Sylvia Townsend Warner, “Summer Will Show”

In other hands, this premise would have been clumsy. Sophia Willoughby, an upright well-bred English matron, finds herself liberated when she is caught in Paris during the 1848 Revolution. Her personal sloughing-off of class limitations, her eager lurch toward love and individual satisfaction are mirrored by the Parisian revolutionaries’ equally eager grasp at liberty. It could have been so schematic, so dull — but Sylvia Townsend Warner is a really good writer, and Summer Will Show follows no predictable path. In fact until the very last page (which finds Sophia reading the first few paragraphs of The Communist Manifesto), I had no sense of how Townsend Warner would conclude the book. On the one hand, the seductions of comfort and security repeatedly flare up but Sophia is so much more likable — indeed, likes herself so much better — as a Bohemian that we are torn about what fate to wish for her.

And oh, the ironies! Sophia is driven to Paris on the trail of her handsome, feckless husband, but she finds herself enchanted by his discarded mistress, Minna Lemuel. Townsend Warner’s descriptions of Minna, streaked through with casual anti-Semitism, may be the reason this book has been out of favor for so long. But Minna is also the most compelling, magnetic character in the book, a story-teller both professional and habitual. “She lives on her own applause, thought Sophia, watching Minna’s revival into charm. This is what it is, I suppose, to be an artist, cheered and checked by the April of one’s own mind.” It is through Minna and her revolutionary friends that Sophia becomes a “carrier pigeon” for the eventual uprising — after pawning her diamonds, singing on the street for pennies, learning to bargain in the street market.

daguerreotype of the barricades

What makes the whole tale sing is the way Townsend Warner writes. Here is the end of an English summer squall: “Far off the storm winked and muttered, but louder than its thunder was the sipping whistle, all around them, of the parched ground drinking the rain.” Here is Minna settling into sleep: “The body that by day was heavy, ill-framed and faintly grotesque, at night achieved an extraordinary harmoniousness with its bed, became in its suavity and sober resilience the sister of that exemplary mattress.” Oh, yes, it’s pretty clear that Sophia and Minna are lovers; we learn that much from Townsend Warner’s biography. Equally the insertion of Communism  into the narrative mirrors the author’s political interests in 1936, when the book was published. But for the most part, this is exemplary historical fiction. Haven’t you always wanted to know what it was like to fight on the barricades in Paris? To cower inside a makeshift structure of old lumber and half a carriage, counting the cartridges for your gun as the army marches toward you on the cobble stones? Read on, it’s all here waiting for you.

This is my first entry for the NYRB Reading Week co-hosted by Mrs. B of The Literary Stew and Honey of Coffeespoons. Now I’m going to see what everyone else has been reading, before settling down with Caroline Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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5 Responses to Sylvia Townsend Warner, “Summer Will Show”

  1. fantaghiro23 says:

    I knew it. This reading week would be dangerous for my tottering TBR. Yet another review that makes me want to go get a copy and read the book. Paris during the revolution is a fascinating setting, and I like the way you describe both female characters. I have a penchant for women characters who struggle for their own liberation.

    Thank you for the review!

  2. Mrs.B. says:

    This sounds fascinating. I’ve heard so much about Warner but have yet to read any of her novels. Thanks for joining NYRB Reading Week and looking forward to reading your next reviews.

  3. carolwallace says:

    Thanks, ladies. Honey, I am beginning to think that maybe NYRB Reading Week is just enabling all of us to justify more book-buying! I’m loving reading everyone else’s reviews, too. (So far I’m holding the line on new purchases, though!)

    Thanks for organizing this. Fun for bibliophiles!

  4. Pingback: Under the Tree « Book Group of One

  5. Pingback: NYRB Reading Challenge (Nov. 7-13) « Book Group of One

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