Restrictions in novels can produce interesting tensions and plot lines for the novelist to work with. Elizabeth Taylor took the restrictions of one English season, Summer, and showed us a number of characters, all in love, during that limited time. The restrictions of In a Summer Season, published in 1961, are not heavy handed or forced. It is the work of a writer coming into her own.
A version of this review was first published in November 2013 and has remained popular with visitors to this blog. This is a revised and reformatted version.
This is a novel about love of many kinds. It is also about love’s tendency to appear and disappear over time – indicated by the title. For all the characters in this novel, the summer season changes their experience of love and their path in life. Elizabeth Taylor knew what she was doing in this, her eighth novel. She manages a complex cast of characters and has the confidence to let her story unfold.
Kate Heron is the main character. She is around forty and has recently married for the second time after being widowed. As she is well off, her new husband Dermot is able to be unemployed for stretches of time, although he tries his hand at growing mushrooms and at entering a partnership in a travel company in London. Kate has a sixteen year-old daughter, Lou, back from boarding school for the holidays, and a son, Tom, who is working his way up in his grandfather’s business. At the start of the novel one feels that Kate and Dermot are doomed, but not for the traditional reasons which they separately suspect are harboured by Kate’s former friends: she married a younger man, and perhaps he married her for her money. Something more complex is implied to the reader.
The young girl and the chaplain
During the summer season Lou falls for the chaplain, a Father Blizzard. She hangs about places and undertakes parish chores, such as sorting shoes for the jumble sale, hoping to bump into him. One morning he asks her to help him buy a birthday present for his sister.
When they were sitting together in the bus, she felt completely happy, without knowing that to feel so is such a rare experience that it might never come to her again. The very knowledge would have made something else of it. This morning was something she recognised as having been waited for, but with wavering degrees of hope. As the miracle had come about she simply accepted it, but was taking it in little sips, blissfully restrained: for instance, she had not yet raised her eyes to look at his face. (56)
Elizabeth Taylor is able to capture such adolescent feelings without implying they are inferior to adult love. As autumn approaches Father Blizzard makes a decision to leave the village and join a Catholic monastery in France. Lou returns to school. I love the description of Waterloo station as mothers see off their children. I was catching trains to and from school at the same period (she was writing in the early ‘60s). She has captured the scene at the start of term.
All over Waterloo Station groups of schoolgirls flocked together – their cries, their movements birdlike, as was their way of keeping to their own kind. Other uniforms drew only glances of scorn. Schoolboys, returning too, were less gregarious. They stood alone at the bookstalls or thoughtfully put pennies into slot-machines, unimpressed by so much feminine gaiety. (206)
A young man’s first love
Tom is used to having girls at his beck and call, has become practised in letting them down gently as he moves on to the next one. But he is smitten with Araminta, when she returns with her father to the village. She is ruthless but cool with ambitions to become a model, vividly attractive and sexy, but able to control Tom through her unresponsiveness. The reader feels for him in his unsuccessful pursuit. She is a prototype for the anorexic size 0 models of our time.
Love for an older woman
Dermot loves Kate, but he can’t quite live up to his own intentions for himself, preferring to allow the truth to be obscured so that he doesn’t appear smaller in her eyes and those of her friends. This leads him into a series of lies. He feels his inferiority; it is moral, educational, cultural and he resents it. This resentment is the catalyst for the tragic climax of the story.
One of the delights of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels is the references to other novels, in this case The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James, which Dermot does not recognise. I admit to not having yet read this book, which is about possessions and a widow’s battle to retain her spoils – antique furniture. As Susannah Clapp points out in her introduction, ‘piles of discarded, unused and unlovely objects are strewn throughout In a Summer Season. … They carry some force as reminders of the inhibitions and consolations of memory and habit’. The Spoils of Poynton was Kate’s first husband’s favourite novel, and links Kate to him and to her previous life in a way that Dermot resents. It’s a clever, quiet device that also shows up Dermot’s ignorance (and mine!).
Kate is more aware of each person, including herself, than any of the other characters and because she is central to the plot we often see people mediated through her sensitivities. She learns to manage her relationship to Dermot. Elizabeth Taylor lets us know, in this early scene, that Kate understands Dermot very well.
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. (34)
As readers we are encouraged to have some hope for the couple for the evening ends thus:
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. (40)
This is pure Elizabeth Taylor: the temporary relaxation of the tension, and the quiet revelation of Dermot’s character.
As summer ends …
It is Dermot’s lack of fibre (as they would say) that pushes the story to its conclusion. While there is tragedy, sudden and brutal, all does not end badly for Kate in a conclusion that does not satisfy all readers. We are unsure what kind of future Kate will have, but the final short chapter allows us to see where love leaves her and the other characters, a year on from that summer season.
As always in her novels there are some great comic moments (preparing for the jumble sale, watching tv, Dermot’s mother). Great tenderness is shown towards Lou’s ‘calf ’love and Tom’s hopeless infatuation with Araminta.
But the uncertainties of love are also revealed with tenderness: Kate’s dream about Charles, Dermot’s desire to do better by Kate leads him to lie and deceive; Lou’s growing up so that the departure of Father Blizzard is not such a blow; Lou crying about her mother and Dermot after he has accused Kate of being ‘bloody smug’; Charles’s comfort; Tom’s inability to recover from Araminta’s death.
In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. First published in 1961 Republished by Virago Modern Classics. Quotations in this post are taken from 1983 edition 221pp
Some other blog reviews of In a Summer Season:
Of Books and Bicycles
All Elizabeth Taylor’s novels and her short stories have been reviewed on this blog. You can find them by clicking on the category button or on Elizabeth Taylor in the tag cloud.
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