Summer Will Show

Just as when we first meet Lolly Willowes at the beginning of the novel of the same name – an unmarried woman immersed in a conventional, domestic life – we would be unlikely to imagine where she finds herself by the final pages, so too our initial acquaintance with Sophia Willoughby in Summer Will Show suggests nothing of the novel’s final scene. Domesticity is again key as she is firstly introduced as a mother to Damian and Augusta. Tradition, too, is important as she walks down the drive of Blandamer House, remembering her childhood and “How little the place had changed!” Even her purpose echoes her own upbringing as she is taking her children, both suffering from whooping cough, to inhale the fumes of the lime-kiln as a cure:

“Sophia held by old fashioned manners for children. Crusts, cold water, cold rooms, scanty clothing, rough romping games to harden them, philosophical conversations to enlarge their minds.”

One might regard her attitudes as out-dated, even for the 1840s when the novel is set, were it not that they still somehow persist. No wonder, though, that she regards her children, particularly Damian, as “childish”, and worries about him starting school as a “milksop”. She is convinced, however, that she is happy in her role, comparing herself to the chestnut trees which she prefers without their spring blossom:

“Like me exactly, she thought, I admire them, and I am glad to resemble them. I am done with blossoming, done with ornament and admiration. I live for my children – a good life, the life my heart would have chosen.”

The only blemish on her life is her husband, Fredrick, who has not taken to life in the country, or, indeed, the monogamy of marriage:

“A weaker or idler woman might have been jealous; a woman in love would certainly have been so. Indifference and responsibility preserved her from any sharper pang than annoyance…”

Instead she has written to Fredrick telling him that she no longer wishes to live with him, consoling herself that “I am far safer than if I were a widow…unquestioned as a tree.” However, her peaceful life at Blandamer is ended by events beyond her control, and in the aftermath, she heads to Paris to seek her husband, who is living there with his mistress, Minna. In this, too, the novel follows the pattern of Lolly Willowes, with her initial move being an escape which is calmly undertaken but driven by a deeper need.

In Paris, Sophia meets for the first time her husband’s mistress. Minna is Jewish, and Sophia’s immediate reaction is to indulge in anti- Semitic stereotyping as she listen to her tell a story of her childhood:

“…seeing that mournful, dark glance flicker over the listeners, as though numbering so many well-tied money bags. Our ears are your ducats.”

At the same time, the story Minna tells, which opens the novel’s second book and provides the reader’s introduction to the character, makes clear the discrimination she has faced. Sophia is equally scathing of the social milieu Frederick is now mixing with (“Good God, what a menagerie!”) and immediately regards her visit as a mistake. However, placing Sophia in Paris is not entirely, or even predominantly, about her relationship with Fredrick. The year is 1848 and Paris is once again on the brink of revolution:

“Behind that barricade patriots will defend the cause of liberty, will defy the tyrant, will bleed and conquer.”

Just as Lolly’s conventional life was contrasted with witchcraft, so Sophie’s upper-class upbringing is placed in the context of revolutionary politics. Ideology is of little interest to her, but a relationship with Minna develops and Frederick’s importance diminishes:

“Instantly forgetting his existence, save as a character in her narrative, Sophie went on talking. Minna’s clasp tightened upon her hand.”

Summer Will Show is a much longer novel than Lolly Willowes, betraying the complexity of Sophie’s time in Paris. During that time her life will change completely as she finds herself cut adrift from the comfortable life she lived in England, and cut off from her fortune. As with Lolly Willowes there is much to enjoy in the contrasts Warner creates, and she is certainly successful in conveying a sense of Paris during this period. If the novel feels more ambitious, it is also harder to love. Partly this due to the character of Sophia who remains largely dispassionate and withdrawn, but the novel’s length also reduces its impact. Subplots, such as the black bastard son of an uncle whom she places in a school in England and who later follows her to France, do not quite come off. Having said that, it demonstrates that Warner is a writer who, like her characters, is neither predictable nor easily constrained.

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6 Responses to “Summer Will Show”

  1. Julé Cunningham Says:

    I hadn’t heard of this particular STW, but it sounds quite intriguing with its setting of 1848 Paris.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I read this book quite a few years ago (long before Lolly Willowes) and really struggled with it at the time. It was a very strange experience, and I couldn’t pinpoint or articulate the reasons for my lack of connection with it – other than the time period, perhaps. (As you know, a 20th-century setting is more my thing!)

    Looking back, your comments about it being a harder novel to love (vs LW) definitely resonate, as do your reflections on the novel’s bagginess and the nature of the central character – that sense of distance doesn’t help to foster engagement. Nevertheless, I *am* still interested in STW and want to read more of her (the short stories are excellent); but it’s the Lolly Willowes incarnation that I long for, not the Summer Will Show equivalent!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Intriguing Grant – this is one I was considering for the 1936 Club though the length may be a problem, and if it’s hard to love that could be even more problematic. But the setting and time does appeal – we shall see!

    • 1streading Says:

      I wouldn’t want to put anyone off – I enjoyed it but I just didn’t love it as I did Lolly Willowes. It’s probably a more complex work though and would benefit from re-reading.

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