy food. I am used to plain. When Elsie has gone I will tear off the crust of the loaf and spread it with sweet yellow butter and eat it walking from room to room, with Rob’s coat round my shoulders. Elsie shudders exaggeratedly as she goes away in the early December dusk.

`I shouldn’t care to be on my own in this great place all night, the way you are,’ she said to me yesterday, planking down my mutton cutlet and gravy with her big raw hands. She wants to come and live here again, with Annie and Mrs Blazer and the others, the way it used to be. But I won’t let her. It is never going to be the way it was. I tell her she ought to think of getting a job in the new drapery at Over Loxton. There is money there. They are setting up the shop in a big way, hoping to catch trade from half the county. Elsie could sit in a black dress behind the counter, waiting for the little cylinders of change to whizz back along the wire. But would they want Elsie with her kitchen hands and easy way of talking? And Elsie likes coming here.

`I know the ways of that range like nobody else,’ she says, looking at it as if she sees it pulsing with heat again, the blacklead on it glistening like tongues in hellfire.

`It doesn’t worry me, Elsie,’ I say. `I like the kerosene stove. And I like being alone.’

I am going back into the silence my grandfather came from. You have to keep on with a house, day after day, I think. Heating, cleaning, opening and closing windows, making sounds to fill the silence, cooking and washing up, laundering and polishing. As soon as you stop there may as well never have been any life at all. A house dies as quickly as a body. Soon the house will be as it was when my grandfather first came here with my mother still a baby. He had imagined the way it would be, with lights burning, and fires, and people moving to and fro, and births in the bedrooms. Everything had stopped when he stopped being able to imagine it any more. I should have asked him more questions when he was alive. If I shut my eyes I see him now, with my mother in his arms, wrapped in a long coat and tramping round the house he was going to buy, the future he was going to buy, the life he was going to buy.

`The man from nowhere.’

`Convenient place, nowhere.’

I ought to have made sure I knew more. He’d had a past, a geography of silence. None of us had ever mapped it.

My feet are beginning to hurt with the cold that strikes up through the soles of my boots. It is not a day for standing still. In summer you can’t see the house from here, only a thick waving frame of green. But now through the black limbs of the trees I see the country of its tiles, where we sat and baked in the valleys on simmering hot summer days, where we hauled ourselves up through skylights, kicking wildly, where we clung to chimney stacks as we felt for the next foothold. I see long rows of blank, staring windows. I am too far away to see the paint curling on the window frames, the marks of damp and rot. When Grandfather was alive the struggle to keep out water and wind went on and on. There was never enough money for the army of workmen that was needed. One of the Semple boys would be taken out of the fields to slosh paint on to window frames, or scaffolding would be cobbled together and a man sent up on to the roof to pour liquid tar on to the worst leaks in the valleys. Grandfather would go round the house with Rob, showing him where a patch of brickwork was crumbling, or the streak of a hairline crack was beginning to race and widen. All these things were like symptoms of a disease that could never be put right, only kept at bay for a year or two.

Grandfather never took my arm and pointed it up towards a missing tile, though I knew as much about the house as Rob did. More. I watched it, and he never did. I knew where its walls trapped sunlight and fed it back to you when you leaned against them after dusk. I knew where the pears ripened first against the kitchen-garden wall, and how to reach inside the apricot net, twist out a rose-freckled apricot and cover up the gap with leaves. I knew the long white rows of attics where Kate and Eileen slept, reflected in their spotted looking-glass. I knew the yeasty smell of the cellars where beer was brewed for the house. I put my finger into the head and sniffed hops and malt and once I turned the spigot and drank thin new beer out of my hands until the cellar walls spun round me. I slept all afternoon under the mulberry tree, and when Rob came to find me my dress was splattered with black mulberry juice. I knew the icy gush of pump water on a blazing July afternoon when Rob and I took turns to work the handle and let the water pulse out over our arms. It was my house, too. I had the smell of it in my clothes and on my skin.

The sky is not going to clear. Mist rises off the ground and mixes with the thickening grains of cold in the air. The sun is fading. Perhaps it is going to snow.

It is winter, my season. Rob’s was summer. He was born in June, and I was born in the middle of the night, on the 21st of December. My winter excitement quickened each year with the approach of darkness. I wanted the thermometer to drop lower and lower until not even a trace of mercury showed against the figures. I wanted us to wake to a kingdom of ice where our breath would turn to icicles as it left our lips, and we would walk through tunnels of snow to the outhouses and find birds fallen dead from the air. I willed the snow to lie for ever, and I turned over and buried my head under the pillow so as not to hear the chuckle and drip of thaw.

I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.

Copyright ” 1995 by Helen Dunmore. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide

About the Book

Disturbing love and underlying horror govern the hermetic world of this Gothic novel set in early twentieth-century England. Catherine and Rob Allen, siblings two years apart, grow up in a world of shameful secrets. Their mother abandons them when they are young, and their father dies after being institutionalized. The children live with their grandfather in a crumbling country estate accompanied by their dependable maid, Kate, and a malicious tutor, Miss Gallagher. Together they forge a passionate refuge for themselves while the world outside moves to the brink of war.

Against this backdrop, cruelty and eroticism lurk beneath every surface. Kate and Rob finally leave for Canada and then the war comes, taking most of the neighboring men with it, so that Cathy is left with her ailing grandfather on the farm. It’s only when the war ends, and she is alone that she is ready to break away and be redeemed by love.

Helen Dunmore’s most celebrated work, which captured Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize, is a compelling tale of innocence corrupted by secrecy, and the grace of second chances.

Questions for Discussion

1. A Spell of Winter is considered a literary Gothic novel. When it began in the late-eighteenth century, Gothicism emphasized experiences connected with subterranean dungeons, secret passageways, bloody hands, ghosts, graveyards, etc. What motifs does the author use to create this atmosphere? Which eerie features are grounded in reality? Which ones are mysterious?

2. The author begins the novel with a flashback of Kate delivering a scary story by the fire to Rob and Cathy (pp. 1-5). What is Cathy’s reaction? Discuss the concept of a narrative being pleasurably terrifying. Why do you think people enjoy being scared by stories?

3. Comparing herself to the beautiful Livvy, a dowdier Cathy thinks: “I was too like my mother. My face made people think of the things men and women did together in the dark” (p. 66). What does she mean? What kind of face forces people into shame? Contrast this with the shame that Miss Gallagher attempts to stir up in people.

4. Throughout the text, the reader encounters graphic descriptions of smells-numerous flowers, perspiring bodies, dry rot, lemons, the fresh sweat of a horse, and so on. What literary purpose do these all these olfactory references serve? When telling Cathy a story about their father, Rob says: “I remember…because when I came in you were sitting by the fire and room smelled of rosemary” (p. 111). Clearly, smells assist (and can trigger) memory. What else boosts memory in this story and why is it so important?

5. Both servants fiercely guard the mysteries of the family heritage from Rob and Cathy. This inverts common behavior, resulting in outsiders who are better informed about the family than the family itself. What effect does this have on Cathy? Rob?

6. Having abandoned her family, the mother remains a topic mostly avoided by the men at the estate. But Cathy has difficulty forgetting (and forgiving). After Cathy’s abortion, she recalls a poem about a women’s stillbirth: “A mother, a mother was born” (p. 196). What does this mean to Cathy? How does the abortion affect Cathy’s bond with her mother? Contrast this with Cathy’s feelings toward her father.

7. When closely observing the paintings of Richard Tandy, Cathy notices that “the sky was so pale, it dazzled, and behind the wood there was a heap of hills, purple as damsons’ (p. 86). Intrigued by the style, she suggests it represents a different ‘reality” and a different “language.” Why did Mr. Bullivant want Cathy to see these works? In what kind of reality does Cathy exist?

8. The author makes great use of closed spaces: the ‘snow-house” where the first incestuous union occurs (p. 99); the little “cottage” where the abortion takes place (p. 185); the tiny “clearing” where Miss Gallagher dies (p. 203). What relation do these physical landscapes have to the country estate? How do they correspond to the emotional landscape of the characters? Can you think of other enclosed spaces to which the author might be alluding?

9. “Blood seeped rustily out of me…. I thought I would never stop bleeding” (189). These are the words of Cathy after her abortion. Blood is mentioned numerous times in the text. Give more examples. Why did the author choose blood as a definitive symbol?

10. The novel takes place at the turn-of-the-century, when modernization is beginning to sweep across Europe. Confronted with new comforts like indoor heating at Ash Court, Cathy thinks: “I wondered if I would miss our alternations of roasting and shivering, which were as natural to us as the squeeze and swell of our hearts’ (p. 80). How does this call into question the very idea of what is “natural”? Consider how modernization has changed, and sanitized, our subjection to bodily functions. Do you think this displacement makes it difficult for characters in a modern setting to have the same Gothic sensibilities as those of characters in A Spell of Winter?

11. Chapter 18 begins with Kate packing to leave, simply saying: “It’s never been my home” (p.223). Do you agree with this? Ownership of the estate, in strictly metaphorical terms, figures prominently throughout the text. How does Cathy feel about the home? What about Grandfather? Rob? Miss Gallagher? How do the characters’ feelings toward the house influence their eventual outcomes?

12. Mr. Bullivant offers Cathy glimpses of a larger world, and Kate urges her to leave the estate, but she cannot bring herself to act in response. She even states that she’s “not sure about anything” except staying at the house (p. 253). Why is Cathy so attached to a house with bad memories? What does this suggest about her psychological complexity?

13. When Rob breaks his leg, Cathy firmly confronts her grandfather: “I saw what he saw: my set, sullen face, my big hands. I was capable and I knew I was. I could inflict my will on him” (p. 164). Much is made of Cathy’s physical attributes in this passage. Does her stature affect her personality? Discuss the role her physicality plays later in life, when only she and her grandfather are left on the farm. What’s the significance of Grandfather shouting they should “CHERISH…one another”? (p. 265)

14. Scenes of madness are prominent plot devices in this novel. From the helpless father to the domineering governess, or even the exuberant Mr. Bullivant, the reader encounters off-kilter behavior. Give examples of when Cathy’s sanity could be called into question. Which characters are the most stable? Which character is accused of madness without the reader experiencing it firsthand?

15. When Rob returns from Canada, Cathy no longer lusts after him–”I no longer wanted what he wanted” (p. 276)-and in France, before meeting her mother, she experiences genuine happiness-“It makes me want to laugh. And as if he senses it, he gives me a smile…(p. 300). Discuss what prominent changes had to occur before Cathy could establish this outlook.

16. Everyone, including Cathy, compares herself to her mother. By the story’s end, do you think this comparison is warranted? Why or why not?

17. There are a number of mothers and mother figures in A Spell of Winter. Cathy has three ‘mothers’–Kate, who is affectionate, dependable, but in the end more centered on her own life than on the lives of the children; Miss Gallagher, who is a fairytale “bad mother,” possessive, dangerous and yet pathetic; and finally Cathy’s real mother, Cynthia, who is absent and mysterious and does no mothering at all as far as we can see, and yet is both idealized and mourned by her daughter. What do you think the author is suggesting about our notions of mothering and motherhood? What steps seem to be necessary in order to launch a successful mother and child relationship?

Suggested Further Reading

Unless by Carol Shields; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein; Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys; Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier; Northanger Abbey by Jane Austin; The Turn of the Screw by Henry James; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin

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