24 January 2015

Context is everything

The other day when I was snuggled up in bed reading while the rain pattered on the roof, I came across a line that made me laugh with delight. So much so, I Tweeted the line and posted it on Facebook.
Far-off on the hill a sheep coughed.
After I posted it on Facebook and said that it was the best line ever, my friend Barry--in fact the same friend who I mentioned in my last post--wrote: "Are you being sarcastic? It sounds to me like a line written by a 10-year old who has hopes of becoming a novelist."

When I saw this response I was a bit taken aback. Barry was right, but the author who wrote the line is one I revere and the book I was reading was one that I really liked. Although the line struck me as funny when I first read it, it didn't strike me as bad writing. But out of context I can't blame my friend.

In context I think the line works, and while still funny, doesn't seem like bad writing. In fact, it reminds me of when John and stayed in a farmhouse in the Cotswolds and we enjoyed listening to the sheep bleating on the distant hillsides each evening. I don't remember any of them coughing, but that's not to say they didn't. Here is the full context, the scene is a large, remote country house in Ireland in the early 1950s.
Sally came up from the dark kitchen stairs into the house, empty, still, and flooded with sunlight. Charles and Violet had gone out of course; Violet would be in the walled garden examining the ruins of the roses with Cammaert [the gardener]. With something like relief, with a tremor of fear, Sally thought, I'm all alone here. She stood on the threshold of the library as if waiting for some decision which would take her inside, to her grandfather's desk. Far-off on the hill a sheep coughed.
What do you think? Bad writing? Okay, but not great? Middle brow? 1950s chick lit? Does it matter? The writer is my beloved May Sarton and the novel is A Shower of Summer Days. Her work pleases me so much and this novel ranks in the upper middle range of all the novels of hers that I have read.

But what about the book?

Violet and Charles, a 50-something couple returns to the wife's ancestral home in Ireland after Charles is pushed out of his industrialist position in Burma. Soon after they return Violet's estranged sister who lives in America sends Sally, her college-age daughter, over to stay with them in the hopes she forgets about her actor boyfriend.

I can't say too much more without giving too much away. I will say that I think that there is a gay subtext that comes really close to pushing through in a few places that would make the novel make more sense than the more abstract issues Sarton focuses on. The subtext is independent of the quasi-Lesbianic idol worship that Sally has for Violet. Or is it? I don't really know. But I do think if Sarton had felt more comfortable being open about the subtext the story might have made more sense. Without doing so meant that much of the book's climax and resolution was based on some fairly opaque conclusions that I am not sure someone as literal-minded as I am can be happy with. This would seem like a fairly big flaw, but I still enjoyed the book quite a bit.


  1. I can say with authority that sheep DO cough. The story sounds cosy, the writing doesn't necessarily blow me away but...as you say, does it matter? Although it's important to get a little critical for reviewing purposes, it's an unnecessary game to criticise someone's little joyous reading moments. Coughing sheep or no :)

  2. If you like it, that's all that matters.

  3. Love the close up photo of the sheep. Are they the Cotswolds ones? :)

  4. I like the line and I'm not sure a ten year old would think of putting in an observation like that.. Sound.s like an interesting book. I've never read May Sarton and probably should.

  5. I used to keep sheep and I can tell you that sheep definitely cough! And like human beings, some do it quietly and genteely, and some (most!) just let 'er rip. So on a quiet afternoon in the country you could most certainly hear a sheep cough. And I think May Sarton is a very good writer.

  6. The trick with that line (which is not badly written) and why it worked was timing, I expect. I've come across many such seemingly simple sentences in my reading that land just right to make me laugh out loud. I can't explain it to someone, because they would pretty much have to read the whole book to feel the impact of the comic timing. It's especially great when it appears in a book that is not generally comic. For instance, Elizabeth Bowen's To the North would probably best be classified as a melodrama, but there were several scenes or lines that were just incredibly and intentionally funny.

  7. I've just requested A Magnificient Spinster by May Sarton s I am intrigued by this author after reading your post. I hope Netgalley gives me this book!

  8. I like the combination of pastoral and mundane the coughing sheep suggests, taken on it's own it's funny - I'd love to read a short story that started that way now (imagining something along the lines of 'on a dark and stormy night' which is probably how the sheep caught cold) it certainly wouldn't put me off the book

  9. Sounds like a P.G. Wodehouse line.

  10. I like the line, it is funny. Virginia Woolf wrote something similar in Between the Acts, only this time it was cows;

    Then there was silence; and a cow coughed; and that led her to say how odd it was, as a child, she had never feared cows, only horses.


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