I love a chilly tale and when better to read one than during a subzero snowdrift weekend? When Nights Were Cold makes for perfect reading as the snow falls but it’s not long before the reader finds that not all of the frost is safely outside. Reading this, some of the cold finds its way in to you as you curl up in your comfiest chair.
Susanna Jones takes us back to Dulwich in London during the earliest years of the 20th century, in which we find the home of the middle class Farringdon family. The father, once a sailor, is crippled by a horrifying sea escape that left him frostbitten and haunted by the men who drowned around him. The mother’s life, by contrast, has always been confined by domestic walls. Neither parent wants their two daughters to escape dull safety even though both girls have enormous potential – Catherine as a concert pianist and Grace, the younger, as a well-educated and independent adventurer. It’s through Grace’s eyes that we witness the tragedy of Catherine’s lost hopes and her resigned acceptance of such a terrible fate, caring for two parents who can’t loosen their grip. Grace watches as Frank, Catherine’s hopeful suitor, walks away and listens as Catherine begins to lose her musical talent. Fired up, Grace is determined to fly free, inspired by fantasies of following in the footsteps of Shackleton and Scott.
At a ladies’ college, Grace sets up a ladies’ mountaineering club with three other young women: Hooper, Parr and Locke. They escape convention – where a young woman can’t even talk to a man alone in public without stares and gossip – by climbing in Wales and the Lake District. Led on by the more experienced Parr, who has her own stories to tell, the group decides to tackle the peaks of Switzerland. But this is a dangerous place and amid the snow and the bitterly cold nights something devastating happens.
Grace is a fascinating and intriguing narrator. She is likeable, earnest and determined – all admirable qualities in these days of corsets and chaperones. But the first world war lies just around the corner, when rigid definitions of gender roles were challenged by more practical needs, and we begin to see that Grace Farringdon may not be as reliable a witness as we might have thought.
There are moments reading When Nights Were Cold when I wanted to read back through the pages; a double take. Contributing to this sense of having unsteady ground beneath the feet is the motion of the narrative, rolling forwards and backwards in time, referring to figures as yet unintroduced. The atmosphere is thick, cold and unsteady, like rough seas or mountain peaks. This is a very hard book to put down. Grace is a difficult person to abandon.
The horror of what Grace and her friends face on the mountains is almost matched by the cold harshness of life in Dulwich. There is a real sense in When Nights Were Cold of the confinement that women of this class in particular had to face. The male characters such as Frank have far more weapons at their beck and call and women, including Grace, have to suffer the consequences. Always, reading this, we are reminded of how far men can go, men such as Shackleton, Grace’s hero, in contrast to women. This constraint and control is almost enough to drive some women mad.