1 November 2019

Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner's name has been cropping up on podcasts lately, down to her book Lolly Willowes.  With one of its themes being witchcraft I can see why it would be an obvious choice as an October read.  My shelves are devoid of a copy of said book but Summer Will Show (1936) has been languishing for ages so it was time to bite the bullet (a French Revolution one at that) and find out what this author has to offer.

The story begins with Sophia Willoughby walking carefully in her silk gown as she inspects the livery that will take her to see the Duke of Wellington.  She is the heiress of Mr and Mrs Aspen of Blandamer House and mother to Master Damian and Augusta.  Her husband Frederick.....well, their marriage has been over for some time and Sophia is far from broken up about it.  Sophia was never deeply in love but marriage provided a small measure of independence and future heirs to the family fortune.  As for Frederick, his bank account is all the better as his contribution to the union was a dowry of debt.

It is hardly a spoiler to say that the Willoughby children die after contracting smallpox, the blurb on the back cover spills the beans.  Sophia's belief that inhaling fumes from the local lime-kiln will rid the children of their whooping cough, tragically exposes them to the kiln master's boils.  Frederick arrives from Paris to be with Augusta (his favourite), whispering Ma fleur as she takes her last breath.  In a shockingly short span of time, Frederick returns to Paris and his mistress, Minna.

What sets this book apart from other stories with themes of infidelity, abandonment and childhood mortality is that the female protagonist does not crumble.  Sophia mourns the loss of her children but having experienced life as a wife and mother, now without ties to either role, she contemplates the path ahead.  I can hear the book club discussions raging about whether or not Sophia's actions are cold or one of self-preservation.  Calling on the doctor's wife, Sophia is told she is unwell with morning sickness....

'Yet in such a narrow den of gentility, and with such a mother, a young woman would bear a child.  Yes, and another, and another; and grow middle-aged, and grow old, and die, and be buried under a neat headstone, describing her as a beloved wife.'

Worse than death, Sophia realizes that this sort of life for a woman means life-long imprisonment and she is still tethered by the labels of wife and mother.  Apparently her hormones are also a factor because despite questioning a woman's lot in life, Sophia cannot deny her urge to have another child.  Considering her options it becomes clear....for all intents and purposes Frederick is still her husband and she will attempt a no-strings conception.  In yards of black mourning clothes, Sophia arrives at rue de la Carabine, the home of Frederick's mistress.  The apartment is heaving with bohemians attending a gathering but Sophia is able to slip quietly to a spot at the back.  Everyone is focused on Minna as she describes her survival of a massacre in the village she lived in as a child in Lithuania.  Minna is Jewish.  Sophia is immediately entranced.

Sylvia Townsend Warner - you are incredible!  Why has it taken me so long to read this book?!  I couldn't wait to get home from work, clear my list of things to do, and steal some time to read before dinner.  And then, within a dozen or so pages, Townsend Warner lost me.  Sophia's arrival in Paris in 1848 coincides with the French  Revolution and the author's meticulous research on the subject was just too much for me to absorb.  My attention span would waver which resulted in losing a sense of place and certain peripheral characters just didn't stick.

But back to Sophia.....most people of means would turn on their heel and hire the first boat leaving Calais but Sophia is drawn to the cause and has become loyal to Minna.   Fairly quickly, Sophia is familiar with pawn shops and sizing up the value of her diamond ring and brooches.  In fulfilling herself by helping Minna and the revolution, she is also depleting every resource she can get her hands on.  Frederick cuts Sophia off from the avails of her inheritance which makes her feminist blood boil but she refuses to be thwarted.  The other side of the coin is that Frederick is familiar with Minna's history as a thief and is concerned about the women's relationship and motive.

The last twenty-five or thirty pages pulled me right back in, packing emotional blow after blow.  I did that thing we readers do when the last page has been turned and we're in denial.  I flipped back, checked that pages hadn't somehow become stuck together, read the last page again and felt a bit sad that it was over.

While mired deep among the barricades, fires, shootings and arrests, I wondered who I could pass this book onto next.  But for now it's going back on my shelf for another read one day.

 Women marching to Versailles

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