My copy of “Summer Will Show” has sat on my bookshelf for years and I’ve always meant to get to it as Sarah Waters has said it’s one of her favourite novels. I’ve never read anything by Sylvia Townsend Warner before but it’s interesting that this author of the early twentieth century has remained relatively obscure because it feels like she ought to be better known and more widely read. The most popular revival of her writing seems to have come in the 1970s when the feminist and lesbian themes in her work were more celebrated and her novels were republished by Virago Press. But her prose style is just as cerebral and precise as Henry James while also engaging with history and politics in a fascinating way. So it seems a shame she’s not been canonized to the same degree that The Master has, but I’m glad I’ve finally started to read her work. I was prompted to do this when the booktubers Shawn and Britta invited me to read “Summer Will Show” with them and I was glad for the opportunity to take it off my shelf.
It’s the story of an aristocratic woman named Sophia Willoughby who is estranged from her husband, but is mostly content to be without him as she can focus on raising her two children (albeit in a rather strict manner as dictated by the predominant theories of education at the time). When she loses them her life feels emptied on purpose. The way Warner describes her lack of agency is really striking where there are listless periods of hollow time. It’s remarked how “It was boring being a woman, nothing that one did had any meat in it.” So Sophia seeks to find her husband again in Paris where he resides alongside his mistress, a Jewish woman named Minna. At the time she arrives the revolution of 1848 is just getting underway. Sophia finds herself swept up into these dramatic events (at first as a spectator and then as a participant) and her newfound interest in the current politics and the burgeoning Communist movement gives her a purpose in life outside of society’s rules and expectations.
This novel presented an interesting challenge because its cerebral, tightly-compacted style requires a lot of concentration. Warner also has a choppy method of transitioning between scenes so it can be difficult to imaginatively locate oneself in the narrative. Also, important events can be compressed within a single sentence or hidden in larger paragraphs so it’s a narrative that demands focus. While this means it’s not a light read, it also makes it a more interesting and impactful one because when big events do come amidst lengthy descriptions of nuanced passage tracing the contours of its protagonist’s psyche they can pack a big punch. There were scenes in this novel I felt utterly gripped by. It’s also a beguiling way of looking at history especially in the scenes where Sophia and those around her witness the revolution in an almost casual way. Minna hands out all the guns in her house to the revolutionaries and then feels relieved that she and Sophia can now enjoy eating chocolate and chatting. The novel gives a tremendous sense of how factions at all levels of society were reacting to these events and getting on with their lives at the same time.
Observations about significant events and small scale occurrences form a wonderful kind of humour when reading this story. There’s a special kind of absurdity to Warner’s storytelling in scenes where a pestering friend is shut outside while Minna and Sophia pretend not to be home or in how Sophia takes up the work of a con-artist while wearing a disguise. This gave the narrative some much-appreciated levity amidst the density of Warner’s intricate narrative style. But I also highly enjoyed the underlying sensuality to Sophia’s character where she finds herself sometimes overwhelmed by sexual impulses. In one scene she approaches her riding horse and feels a desire “to lick the polished metal on the harness, so cold and sleek to the tongue.” This points to an underlying lust she feels which might or might not be quenched when she becomes a close companion to Minna. It’s never expressly stated that they’re lovers, but I read in the introduction by Claire Harman in my NYRB Classics edition of the novel how Warner’s characters mirror in some ways both herself and her real life lesbian lover Valentine Ackland. I wonder if Warner would have written about the relationship between Sophia and Minna differently if she’d written this novel today.
There’s a lot to appreciate in this book but there are problematic aspects to Warner’s descriptions which are unavoidable. The fact of Minna’s Jewishness is brought up continuously throughout the novel in such an uncomfortable way both in the characters’ dialogue and in every description of Minna and her actions. It really emphasizes how this is a novel from 1936 and this was the manner in which general views about Jewish people were expressed. Of course, the descriptions of the working class and Sophia’s mixed-race cousin Caspar fare no better in how they are insensitively described. I don’t think this is necessarily Warner being overtly anti-Semitic, racist or classist. She was capturing the milieu and the portrayal of such attitudes is only natural as long as all the characters are given their own integrity. Minna gives multiple impassioned and mesmerizing speeches throughout the text, but unfortunately Caspar isn’t granted as much of a voice and it feels like the treatment of his character really lets this novel down.
It’s interesting though how Warner portrays Sophia’s grappling with her problematic opinions: “she who arrived at the rue de la Carabine with all her prejudices girt about her now only recalled her former life in order to discover that another prejudice was a hamper, and could be discarded.” Sophia is someone who has evidently led a very sheltered life and raised under provincial beliefs so it feels hopeful that in time she will be able to disentangle herself from her poisonous biases and respect people as individuals. But it’s also striking how the novel portrays a period of history when slavery was regarded as taboo, but viewing people of colour as inferiors was not. In regard to Sophia’s children its remarked how “They have been told something of the colour question, and of the rational humanitarianism which forbids that any race should toil as slaves when they would toil more readily as servants”. This is a striking portrayal of the prevailing attitude and the perception that there are inherent imbalances between races of people.
The way in which Warner captures Sophia’s journey and inner transformation is really fascinating. She inherently feels that “God, her being knew, meant her no good. He had something against her, she was not one of those in whom he delighted.” A large part of why she feels this way is because a woman of the mid-nineteenth century in her social standing had so few options. Her choices are beautifully laid out for her in one section by the wonderfully compelling character of great-aunt Leocadie. But she finds avenues to circumvent these few routes by searching for something she can affix her submerged passions to. It’s telling how in one scene its described how taken she is by the poem ‘The Definition of Love’ by Andrew Marvell whose first verse ends with “Upon Impossibility.” To break out of her station and follow her impulses must have felt impossible for a woman in her position. I was really taken by the complicated way Warner portrays a woman who steps out of the narrative that’s set for her.