As regular readers will know, I came across When Nights Were Cold on the Fiction Uncovered website as part of their selection of best British novels for 2012. The blurb looked appealing and I was delighted when a copy of the book was sent to me by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan. I started it immediately. Fiction Uncovered provided the following synopsis:
As Queen Victoria’s reign reaches its end, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. But when Grace secretly applies to Candlin, a women’s college filled with intelligent, like-minded women, she finally feels her ambitions beginning to be take shape. There she forms an Antarctic Exploration Society with the gregarious suffragette Locke, the reserved and studious Hooper and the strange, enigmatic Parr, and before long the group are defying their times and their families by climbing the peaks of Snowdonia and planning an ambitious trip to the perilous Alps.
Fifteen years later, trapped in her Dulwich home, Grace is haunted by the terrible events that took place out on the mountains. She is the society’s only survivor and for years people have demanded the truth of what happened, the group’s horrible legacy a millstone around her neck. Now, as the eve of the Second World War approaches, Grace is finally ready to remember and to confess…
I like a bit of mystery and enjoy a thriller, but I also like well-written period fiction; AND I had recently visited the exhibition at the Natural History Museum about Captain Scott’s mission to reach the South Pole. It’s on until 2nd September and I really recommend it to anyone with even the vaguest interest in exploration, science, the Antarctic, people, life… it covers everything and is really, really, brilliant. It is a varied display of artefacts and documents, as well as video footage and audio recordings. Scott’s story is moving and fascinating, and he and his men were ridiculously brave and determined, and I admire them a lot. So, having visited this exhibition and been thoroughly moved, amazed and intrigued, the element of adventure in this novel was very appealing.
There is also the fact that this adventure is planned and undertaken by women in the early 20th century, a time when women had no power and those who did climb mountains did so in their skirts. Seriously. Grace Farringdon, our narrator, lives with her parents and sister in London. Her father is loud and domineering, and her mother lets him do whatever he wants, so he has final say; and he says the girls should stay at home, literally, for the rest of their lives. Both parents are convinced that the piano contains some sort of rebellion demon and forbid Grace’s sister Catherine from going to music school even though she is clearly a talented musician. They let her play the piano, sometimes, but only music they have approved; and when she seems unhappy they blame the music. They do not even consider that their stifling of her freedom and her dream could have anything to do with her unhappiness; they cannot imagine why she would not be happy to stay at home with them until she marries, and then stay at home in her husband’s house. She is a young woman: why on earth would she want her own life?
While Catherine bows to the wishes of her parents, Grace is determined to get out of the house. Despite his old-fashioned point of view, their father tells Grace all about famous explorers and the goal of reaching the South Pole. She learns all their names and histories, all the failed missions and all the equipment used. Her imagination is aroused and she starts to wish she could become an explorer, that she could go on dangerous missions and discover something new. Her father is surprised that she has any ambition of her own; I think perhaps he intended the stories as mere entertainment and if anything expected them to frighten his younger daughter into staying at home, away from frozen wastelands and life lived in tents. Instead, she is inspired to find adventure. Against the wishes of her stuffy father, deluded mother and now completely oppressed and silent sister, Grace goes off to university. Already I admire her. She goes to study physics, a rather un-feminine subject, at Candlin College in Berkshire. It is a ladies’ college and, after reading the description of Grace’s halls, I realised, much to my excitement, it was based on Royal Holloway, University of London, which started life in the 19th century as a ladies’ college; and the halls in which Grace lives are the halls in which I lived in my first year there, in the Founders Building. I discovered, via the magic of Google, that author Susanna Jones also attended Royal Holloway, and lived in Founders, and now lectures there on Creative Writing. Suffice to say I was very excited by this (my tweets can vouch for this) and it made me want to read the book even more, and, though I know it is biased, made me like Jones more as well.
Grace’s time at Candlin changes her life. Not only is she exposed to education and independence (of a degree – compared to her life at home), she also makes some interesting new friends. Leonora Locke lives on the same corridor as Grace and they make friends upon arrival, complete with Grace’s mother being shocked and amazed by Leonora’s mother, a suffragette and an actress. Grace also meets Cicely Parr, a tall, stern girl with little charm but great intelligence and bravery. There is also Winifred Hooper, a timid girl desperate to graduate and marry her fiance Teddy. The four make an unlikely group, and end up as members of Grace’s Antarctic Exploration Society. Initially the Society meets to discuss the missions of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen, but soon a desire to climb mountains themselves develops. They take to calling each other by their surnames, as men would, and soon plan a trip to Wales to climb Snowdonia. After this, the Alps.
Desire and ambition are big themes here. Parr is an experienced climber and is constantly pushing the other girls to their limits; she and Locke never get on, and Grace is caught between them, with Hooper beside her, missing Teddy. The group is never short of friction and Grace is not the only one who doubts whether their planned climbs are a good idea; but no one backs out, and in the summer they head to the Alps. The relationships between the four girls are a huge part of the story. Grace brought them together and each of them seems to be better friends with her than with the others. She is the ‘normal’ one, the one that holds them together. This responsibility is never easy, and she worries about their friendships a lot. Narrating from the family house in London several years later, her memories have inevitably become a little distorted by time, but the reader has no way of telling how much. Alone in the house with lodgers whom she only acknowledges via creaking stairs and the taps in the kitchen, Grace is alone and looking back on her life. We learn it has been fifteen years ‘since’, but we do not know what happened – only that the other girls are dead, and Catherine, finally, has moved away and married. Grace, once the instigator and core friend, is now left alone and it is shy, repressed, unhappy Catherine who has flown the nest, while she is left at home to sit by the fire.
There are obviously secrets that Grace will later share with her reader, and the mystery of the girls’ deaths, of Catherine’s departure and Grace’s current state of mind – paranoid, reclusive – keep the reader engaged and interested. Jones brilliantly creates a sense of loneliness and bitterness in Grace, and a great sadness too. She is somewhat resigned to her fate, but she is in no way contented. She is surrounded by memories of her parents, and Catherine at the piano, and climbing mountains with Locke, Parr and Hooper. We learn that there has been some sort of press hoopla surrounding her in the last few years, and this is part of what has scared her into staying at home, something she never thought she’d do.
During Grace’s time at Candlin and with her Society, there is some discussion of the suffragette movement – Locke is a suffragette just like her mother, but Parr believes women do not need the vote. Though she climbs mountains and is otherwise brave and independent, she believes that women have nothing to do with politics and do not understand them, and so there is no point in giving women the vote. Locke, on the other hand, is a romantic playwright and believes in an idyllic equality that the vote will help to achieve. Grace and Hooper and stuck somewhere in the middle of this argument, just hoping that everyone will stop arguing and that things will get easier. The First World War comes and goes, and Grace helps Catherine and her mother make supplies for the troops, and keep the house in order. Back home after university, after the Alps, Grace is again trapped, and soon arranges, after the war, to go climbing again with Parr. Their friendship exists only as graduates of Candlin and the shared experience of climbing, and Grace doubts whether she should go. In fact, Grace doubts a lot of things in this book. She never seems quite sure of herself or those around her, or what she should do next. Sometimes she makes decisions for herself – the bravest being the choice to leave home and study – and sometimes she goes along with the wishes of others.
Grace is an unreliable narrator, time and emotions having affected her memories; but she does not forget how it felt to escape her family and move to Candlin; what it felt like to breathe the cold air of a mountain; how alive she felt at the summit. Feminism is a theme here, but to me it seems that the reality of life’s hard choices is the crucial theme running through When Nights Were Cold. Grace is a brave woman who ends up scarred by her choices, and only time and distance can teach her certain things. Jones has created a vivid character in a vivid world, one I admire and find fascinating. With this novel and with comparisons to Sarah Waters, Jones is a writer I will surely read more of and I am glad I came across this fantastic novel.
Published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, in January 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.