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.
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.