Thursday, 3 May 2012

Summer Will Show - Sylvia Townsend Warner

Yes, the excerpt yesterday was from Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1936 novel Summer Will Show.  STW has had quite a few mentions at Stuck-in-a-Book this year, since I've been researching a chapter of my thesis on her novel Lolly Willowes, and I read Summer Will Show for the same reason.  Well, it's very different.  Warner is renowned, in fact, for the disparity of her topics - which include a missionary on a desert island, a medieval convent, a woman becoming a witch, and, in this instance, the French Revolution.  The only tie between her novels is her striking prose and observational eye.

Our heroine is Sophia Willoughby, who begins Summer Will Show as a rich, aristocratic wife and mother in 1840s Dorset.  Her marriage is not an especially companionable one, but she doesn't seem particularly upset about it.  Indeed, it seems to be par for the course.  Warner expertly encapsulates the change in temperament between an engaged woman and a married woman of the period:
Sophia might refuse her food, pine, burst into unexpected tears, copy poetry into albums and keep pet doves, while her marriage was being arranged and her trousseau ordered; but once married it was understood that she would put away these extravagancies and settle down into the realities of life once more.
Sophia seems rather unfeeling at the outset - strict, rather than motherly, and without any noticeably emotional attachments.  Warner often summarises people's essential characters through seemingly incidental - and here is Sophia's sentence: 'She disliked sitting down in the middle of a walk, she disliked any kind of dawdling.  A slow and rigid thinker, to sit still and contemplate was an anguish to her.'

She is contented, if anything, when her husband absconds to Paris - but even her delight in the freedom afforded by her unassailable singleness is tainted when she learns about her husband's Parisian mistress, Minna Lemuel:
For even to Dorset the name of Minna Lemuel had made its way.  Had the husband of Mrs. Willoughby chosen with no other end than to be scandalous, he could not have chosen better.  A byword, half actress, half strumpet; a Jewess; a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy, who trailed across Europe with a tag-rag of poets, revolutionaries, musicians and circus-riders snuffing at her heels, like an escaped bitch with a procession of mongrels after her; and ugly; and old; as old as Frederick or older - this was the woman who Frederick had elected to fall in love with, joining in the tag-rag procession, and not even king in that outrageous court, not even able to dismiss the mongrels, and take the creature into keeping.
Ouch.  But doesn't Warner arrange an image well?

Something tragic happens, which sets Sophia off to find her husband - even with the obstacle of Minna.  She arrives in Paris, and first encounters Minna while the latter is telling a story about her past to an assembled group of eager listeners.  The difficulty about having a great raconteur as a character is that the novelist must be one themselves (it's one of the things which makes Angela Young's accounts of storytellers so wonderful in Speaking of Love, incidentally) - Warner is pretty impressive, but her strength lies in unusual metaphors and striking images (which only occasionally go too far and become too self-conscious), rather than compelling anecdotes, per se.  Here's another of those curious little verbal pictures I love so much:
And with dusters tied on her feet she [Minna] made another glide across the polished floor, moving with the rounded nonchalant swoop of some heavy water bird.  Her sleeves were rolled up, she wore a large check apron, she had all the majestic convincingness of a gifted tragedy actress playing the part of a servant - a part which would flare into splendour in the last act.
Indeed, Minna's personality is captured most effectively when we are told that 'she was always pitching herself to an imaginary gallery'.  Her dramatic nature captures Sophia's interest, and the burning resentment with which she arrives turns into affection, and then devotion...  The excerpt I posted yesterday comes into play here.

I enjoyed the first half of Summer Will Show.  Warner's prose is certainly dense here, not to be read speedily, but the dignity and spark of Sophia still came through strongly.  Her concerns about reputation in a judgemental aristocratic world were interesting and subtle; her relationship and re-encounter with her husband were vibrant and never slipped into the sort of unrealistic emotionalism seen in a lot of novels from the 1930s.  But... the second half dragged and dragged.

First edition (can be bought here)
Perhaps my main problem was that I'm not especially interested in the French Revolution - and I'm certainly not coming from the impassioned left-wing perspective with which Warner wrote this novel (although she later grew rather less zealous in later life.)  Understandably a lot of the action of revolutionary France takes centre stage later in the novel, and as the narrative wandered a little away from relationships, hurt, and pride - themes Warner explores rather masterfully - I lost interest.  And yet even in the first part of the novel, I admired more than I loved.  It was enjoyable, but I couldn't respond with the fervour with which I greeted Lolly Willowes.  The writing was so thick, so relentlessly beautiful, even, that I felt exhausted reading it.  That can hardly be labelled a criticism of Warner, but it prevented me loving the novel deeply.

I have heard Summer Will Show praised to the heights, and thus part of me thinks a re-read in a decade or so would be a good idea.  I don't thrill to the thought.  Harriet Devine has also recently struggled to love this novel, so at least I'm not aloe in my assessment.  For those more interested in historical fiction than I am (and it would hard to be less) maybe you'd get more from this than I did.  For the reader new to Warner, I would certainly suggest Lolly Willowes as the first novel - but I have grown increasingly to think that her greatest triumph is her letters.  I've heard people say the same thing of Virginia Woolf, about her letters and diaries, and thought the assessment rather silly - but, for Warner, the chief qualities of her fiction-writing (adeptness at unusual imagery; an eye for original perspectives) appear in her correspondences, without the flaws which creep into her novels.  The Element of Lavishness is still the best thing I've read by Warner, and Summer Will Show didn't come close to challenging the throne.



14 comments:

  1. A thorough, well thought out review, as always. Bravo! I still would like to read it.

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    1. Thank you so much! And I'm glad you still want to give it a go - I look forward to hearing your views, if you do.

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  2. I am absolutely with you here. I very much enjoyed the early chapters when Sophie is at home in England, which I thought were excellent and promised well for the rest. But like you I started to lose interest in Paris, even though as I said yesterday I liked the idea of Minna as a character. I don't mind the French Revolution and feminism (which certainly rears its head here) is often of interest to me, but as far as I got into the novel I thought that was rather clunkily handled. And then I gave up. I will try her again perhaps, as she certainly can write.

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    1. I do hope you give her another go, with a different book, Harriet - and I was glad that I already knew we were thinking along similar lines, as it stopped me feeling a fool for not loving Summer Will Show!

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  3. I had this in my hand a few days ago while deciding what to read next. Your review was supposed to have me pulling it from the shelf once and for all, Simon! And then Harriet...this isn't looking good.

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  4. A really interesting review, Simon. I have never read any of STW's fiction and I'm not certain I ever will. How could any of it even hope to live up to The Element of Lavishness? Fundamentally, I'm just more interested in STW than I am in any of her creations.

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    1. Perhaps it is best to stop after her letters - although Tanya's comment below has intrigued me to read some of the short story collections I have at home. And I must read Claire Harman's biography at some point too...

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  5. I really enjoyed your review, on an author I knew nothing of beforehand. But it's left me a bit betwixt and between! I'd like to give STW a go, but I don't know whether to take your advice and try Lolly Willowes first or go with Summer Will Show as the French Revolution is something I like reading about! And I'm useless at making decisions at the best of times! - However just read Harriet's comment so looks like Summer Will Show will be a no go - at least initially!

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    1. I'd definitely recommend Lolly Willowes as a starting point, and then if you enjoy it, and since you find the French Revolution interesting, you can progress onto Summer Will Show!

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  6. For lovers of The Element of Lavishness, I'd recommend a volume of STW's short stories, since they were, effectively, written for William Maxwell to read first and (I think) have a similar tone to the letters.

    Personally I loved Summer Will Show when I read it but have yet to re-read it, which probably says something about it. The STW I really want everyone to read is The Corner That Held Them, but you need a high tolerance for historical nun fiction in which nothing much happens.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning the stories, Tanya - I own six or so collections, and have yet to read any stories at all. If they're a similar tone to the Maxwell letters, then I'm sold.

      I have never tested my tolerance for historical nun fiction! Generally I don't much enjoy historical fiction, but I've heard great things about The Corner from various people, and I do own it...

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  7. Going from the letters to the stories and right on to Kingdoms of Elfin, skipping over the novels for now, is to be recommended. The stories of childhood and, famously, those written during the War fit anywhere. Plumb the New Yorker archives online. Wonderful--and very funny.

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    1. Thanks Zo - that's about the only volume of stories I don't have, though!

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