The Secret Life of Winnie Cox – By Sharon Maas – Book Review by Frank Birbalsingh

Winnie Cox – Review by Frank Birbalsingh

Sharon Maas, The Secret Life of Winnie Cox, Ickenham, UK, Bookouture, 2015, pp.413. ISBN: 978 – 1 -910751 – 51 – 0

Sharon MaasThe Secret Life of Winnie Cox is a prequel to Sharon Maas’s fifth novel The Small Fortune of Dorothea Quint (2015) in which Dorothea appears as an eccentric grandmother playing a pivotal role in action that not only lasts from the 1930s to the 1990s, but jumps back and forth between London/ England and Georgetown/Guyana.

By contrast, events in Winnie Cox are anchored mostly on one fictional sugar plantation Promised Land, in Berbice, Guyana, during the decade or more immediately preceding   World War One. In her “Letter from Sharon”, at the end of WInnie Cox, the author also announces her novel as “the first of a trilogy” that will continue Winnie’s story. 

Winnie Cox offers the most complete description, available in fiction, of both domestic, family life and politics on a Guyanese plantation, although we should not forget the author’s reminder in her “Acknowledgements” that: “I also had to rely on imagination and I admit to taking poetic licence.”(p.417) While other novels such as Edgar MIttelholzer’s Children of Kaywana, (1952) about a slave rebellion against Dutch masters in 1763, or A.R.F. Webber’s Those that be in Bondage: A Tale of Indian Indentures and Sunlit Western Waters, (1917) about Plantation Never Out, offer views of Guyanese  plantations, the story told by the eponymous narrator in Winnie Cox  is more comprehensive: it begins in England with the marriage of the narrator’s Austrian mother, Johanna, to her English father, Archibald Cox, son of Lord Cox of Camberley, and follows the career of the narrator throughout early childhood and her teenage years on Plantation Promised Land .

As so called Sugar Princesses, WInnie and her sister Yoyo (Johanna) are insulated from the exploitation  and injustice suffered by plantation workers who receive low wages, and live like animals in mud floor logies. The difference between white plantation employers or staff and their coolie (Indian) workers is stark:  Winnie and her sister, from the privileged safety and comfort of their plantation house, are permitted, once,  only through a  lapse in attention from their English governess, Miss Wright, to witness their father whipping and kicking a young coolie; and the effect of such brutality on Winnie could not be more traumatic: “Something had shifted within me:  a stone curtain of naivete had rolled away; a veil of sentimentality had lifted. I had collapsed on the bed as a little girl, and stood up a woman. “(p.63) In a second incident Winnie visits the logie of Nanny, her retired coolie, nurse maid, with equally traumatic results: “And Nanny! Living out her life in such foulness! The memory of Nanny burst into my consciousness with the immediacy of a bomb blast.” (p. 84)

But as the title of Maas’s novel may suggest, the horror of plantation conditions proves to be mainly a backdrop, the external mise-en-scène for machinations of Winnie’s inner life when, still as a teenager, she falls headlong in love with an African-Guyanese postman George Quint. The outrage of a romantic relationship between a pampered Sugar Princess and a black postman on a colonial Caribbean, sugar plantation, a few years after the end of the Victorian era, is beyond belief, and prompts an enthralling display of cunning manoeuvres that test Winnie’s  wit and guile, through episodes of suspense and thrills, as she pursues George who suddenly returns to Georgetown from Plantation Promised Land where he was only temporarily stationed. Not for nothing does the novel’s title stress secrecy since what follows is a stimulating mixture of brazen adventure, and cat and mouse deception spiced with the sheer excitement and ardour of young lovers  intent on subverting efforts to frustrate them!

In a deft display of technical mastery, plantation abuse is seen as part of the general injustice of colonial rule which inspires a wider feeling  of shared resistance among Guyanese hinting at formation of a national, anti-colonial movement in Georgetown  of which George is a member. The hint becomes even stronger when we realise that George is also a close friend and ally of Bhim, an Indian political activist representing the rights of workers on Plantation Promised Land.  For Maas to deise a plot that ties these political strands together into a one anti-colonial bundle including the intimate, personal affair of Winnie and George,  itself a daring assault on the perversity of racist colonial values, is a stroke of genius. That Bhim is shot and killed by Winnie’s father, the Honorable Archibald Cox, a white expatriate plantation owner,  is the final link to the novel’s climax, potent with mixed feelings about the fate of Winnie’s father,  the future of her family, and values of justice, liberty, right and wrong.

Even if there is a touch of anachronism about the strength of the sense of Guyanese nationality that existed in the first decade of the twentieth century, or about the revolutionary doings of political activists like George Quint and Bhim who bear some resemblance to actual Guyanese political leaders from the 1940s and 50s, Dr. Cheddi  Jagan and Forbes Burnham, WInnie Cox  undoubtedly captures an atmosphere of incipient nationalism in twentieth century Guyana, before full independence was achieved in 1966.

In her planned trilogy of novels beginning with Winnie Cox, Sharon Maas will have achieved a fictionalised version of twentieth century Guyanese politics similar to Edgar Mittelholzer whose three Kaywana novels, survey Guyanese politics from slavery/serfdom in the 17th century to internal self-government in the 1950s. But Mittelholzer’s Kaywana  novels are long on politics and short on romantic relationships, just as Jane Austen’s fiction is long on romance and short on political/military affairs, at a time when England was locked in a life and death for survival in the Napoleonic wars. If it does nothing else, Winnie Cox is supremely successful in blending the turbulence of political revolution with the emotional torture of romance  both between Winnie and George, and  Archibald Cox and his wife Johanna.

Also read:

New Book: The Secret Life of Winnie Cox: Slavery, forbidden love and tragedy – by Sharon Maas

The Secret Life of Winnie Cox: Slavery, forbidden love and tragedy – spellbinding historical fiction Kindle Edition by Sharon Maas (Author) 1910, South America. A time of racial tension and poverty. A time where forbidden love must remain a secret. Winnie Cox lives a privileged life of dances and dresses on her father’s sugar cane […]

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  • De castro  On December 2, 2015 at 3:30 am

    Certainly a must read after that “preview”…..
    My apprehension is its “fictionary” status…..would also now have to read Edgar Mittelholzer three kwayana novels also.
    Guyana certainly has “talent” literately and literally.
    Nostalgic….memories oh memories……of beautiful BG aka guyana land of many rivers.


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