Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Summer Will Show is the best book I have read so far this year. I literally finished reading it about ten minutes ago as I write this and I need to express some serious feelings about it.
(There may be some small spoilers but I will be vague about the major happenings. Most of what I mention is in the blurb anyway.)
So the plot goes something like this. Aristocrat, Sophia Willoughby, is bitter. Her husband has fled to Paris after cheating on her with a Jewess from Lithuania- Minna Lemuel. She has decided she will move on strongly by dedicating her time to raising her children in the same strict, conservative manner under which she was brought up. As a reader, it is clear to see that Sophia is extremely troubled by her husband Frederick’s adultery, and Minna often penetrates her dreams and her thoughts. I loved how the plot flickered between the domesticity and dull thoughts of the aristocracy and the ambiguity of the mistress in Paris, it really helped to build the sense that her character was not as strong as she appeared. The way she thinks about Minna so often, and can’t contemplate the grief of her children’s death (yes that happens) without thinking about her is a huge allusion to what happens later on in the novel, and foreshadows the way she will ultimately feel about the enigmatic mistress.
Another essential plot developer is Sophia’s family connections in the West Indies, certainly a comment by Warner on Britain’s horrific colonial past. Her Uncle Julius owns a plantation which funds the wealth of the estate. Another product of his presence in Africa is more of a secretive one- an illegitimate child. The ‘bastard’, as he is referred to consistently throughout his introduction to the story, is sent over to England to be educated, or civilised as the book implies. Sophia takes care of him for a week, in this time he builds a friendship with her son Damian and performs aspects of his culture for them, like his playing of music or dancing. He also demonstrates his physical prowess over Damian. He can ride a horse better, dive better, and pretty much do everything better than the child who is said to be too affectionate by his mother. Whether this is relevant is questionable, but I liked that Warner demonstrated, in such a racist society, that people of colour are not actually inferior in any sense as they are made out to be, even if it was in such a small and trivial demonstration. On his last day, Augusta and Damian, the two children, get into a fight. Augusta is presumably jealous of their friendship and begins insulting Casper with racist slurs and the bastard card. Sophia is horrified by this and the children are punished, but considering how much of Sophia’s thoughts we receive as readers, she seems to think about her daughter’s outburst in very little detail. I think this is a comment on how the aristocracy, and society, often knows things are going on, things that certainly shouldn’t be, and in ignoring them they are complicit in such activity. This is corroborated at the end of the novel, and somewhat concludes her progress in thought when Sophia’s Aunt pities the working-class who have been shot in the revolution. Sophia says:
‘Yes, I am sure you would feel sorry for them, after they had been shot. Death is always an ingratiating act, and we could manage to agree quite nicely over the dead. But we should still disagree over the living.’ (p. 327).
I think this is an interesting quote to think about, and is one of the reasons why I loved the conclusion of the novel so much. Without giving too much away about Sophia’s experience of the French Revolution, it has a great effect on her ways of thinking. She goes to Paris to follow her husband for more children after their tragic deaths, and ends up falling for his revolutionary mistress instead. And when it comes down to it, her thought processes change entirely, not as a result of love, but as a result of her experience of life in working-class Paris. She sees things outside of her aristocratic bubble, she learns to live day-to-day, she learns what it is like to have nothing. That is what I love (and also quite hate) about this book. I love that she changes her ideas and realises what she condones by doing nothing to change the way life is for so many people. But I hate that it requires a revolution to change her mind, because the same will apply to many people in society now too. Huge events have to happen and mass losses have to be incurred for people to see that change is necessary. Tragic but true.
There is so much more to be said about this book but I think I will leave somethings unsaid. I hope that someone reading this decides to pick it up because it was a wonderful novel and raises some very interesting and important questions about society in the 1800’s which are still relevant today.