Patrick Gale’s first historical novel is inspired by a non-story, a gap in his own family record. His great-grandfather Harry Cane spent the first part of his life as a gentleman of leisure among the Edwardian comforts of Twickenham. What then suddenly prompted him to abandon his wife and small daughter and emigrate to the Canadian wilderness? The official line was that he had money troubles, yet he doesn’t seem to have been short of cash in Canada. As far as we know, Harry Cane’s motives went with him to the grave. In this re-imagining of his life, however — partly because homosexual love is a theme throughout Patrick Gale’s work — it feels entirely convincing that his secret should be ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.
Sarah Waters has given us the gay historical novel as gothic drama. Patrick Gale’s approach is both less melodramatic and more optimistic. His highly successful contemporary novels portray both gay and straight characters with the same vivid, clear-sighted but basically hopeful approach; there often seems to be a subtly didactic element in his characters’ successful relationships. Now, turning his attention to the Edwardian era, Gale doesn’t hold back from depicting its intolerance — but, typically for this unusually kind author, it’s a version of history that still holds out hope for happiness.
Harry’s childhood and first marriage, upholstered in the furbelows of Edwardian life — palms in the conservatory and boating on the Thames, with a salacious underpinning of chorus girls and scandal — are stiff with the chilly falsities of the period. The overwhelming impression of the gentle, stammering young protagonist is of a character so scarred by a loveless childhood that he is at first incapable of emotion. A blankness has taken the place of his heart, a vacant space through which mild sensations of regret or concern occasionally swim. His first affair does little to heal him. Its discovery, however, instantly demolishes the façade of his family life.
When Harry arrives in the snowy plains of west Canada, they seem the perfect embodiment of his barren state of mind. As the seasons pass, however, he immerses himself in the reality of a farmer’s life and gains in physical and emotional strength. His first authentic emotion, alone one cold night and gazing at the ‘seamless, spangled fishnet of stars stretching from horizon to horizon’, is a wave of shame and self-disgust so shattering that ‘he felt himself to be nothing, to be less than dirt’.
Along the new railway, settlements are named alphabetically, so Winter, after Vera and before Yonker, is near the end of the line. There are other ghastly ordeals to be borne out in the wilds, but Winter’s remoteness also allows for a certain freedom from convention. Here, at last, the pariah Harry Cane — cast off by his beloved brother, a stranger to his little daughter — can find fulfilment and acceptance.
Gale offers a short bibliography at the end of the novel for further reading, which suggests that he has come across evidence that these early settlements of pioneer farmers ‘batching it’ — living as bachelors — were more open-minded than history relates. How common this was is no doubt hard to say. But I am touched by the thought of Gale setting the full force of his novelist’s imagination to work on a happy ending for his great-grandfather. Like the gymnast who visualises his routine before making it a reality, Gale employs his gift as a writer to will such pockets of tolerance retrospectively into existence — for the sake of his relative, as well, perhaps, as for all of us. Humanity does not look quite so wretched through Patrick Gale’s eyes.