Recognising Robert Neill: Song of Sunrise revisited

When I reviewed Robert Neill’s sixth novel as part of my series about his fiction, I did so from the small, dense, dark paperback version in which the novel’s title, Song of Sunrise, had been replaced by the more prosaic, but fitting, The Mills of Colne.
Under either name – and the novel is always given it’s original title in lists of Neill’s books – this was the last of Neill’s works that I had not read. Owning The Mills of Colne didn’t stop me keeping an eye open for a copy of the hardback. However, Song of Sunrise appeared to be one of the most expensive of Neill’s novels to acquire. Nevertheless, fortune came my way via eBay earlier this month, with the offer of a Good condition hardback, with complete dustjacket, at a discounted price that was virtually half the asking prices I had previously seen.
Three interesting points arise from re-reading the book as Song of Sunrise.
The first is that there is absolutely nothing to explain the mystery of the splendidly poetic title. Previously, I speculated whether some dedication, or epithet, in the hardback might shed light on Neill’s choice of title but there is nothing to assist us in its interpretation. And again the text throws up no clues.
Unless further research throws up notes or drafts pertaining to this novel, it seems that the choice of title will remain a mystery.
The second point lies in the easily identifiable physical differences between hardback and paperback. Song of Sunrise‘s dustjacket bears an uplifting image, a ‘shining town’ upon a hill, under a wide sky, that suits its title, The Mills of Colne a dark, painted scene of crowds in a narrow street, at night. What’s more, the hardback includes a ‘map’ – the only one of which I am aware in Neill’s works – of Colne at the time of the story.
The map, which is printed on both endpapers, was drawn for Neill by Wilfred Spencer, the former Librarian of Colne, who also receives credit for great assistance in the research into the events covered in the period of the story. I put the word ‘map’ into inverted commas since it is more of a satellite drawing, showing streets and lanes but depicting the buildings that line them as distinguished from a street plan.
It’s an interesting addendum but I found myself rarely consulting it. Though it identifies lanes etc. by name, the ‘map’s great flaw is that it does not attempt to even suggest hills etc. The drawing gives the impression of a level plane, with all the properties at the same height, which is far from the case in Neill’s descriptions of Colne, nor in the reality.
The last point is an oddly metaphysical one. I reviewed the novel fairly critically first time, describing it as a social realism/history novel and as such, in light of Neill’s career, a somewhat drab book in comparison with those that came before and after it. Re-reading it in hardback doesn’t disqualify that analysis in any respect: the flaws I described are no different. Robert Shaw is still a curiously inert leading character, forever acting upon others’ ideas and encouragement and bringing little of his own initiative to the table. His romance with Anna England is still determinedly unromantic and almost entirely without passion.
But as I’ve described, The Mills of Colne was physically a small, dark and dense book, with close lines of print, behind a dark cover that concentrated upon the purely pragmatic aspects of the story. In contrast, Song of Sunrise is a larger format, with ordinarily spaced print, presented between covers deliberately light and open. It should make no difference to the contents, but it does. The book is more enjoyable in hardback, easier to read, lighter in tone, because the physical experience of reading it is more expansive, the emphasis more upon daylight, or perhaps sunrise.
I certainly found the book more enjoyable as a reading experience on this occasion, demonstrating the importance that covers and format can have to a novel: the words are not as independent of physical reality as we may believe.


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