Winter will shake. Spring will try,
Summer will show if you live or die.
With Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week being extended to a month long celebration, it gave me chance to get stuck into one of the two books I have had tbr for quite some time. I could have chosen Lolly Willowes to read – a much smaller book, but I decided to challenge myself with Summer will Show, Warner’s fourth novel. Summer will Show is not an especially easy read, but I found the beginning particularly readable, almost unputdownable and although the novel eventually spirals off into a far more complex narrative – it is really very good and very beautifully written. This is a book that I think I will remember – which is always a very good sign. While several of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novels revisit similar themes, the novels themselves do appear on the surface at least to be very different. Summer will Show is the third of them that I have read. The Corner that Held Them is set among a community of nuns in a fourteenth century abbey, Mr Fortune’s Maggot concerns a missionary on a tiny South-Sea island. First published in 1936, Summer will Show; the story of Sophia Willoughby takes us to the mid nineteenth century, specifically the streets of revolutionary Paris in 1848.
“It was boring to be a woman, nothing that one did had any meat in it. And her peculiar freedom, well-incomed, dis-husbanded, seemed now only to increase the impotence of her life. Free as she might be to do as she pleased, all her doings were barrened.”
Sophia Willoughby enjoys an unconventional independent existence on her inherited family estate, estranged from her husband, who is enjoying himself in Europe with his mistress – she spends her time fretting over the health of her two children. As mistress of Blandamer House, Sophia is unused to criticism, her world, and everyone in it dances to her tune. With her children suffering bad coughs, Sophia takes them up the hill to visit the slightly malevolent lime kiln keeper, breathing in the fumes of the lime kiln an old, traditional cure for coughs. The lime kiln man is a dirty, drunk, with sores on his arms that he uses to lift up Sophia’s precious, cosseted children. Soon after this, while Sophia is delivering her uncle’s illegitimate son to a school in Cornwall, the children fall ill from a fever. The doctor tells a distraught Sophia that it is Smallpox, and Sophia instantly knows that they will die. At first, with the children lying upstairs dangerously ill, nursed faithfully by a woman brought in by the local doctor who visits daily, Sophia delays in contacting her husband Frederick whose adultery has so humiliated her. Following surprising intervention by the doctor’s mouse like wife, Sophia contacts Frederick who arrives just as their son dies. Following the death of both her children, and Frederick’s return to France, Sophia no longer knows where she wants to be. Devastated and still reeling from her appalling loss she hits upon the idea of having another child, and in February 1848 travels to Paris to find Frederick.
“God, an enormous darkness, hung looped over half her sky, an ever-present menace, a cloud waiting to break.”
Frederick’s mistress in Paris is Minna Lemeul, a Lithuanian storyteller; her salon is a popular place for the bohemian of Paris. It is here that upon her arrival in Paris Sophia tracks down Frederick, while Minna holds the room in the palm of her hand, captivating them with her tales of her childhood in Lithuania. As Minna talks; people are beginning to build barricades on the streets nearby. As the revolution begins to take hold, Sophia is thrown together with Minna – and is surprised by her reactions to the woman she had previously viewed as a home wrecking harlot. Sophia has a much loved great-aunt living in Paris and enduring her third revolution, so Sophia descends on her aunt’s home while the revolution rumbles on. Great-Aunt Léocadie sets herself to reuniting Sophia and Frederick, little suspecting what will happen next.
“Sitting here, and thus, she had attained to a state which she could never have desired, not even conceived. And being so unforeseen, so alien to her character and upbringing, her felicity had an absolute perfection; no comparison between the desired and the actual could tear holes in it, no ambition whisper, But this is not quite what you wanted, is it?”
Sophia sets up home with the ageing, non-too beautiful Minna, fascinated by her revolutionary sympathies, her bohemian friends and her beguiling stories – Sophia has fallen in love with her husband’s mistress. Like other characters in Townsend Warner’s fiction, Sophia has become an outsider within the world she inhabits for a time. Cut off from her fortunes by an enraged Frederick, Sophia’s world is turned upside down; her polite, ordered world seems a long way away in a world of little money, revolutionary plots and communists. As Sophia and Minna collect scrap metal for the revolutionary ammunition makers, intellectuals romanticize the revolution before a final dramatic show down on the barricades.
I am so glad that I read summer will show; it’s a biggish complex novel, colourful, noisy and brilliantly vibrant. I am now looking forward to Lolly Willowes at some point in the future which I know many people have really enjoyed, and I really must read some of Warner’s short stories – I have a feeling they will be particularly good.