In a Summer Season opens with Kate Heron waiting on the steps of her mother-in-law’s London house, trying not to be intimidated or annoyed. She has come for lunch; her hostess is apparently not yet out of bed; she disapproves of the all-white drawing room. Yet when Edwina comes downstairs Kate instantly feels like a country bumpkin.
Mid-twentieth century, middlebrow, upper-middle-class English characters: I could leave it right there. Elizabeth Taylor’s eleven novels are published by Virago and both Angel and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont have been made into movies with appealing actors like Romola Garai, Rupert Friend, and Joan Plowright. When I tell you that Elizabeth Taylor was a great friend of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s, that should complete the context.
But I’d be denying myself considerable fun, because Taylor has a great many quirky gifts. For instance she’s a splendid eavesdropper with excellent comic timing. Listen to sixteen-year-old Louisa, in an awkward farewell to the village curate (who is, yes, going over to Rome!):
‘Are you very short-sighted?’ she asked, for everything about him was important to her.
‘I have unilateral amblyopia,’ he said.
Kind of a conversation-stopper, no? Then there’s the way Louisa says her prayers, “as if dictating to an inexperienced secretary.” Even so, the funny bits sell Taylor short because there’s considerable emotional truth wrapped up here as well. Eventually — Taylor doles out the information gradually — we learn that Kate’s second husband Dermot is some ten years younger than she. The money is Kate’s; Dermot doesn’t actually work. (When the book opens, he is growing mushrooms for a living.) Dermot, it transpires, is an incipient alcoholic, and the chapter that makes this plain is one of the best characterizations of alcoholism I’ve ever read, from the grandiosity to the shame. The household also includes a cook, Kate’s 22-year-old son, and the dread spinster aunt Ethel who plays the cello and writes endless letters to her chum Gertrude, with whom she was imprisoned as a suffragette. There isn’t so much a plot as there are incidents, including one sorting jumble at the parish house.
That last sentence was a test. If you know what “jumble” is, In a Summer Season is for you.