Summer Will Show - Sylvia Townsend Warner, Claire Harman My unrequitable love affair with Ms. Warner continues. More detailed review to come.

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My love is of a birth as rare
As ‘tis of object strange and high,
It was begotten by despair
Upon impossibility.


Readers of my recent fiction reviews will know that I’ve been carrying on a literary love affair with Sylvia Townsend Warner these last few months. With Summer Will Show, the third of her novels I’ve read, that “passionate” relationship continues. Once again Warner creates a remarkable character in Sophia Willoughby and presents her life in beautifully crafted, natural prose.

Sophia Willoughby is a model, upper-class British wife: She has two children, Damian and Augusta; a beautiful home (her family’s); she maintains a properly distant but kind relationship with her servants; and has a wastrel husband, Frederick, who lives in Paris with a Jewish mistress. This “idyllic” life is shattered abruptly when her children die of smallpox. For a time, Sophia becomes irrational, contemplating having sex with the kiln-worker to get pregnant. Fortunately this notion goes no where but she does determine to go to France and bring Frederick back so that he can give her a child. Traveling to Paris, Sophia meets Minna Lemuel, Frederick’s mistress, and falls in love. The remainder of the novel, set against the backdrop of the Revolution of 1848, chronicles how Sophia breaks the chains that have bound her all her life and her developing relationship with Minna.

In Summer Will Show, Warner becomes ever more confident in her depiction and celebration of sexual, social and political transgressions. Lolly, in Lolly Willowes is a spinster who gives herself to Satan and becomes a witch. There’s a rejection of her social position but it’s an individual choice. And the almost whimsical prose softens the impact and meaning of her choices. In Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, Timothy Fortune too is a largely sexless character. You can read a homosexual element into Fortune’s relationship with Lueli, the young native man who comes to live with him, but it doesn’t need to be part of the story, and it certainly isn’t explicit.* In the present story, there’s no doubt that Sophia and Minna are lovers. The initial attraction is palpable and only grows:

“One could love her freely, unadmonished and unblackmailed by any merits of mind or body. She made no more demands upon one’s moral approval than a cat, she was not even a good mouser. One could love her for the only sufficient reason that one chose to….

“Her head, with the black hair fitting so purely to the curve of her brow, seemed, outlined against the sky, another of the domes of Paris, and it was part of her outrageous freedom from anything like conscience that a visage so inharmonious, so frayed with former passions and disfigured with recent want should appear in that very trying full light exaltedly beautiful as the face of an angel….

“I am fascinated, she thought. I have never known such freedom, such exhilaration, as I taste in her presence.”


As clear is where Townsend’s political sympathies lie for Summer Will Show is not solely about Sophia’s growth and her love affair but is also set against the backdrop of political revolution and the growth of what becomes Communism; the final scene in the novel has Sophia sitting alone in her apartment reading a copy of The Communist Manifesto. Some may find this latter foray a distraction from the focus on the people in Warner’s world but, by and large, she manages to integrate the political and social commentary believably into the words and actions of her characters. I will admit there is an unlikely ex temp speech given by a Communist before he’s shot but it’s short and – as usual – beautifully written (you wish people would speak so eloquently off the cuff).

*I don’t think there was a sexual element in Fortune’s and Lueli’s friendship. At least a conscious one. Though I can accept the argument that Fortune’s unconscious longings may have factored into his decision to leave Fanua; and I have read elsewhere that Warner herself described Fortune as “fatally sodomitic.”

Again – An unqualified recommendation that you should read this book.