Yes, the excerpt yesterday was from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1936 novel Summer Will Show. STW has had quite a few mentions at Stuck-in-a-Book this year, since I’ve been researching a chapter of my thesis on her novel Lolly Willowes, and I read Summer Will Show for the same reason. Well, it’s very different. Warner is renowned, in fact, for the disparity of her topics – which include a missionary on a desert island, a medieval convent, a woman becoming a witch, and, in this instance, the French Revolution. The only tie between her novels is her striking prose and observational eye.
Our heroine is Sophia Willoughby, who begins Summer Will Show as a rich, aristocratic wife and mother in 1840s Dorset. Her marriage is not an especially companionable one, but she doesn’t seem particularly upset about it. Indeed, it seems to be par for the course. Warner expertly encapsulates the change in temperament between an engaged woman and a married woman of the period:
Sophia might refuse her food, pine, burst into unexpected tears, copy poetry into albums and keep pet doves, while her marriage was being arranged and her trousseau ordered; but once married it was understood that she would put away these extravagancies and settle down into the realities of life once more.
Sophia seems rather unfeeling at the outset – strict, rather than motherly, and without any noticeably emotional attachments. Warner often summarises people’s essential characters through seemingly incidental – and here is Sophia’s sentence: ‘She disliked sitting down in the middle of a walk, she disliked any kind of dawdling. A slow and rigid thinker, to sit still and contemplate was an anguish to her.’
She is contented, if anything, when her husband absconds to Paris – but even her delight in the freedom afforded by her unassailable singleness is tainted when she learns about her husband’s Parisian mistress, Minna Lemuel:
For even to Dorset the name of Minna Lemuel had made its way. Had the husband of Mrs. Willoughby chosen with no other end than to be scandalous, he could not have chosen better. A byword, half actress, half strumpet; a Jewess; a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy, who trailed across Europe with a tag-rag of poets, revolutionaries, musicians and circus-riders snuffing at her heels, like an escaped bitch with a procession of mongrels after her; and ugly; and old; as old as Frederick or older – this was the woman who Frederick had elected to fall in love with, joining in the tag-rag procession, and not even king in that outrageous court, not even able to dismiss the mongrels, and take the creature into keeping.
Something tragic happens, which sets Sophia off to find her husband – even with the obstacle of Minna. She arrives in Paris, and first encounters Minna while the latter is telling a story about her past to an assembled group of eager listeners. The difficulty about having a great raconteur as a character is that the novelist must be one themselves (it’s one of the things which makes Angela Young’s accounts of storytellers so wonderful in Speaking of Love, incidentally) – Warner is pretty impressive, but her strength lies in unusual metaphors and striking images (which only occasionally go too far and become too self-conscious), rather than compelling anecdotes, per se. Here’s another of those curious little verbal pictures I love so much:
And with dusters tied on her feet she [Minna] made another glide across the polished floor, moving with the rounded nonchalant swoop of some heavy water bird. Her sleeves were rolled up, she wore a large check apron, she had all the majestic convincingness of a gifted tragedy actress playing the part of a servant – a part which would flare into splendour in the last act.
Indeed, Minna’s personality is captured most effectively when we are told that ‘she was always pitching herself to an imaginary gallery’. Her dramatic nature captures Sophia’s interest, and the burning resentment with which she arrives turns into affection, and then devotion… The excerpt I posted yesterday comes into play here.
I enjoyed the first half of Summer Will Show. Warner’s prose is certainly dense here, not to be read speedily, but the dignity and spark of Sophia still came through strongly. Her concerns about reputation in a judgemental aristocratic world were interesting and subtle; her relationship and re-encounter with her husband were vibrant and never slipped into the sort of unrealistic emotionalism seen in a lot of novels from the 1930s. But… the second half dragged and dragged.
|First edition (can be bought here)|
Perhaps my main problem was that I’m not especially interested in the French Revolution – and I’m certainly not coming from the impassioned left-wing perspective with which Warner wrote this novel (although she later grew rather less zealous in later life.) Understandably a lot of the action of revolutionary France takes centre stage later in the novel, and as the narrative wandered a little away from relationships, hurt, and pride – themes Warner explores rather masterfully – I lost interest. And yet even in the first part of the novel, I admired more than I loved. It was enjoyable, but I couldn’t respond with the fervour with which I greeted Lolly Willowes. The writing was so thick, so relentlessly beautiful, even, that I felt exhausted reading it. That can hardly be labelled a criticism of Warner, but it prevented me loving the novel deeply.
I have heard Summer Will Show praised to the heights, and thus part of me thinks a re-read in a decade or so would be a good idea. I don’t thrill to the thought. Harriet Devine has also recently struggled to love this novel, so at least I’m not aloe in my assessment. For those more interested in historical fiction than I am (and it would hard to be less) maybe you’d get more from this than I did. For the reader new to Warner, I would certainly suggest Lolly Willowes as the first novel – but I have grown increasingly to think that her greatest triumph is her letters. I’ve heard people say the same thing of Virginia Woolf, about her letters and diaries, and thought the assessment rather silly – but, for Warner, the chief qualities of her fiction-writing (adeptness at unusual imagery; an eye for original perspectives) appear in her correspondences, without the flaws which creep into her novels. The Element of Lavishness is still the best thing I’ve read by Warner, and Summer Will Show didn’t come close to challenging the throne.