I loved this novel when I first read it, and I still love it now having re-read it for the Librarything readalong of Elizabeth Taylor, and the beginning of All Virago all August. I had remembered it very well though, so the ending (which I’ll say no more about) is much less dramatic when one knows what’s coming.
In Kate we have a typical Elizabeth Taylor character – one of the especially likeable ones who I imagine is very like Elizabeth Taylor was herself. Kate is a middle aged woman with two children Tom, a young man working for his grandfather, and Louisa who is still at school. Widowed from Alan, with whom she shared a love of Henry James, she then married Dermot ten years her junior. Dermot – hard drinking, given to sudden rages is suspected by some of having married Kate for her money – has no job. His mother Edwina – another marvellous character – is interfering in her attempts to find something for him to do. Sharing their home in the country is Aunt Ethel with her cello, and her dog. Ethel writes to her friend Gertrude long letters about the various domestic dramas, and contemplates what they refer to as the “physical side” – of Kate and Dermot’s relationship, which she obviously doesn’t quite approve of or understand. Home from school for the holidays Louisa develops an affection for the local curate, while her older brother plays fast and loose with Ignazia. Alongside the family is Mrs Meacock, who cooks American meals, and in her spare time compiles her anthology ‘Five thousand and one witty and humorous sayings’ I do love how Elizabeth Taylor invests such time and detail in her minor characters. They help to make her worlds complete and real.
The tension between characters builds slowly and perfectly, in this wonderfully domestic novel that has surprisingly sexual undertones. As the summer begins Kate prepares for the return of her best friend’s widower Charles and his daughter Araminta. Charles has never met Dermot, and Kate aware of Dermot’s deficiencies is nervous. Charles shares Kate’s love of Henry James’ novel The Spoils of Poynton, and there is a wonderfully excruciating scene where Charles makes reference to the novel in a private joke about someone and Dermot mistakes the name of a character of the novel for that of a real person. Araminta meanwhile is enormously changed from her time abroad, tall slender and beautiful she begins to drive poor Tom mad as she picks her way barefoot across the lawn her dress becoming soaked from the sprinkler. Like the title suggests, summer is ever present in this novel, the beginning of summer, the heat of the height of the season, windows open to let in the warm air, illicit seeming picnics, then as the season comes to a close preparing for the new school term. The climatic ending to this novel is perfectly balanced with the quiet tension that comes before it.
The people of Elizabeth Taylor novels are very English, they have tea at the proper time, and go to London to have their hair done, send their children away to school and have someone else cook the family dinner. Yet it is impossible not to understand them, their hopes, fears, and secret longings. Elizabeth Taylor understands her characters absolutely.