In a Summer Season (1961) is a novel about characters trying to burst out of her circumstances – and ultimately failing.
We meet Kate Heron, a wealthy widow in her 40s who has recently remarried. Her new husband, Dermot, is a man ten years younger who has no money and no job. They live in a large house in Thames Valley, with Kate’s two children – the 16-year-old Louise (Lou) and the 22-year-old Tom –, Kate’s elderly aunt Ethel, and the housekeeper Mrs Meacock.
The book revolves around the central problems posed by the relationship between Kate and Dermot: the family expects their marriage to fail, given that Dermot is indolent, hard-drinking, has no career, is not cultivated and may have married Kate only for her money; on the other hand, the family is also suspicious of the reasons that may have led Kate to marry such an incompatible man.
Alongside this central plot, we have the side stories of the remaining characters: Kate’s best friend, the widower Charles, and his daughter Araminta, an aspiring model, are about to move back to the neighbourhood, and Kate is worried about what her friend will think of Dermot – and of her decision of marrying him; Lou, who is back from boarding school to the holidays at home, falls in love with the local curate, Father Blizzard; Tom is half-heartedly working in his grandfather’s business, while going out with a succession of girlfriends; Dermot’s interfering mother, Edwina, is constantly trying to push her son into various jobs, while disapproving of his relationship with Kate; aunt Ethel, a former suffragette, now spends her time hearing behind closed doors and writing long letters to her old friend Gertrude about Kate’s marriage and domestic problems (“Living in her niece’s house involved her in all sorts of problems that no one else knew existed, and her habit of making herself scarce was noticed by no one but Dermot, who had been a parasite himself—and still was, some people thought”; “Ethel had a way of bending her head at closed doors, not listening, as she told herself, but ascertaining”); finally, Mrs Meacock compiles an anthology of witty and humorous sayings in her spare times from cooking American dishes (“She seemed such a contented woman, dividing her enthusiasm between puddings and literary work”).
As their private dramas intersect, the tension between characters builds gradually, and later implodes in a climatic ending. The novel is crossed through by two intertwined contrasting tones: dry humour and plain sadness. All characters are trying, in their way, not to appear inferior in the eyes of each other; and yet, all of them feel inferior and wrong no matter how much they try otherwise – and they resent feeling that way. In fact, the book seems to be full to the brim with growing resentment. Everyone is wearing a mask, everyone is trying to guess what others might be thinking, and everyone is misunderstanding each other badly. Moreover, all of them are prone to self-deception and ever so willing to detract from truth, even if that means being walled in by loneliness.
The strength of your book for me lies in the nuanced way you convey the characters’ relationships. Kate and Dermot’s bond eludes the family’s attempts at defining it as a marriage for money or for sex. There seems to be something more to it – and yet, Kate and Dermot themselves don’t know how to frame it. They are tempted to simplify their bond into what they are told it should mean. “He ran his knuckles down her spine. ‘You taste of rain,’ he said, kissing her. ‘People say I married her for her money,’ he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him.”
All the novels I read by you make references to another book which provides the reader with a key to the story you are trying to tell – and In a Summer Season is no exception. Here, you mention The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James as Kate’s first husband’s favourite novel, a literary love shared also by Kate and her old friend Charles. It is a novel about an obsession with objects, and about a widow’s struggle to keep her antiques – her spoils. As in James’ novel, your book is filled with spoils: one character gets into the antiques business; Lou helps the parishioners at the jumble sale; Kate struggles to let go of her previous life, but is frequently confronted with aspects of it that subsist in her present. The scene where Dermot mistakes the name of a character in The Spoils of Poynton for a real person is very telling of Kate’s ambivalence toward her past: she resents the fact that Dermot, unlike her first husband, is not a cultivated man; at the same time, she fears that Dermot might feel inferior or ashamed by his glaring mistake, or that he might resent the fact that James’ book represents a bond between Charles and her. Furthermore, both James’ and your novel end with a certain amount of poetic justice.
I wonder if the title of your novel might be a reference to the first verse of William Langland’s The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman (“In a summer season when soft was the sun”). If so, this reference could also be read as a key to the fact that, as in the poem, your book is also a social satire. Moreover, your novel is permeated by summer – the heat, the illicit romances, the eroticism, the madness of summer in its height. “On this first sunny evening of the year, the house had all its windows thrown open, as if of itself, like a flower, it had responded to the sun.” The characters themselves are responding to the sun: they are full of anger and desire; they are trying to burst out of their condition. It is as if they were intoxicated: they know it won’t last, and thus want to live it to the full; at the same time, they are embarrassed by their own intoxication. Their emotions are inappropriate. Their love is disrupting. And they are both grateful for and resentful of that.
You allow for more complexity than your characters themselves are prepared to acknowledge: they are never quite what they are trying to project into others; and they are never quite what the others are trying to push them into being. They are something in-between, hard to grasp, incommunicable – and very lonely. Even when you make us laugh of them, it is a laughter that leaves a lump behind, stuck in the throat.
“It was the memory of a memory by now—the hallmark of happiness, that scene.” – Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season
“‘None of this really matters,’ she decided. ‘Let us clap our hands and shout ourselves hoarse and throw our turkey bones into the air, to show how little it means, this empty occasion.’” – Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season
“From her tone of voice, and the quick smile that went with it, Kate guessed that even if she had not enjoyed it, she would have pretended that she had; but it was all guess-work now—the child she had seen grow up, her goddaughter (she had held her in church, given presents), the girl handing round tea after the funeral, had been spirited away, might never have been. Instead there was a strange and beautiful creature, turning her hands above the gas-flame, as if weaving a spell; she smiled to herself, watching the gold sparkling on her fingernails.” – Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season
“On the way home they quarrelled – or, rather, she listened to Dermot quarrelling with an imaginary Kate, who supplied him with imaginary retorts, against which he was able to build up his indignation. Then, when they were nearly home, he began to punish himself, and Kate realised that the more he basked in blame, the more it would turn out to be all hers; her friends, for close friends of hers they would become, would seem to have lined up to aggravate him, and her silence would be held to account for his lack of it.” – Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season
About the book
- Virago Modern Classics, 1983, 224 p. Goodreads
- Virago Modern Classics, 2011, 224 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1961
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book in August for The Virago Modern Classics Book Club & 20 Books of Summer.