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Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
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Summer Will Show (1936)

by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Winter will shake. Spring will try,
Summer will show if you live or die.


This somewhat ominous couplet seemed a promising start to Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer will Show. The promise held in the excellent writing, the use of language, and Townsend Warner's deeply evident connection to the English countryside. It didn't hold with the characters and plot.

The word that frequently came to mind was "unpleasant". Nothing stronger, as the well mannered central character Sophia Willoughby would not herself use a stronger word, although her feelings would be evident nonetheless. As the novel starts, Sophia was well pleased with herself indeed. Her husband Frederick was off in France having an affair, and Sophia was happily living the exceedingly comfortable life of a nineteenth century woman in charge of her inherited estates. Yes, the servants might talk about the state of her marriage, but it was a small price to pay for being on her own.

Sophia's world abruptly changed though and she set off to France, to visit her great aunt in Paris. Nothing like a new wardrobe to set the world right after an upset, or was it Frederick who might do it? Frederick may have been a cunning person, but he certainly could not have anticipated the outcome of Sophia's visit. He may have been egocentric and dim, but he was certainly the master of petty spite. When Sophia suddenly left her great aunt's and asked for her trunk and dressing case to be forwarded, it was Frederick who sent them on. She discovered They had been carefully dealt with, the dressing-case in particular. Even the gold tops had been removed from the flasks and pomade-pots, and corks of assorted sizes rammed down in their stead. Hidden under a silk band -- pious observance of Papa's axiom that one should always keep five pounds against emergency -- had been a Bank of England note. This also had been removed. Frederick had indeed been a most thorough and conscientious steward of her goods.

The cause of all this turmoil was Minna Lemeul, Frederick's mistress. In the introduction to the NYRB edition, Claire Harman describes Minna as "...one of Warner's most beguiling creations, a self-dramatist and visionary, an artist of great power, yet also a bit of a charlatan. Aging, unbeautiful, unscrupulous, 'her principles were so inconsistent that to all intents and purposes she had no principles at all'." (p ix)

"Beguiling" did not fit at all with my reading; "unscrupulous" did. Minna was every bit as unpleasant and manipulative in her own way as Frederick and Sophia were in theirs. However, while Minna's character and behaviour were well drawn and crucial to the plot, I had a lot of trouble with the characteristics attributed to her by both Frederick and Sophia based on her religion. Minna earned her living in part as a storyteller on stage. Many of her stories were of the Lithuanian shtetl where she had grown up. The casual way in which prejudice was expressed and received among the English characters was disturbing. This was a novel written in 1936 and set in 1848, so some prejudice might be expected, but here it seemed completely gratuitous and added nothing. Had Minna been nearly as inately clever with money and finances as their remarks would have it, she would not have been living in a garret and borrowing from those friends in a position to help.

The Paris section of the book is set against the uprisings of 1848. Minna was involved in the same vague way she did everything. Sophia became more involved, collecting scrap metal for the workers to make into ammunition. One fateful June evening, Minna and Sophia helped defend the people's barricades. Sophia's world shifted yet again. In the end, Sophia's future is left up in the air. Last seen, she is reading [The Communist Manifesto].

However, despite Warner's own membership in the British Communist Party and despite the dramatic events of the rebellion and their conclusion, it seemed Sophia was still as detached and self contained as ever. Sophia herself seemed to suspect this, seemed to anticipate a return to her old life, thinking Probably I shall live to a profound old age. And people will say of me "Do you know, old Mrs. Willoughby went through the Revolution of '48 in Paris?" And someone else will answer, "How extraordinary! One would never think it."... "Such a dull old woman."

This is the second book I have read by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the second disappointment, which is a pity, as she writes so well. Perhaps she was trying to show the immutability of the landed classes, perhaps she was trying to idealize the workers and students; there just did not seem to be a purpose for this book, while its earnestness definitely suggested it should have one.
3 vote SassyLassy | Jul 7, 2014 |
In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story “The Music at Long Verney” (1971), an old landed couple find themselves listening to music outside the window of their own large country house, Long Verney, which they have rented out to a sophisticated young couple from town. While story seems to ally our sympathies on the side of the old couple and their attachment to the English countryside, Townsend Warner dismisses them at the end of the story as “impermeably self-righteous.” Fresh experiences, fresh opportunities for empathy and understanding of other lives, fail to penetrate them. They come away from listening to the music at Long Verney grasping at an excuse not to repeat the visit. They shun the opportunity to make a deeper connection.

Townsend Warner’s fiction is peopled with insiders who find themselves on the outside. Lolly Willowes, the daughter of a respectable family, becomes a witch. Mr. Fortune, an English bank clerk, becomes a missionary on a South Sea Island and an outsider among the natives. Ralph Kello, a vagrant fleeing from the plague, finds himself impersonating a priest in a medieval convent in The Corner That Held Them (1948). Ralph, who becomes known as Sir Ralph, is an outsider who finds himself on the inside, but who secretly remains outside the sanction of the church. The conflict in the Townsend Warner’s novels is often between who people are on the inside, and the different spheres in which they find themselves.

Sophia Willoughby, in Summer Will Show (1936), is another such character. Like the couple in “The Music at Long Verney,” Sophia is a member of the English landed gentry, at the same time bound by the expectations of her class and in mental rebellion against them. She’s bored and unhappy, with nothing to give meaning to her life but her children and the rituals of her class. Then her children die of smallpox, and Sophia travels to Paris, where she unexpectedly falls in love with her husband’s Jewish mistress, Minna Lemuel, and becomes caught up in the revolutionary struggles of 1848. The social insider becomes an outsider, living from hand-to-mouth, but always at the same time remaining, by virtue of her class and upbringing, outside the experience of the workers and revolutionaries who now surround her.

Sophia is caught between passionate engagement and critical detachment. She runs hot and cold. For Minna, life is art. She has an ability to pose with perfect sincerity. She is a talented storyteller, and it’s her stories that initially draw Sophia toward her. Warner is interested in the revolutionary power of stories, and in the revolutionary power of love, to change our lives and change the world. At the end of the novel, Sophia is gradually absorbed into words. “Absorbed” is, fittingly, the last word of the novel.

Summer Will Show is itself absorbing—a vivid, lyrical, bold and stimulating novel. It takes unexpected turns, and never gives its characters an easy way out. Warner has a particular genius for the historical novel, which allows her to recreate a world that is like our own, but with telling differences. The reader, like Warner's characters, is thoroughly absorbed, but at the same time stands at a critical distance—looking back, drawing connections, listening to a distant music.

When she wrote Summer Will Show, Sylvia Townsend Warner had begun a relationship with another woman, the poet Valentine Ackland. The two women became devoted Communists, helped to organize workers in rural Dorset, and made a trip to Spain during the Civil War to support the struggle against fascism. Sophia’s journey in Summer Will Show from the world of the landed gentry to the world of the revolutionary worker was in many respects like Warner’s own. Warner was the daughter of a schoolmaster at Harrow, an expert on Tudor church music, a poet and novelist. During World War I, she worked in a munitions factory, where she gained first-knowledge of industrial working conditions. She began to see the incongruity between middle-class romanticizing of the working class and the actual harsh conditions of labor.

In Summer Will Show, there are intellectuals who romanticize revolution, who see it as something essentially picturesque, and there are real working men and women for whom revolution is a final tragic act of desperation. Sophia, like Warner herself, can no longer romanticize, but she can never be an authentic member of the proletariat. She remains essentially an outsider. Summer Will Show stands on my bookshelf beside another NYRB Classic, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which has at its center a debutante turned Communist. Sophia, like Mitford, cannot step entirely out of the life into which she was born, but neither can she go back to it.

In a significant scene in the novel, Sophia finds herself listening to a conversation between Minna and the proto-Marxist Ingelbrecht:

"What I feel, thought Sophia, is what I have seen painted sometimes on the faces of people listening to Beethoven; the look of those listening to a discourse, to an argument carried on in entire sincerity, an argument in which nothing is impassioned, or persuasive, or reasonable, except by force of sincerity; and there they sit in a heavenly thraldom, as blind people sit in the sun making a purer acknowledgment with their skin than sight, running after this or that flashing tinsel, can ever make. I cannot for the life of me see what Minna and Ingelbrecht are after; to me a revolution means that there is turmoil and after it people are worse off than they were before; and yet as I see them there...it is as though I were listening to music, able to feel and follow the workings of a different world. For it is there, that irrefutable force and logic of a different existence."

Unlike the old couple in “The Music at Long Verney,” who likewise stand outside the lives of others, Sophia listens. ( )
10 vote rbhardy3rd | Nov 22, 2009 |
Showing 2 of 2
Warner has long remained a secret, perhaps because her experimental impulses were never exuberant enough to grab the attention of the Modernists' most adventurous readers. The recent republication of Summer Will Show is her best chance, after all these years, of emerging from the fog of near-oblivion, as thick as it is unfair.
 
the most skilful, most surefooted, sensitive, witty piece of prose yet to have been colored by left-wing ideology ...
added by lquilter | editThe Nation, Mary McCarthy (Aug 15, 1936)
 

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Sylvia Townsend Warnerprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Harman, ClaireIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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From the back cover: "It was boring to be a woman, nothing that one did had any meat in it... what could she do to appease her desire to leave a mark?"

Sophia enjoys the freedom afforded by estrangement from her husband Frederick. A woman unused to criticism, she feels that no queen could have a more absolute sway than she, mistress of Blandamer House. Then her children die and that poise is shaken. Deciding to follow Frederick, Sophia arrives in Paris in the Spring of 1848 as barricades threaten street corners. Here she meets her husband's mistress Minna, 'magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent and interfering.' Faced with the danger and uncertainty of revolution, and the discovery of her love for Minna, Sophia's life is dramatically overturned. An extraordinary and surprising novel, Summer Will SHow speaks to us in a voice as fresh and vivid as when it was first published in 1936.
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