Wednesday 15 June 2022

Review: Winchelsea by Alex Preston

 I was excited to read Winchelsea, as the town has a fascinating history and I found the synopsis of a smuggling story very appealing and had read some very positive reviews. The first thing that struck me about the book is the cover. It’s very pretty but the pinks and purples, the gold-embossed title and the swirly font (especially the ‘W’) make it look like a Wonka Bar.

The book takes the form of a series of texts that have been compiled by Goody, the principal narrator of the book and presented as one piece. The first is a letter from her to the reader, the second a prologue narrated by no-one in particular, the main bulk comes from Goody telling her story to someone else who’s writing it down, the fourth a recount by another character, the fifth a recount by a different character and the last a final word to the reader by Goody. In some ways this reflects the found/curated textual frame used in books like Henry Mackenzie’s ‘The Man of Feeling’ but it all comes out as a bit of a mess.

The letter from Goody at the beginning says that her true narrative, through the different lenses of the text has turned into something of a novel. I found this destabilising to the text immediately as she talks about ‘the novel’ with the certainties of a modern writer, where the term was still a disputed and nebulous term in 1779 when she is writing. She also makes the point that most of the narrative was told by her to a man and so warns the reader that the book may sound like a man writing as a woman more than the real lived experience of a woman. This caveat seems to have no meaning or purpose within the world of the book but instead refers to the fact the (twenty-first century) novel is in fact written by a man and making excuses for the fact it sounds like a man writing a woman. This is still further complicated by the fact that Goody does in fact live as a man for a large section of the book which sort of makes her a pseudo-male narrator anyway.

This gets to the the heart of the book’s central problem, despite being set in, and (in the world of the book) written in, the eighteenth century, its assumptions, concerns and techniques are so rooted in the twenty-first that it scrunches itself up into a little ball. Eighteenth-Century novels, especially the sentimental and gothic, did use elaborate frame-stories to tell their narrative. They did this to enhance the verisimilitude in a text before the novel was comfortable enough to rely on the background narrator of a realist novel, or to create immediacy in a time before the development of stream-of-consciousness and other techniques. Here, the use of different narrators merely emphasise the distance and artificiality of the text, not bring us close to it. 

The attempts to create an eighteenth-century atmosphere in the novel feel false and a little ‘theme-parky’. Characters, when drinking beer, only drink porter, presumably because that’s a more ‘old-fashioned’ sounding beer; they wear, doff and remove tricorns with great regularity (not the hat’s name at the time when people actually wore them), they ‘go marketing’ rather than to the market. Strange word choices are frequently used as a way of making the book seem olde-timey, a number of characters ‘festivate’ in this book, a word that seems to have been used be nobody at no-time. Most egregious is the name of the main character, Goody. The word is short for ‘Goodwife’ and was used in Puritan areas particularly as interchangeable with the word ‘Mrs’. Even the most famous Goody, Goody Two-shoes, was really called Margery.

Another element of this eighteenth-century story which is twisted into weird shapes by its twenty-first century sensibilities is the trans narrative. There are a surprising amount of stories of gender crossing in eighteenth-century fiction and reality, from the female alter-egos of Molly House attendees to the stories of female husbands and people like Charlotte Charke living as a male but when Goody does this, it’s treated from a twenty-first century perspective. Goody lives for a while as a man called William and finds themself comfortable as a non-binary person at the end of the novel. All the other characters seem aware of the notions of sex and gender being separate and of gender performativity and the notion of a gender spectrum. When one character has met Goody as William, even when he finds out that William is not a born-man, keeps using male pronouns - a polite and social thing to do nowadays but not really within the scope of an eighteenth century understanding of sex and gender where they still believed a big jump could un-invert a women’s genitals and make them male. I’m not saying that eighteenth-century people would have been necessarily cruel or barbaric towards a male-presenting person but they simply would have not conceived it the way we do, and nor would the trans person themselves.

All these peculiarities and inconsistencies could have been more easily borne if the plot and characters themselves been stronger. The plot is really ropey. It starts off with a revenge narrative, that is solved about twenty pages after it has started. There’s an even stranger part where one of the characters Goody wants revenge upon turns up and is killed again within five pages.. and narrated as an aside. Then it becomes a smuggling story but the smugglers inevitably double-cross our protagonist, then it takes a jump to being a story about the ’45 Jacobite rebellion, then a Magnificent 7, save-the-village narrative. These chunks are pretty self contained and strung loosely along, not even maintaining the same protagonist all the time. The book also leaves no cliché unused, even the classic ‘bad guy is going to shot the narrator, a gun shot sounds and it is revealed to be someone behind the bad guy, shooting them’ cliché.

The novel started off with the suggestion of, ‘what if Moonfleet was written as an adult book?’ However, its relation to Moonfleet is like the first series of Torchwood to Doctor Who, it’s ‘adult’ in a rather adolescent and immature way. I think this is why some think it’s a YA book, it simply isn’t adult, certainly not as adult as Moonfleet, which succeeds far better in its ‘book for all the family’ intention. Winchelsea has done very well, there’s a sequel on the way and I hear there are talks with Netflix but I have to admit to being very disappointed with it.

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