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Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, each one very different. You may have read Lolly Willowes, a curious but engaging story about a single woman who escapes dependence on her family by becoming a witch, published in 1926. Summer Will Show was her fourth, published in 1936 when the dangers in Europe could not be ignored. 

The novels that I have read by STW are all concerned with the lives of women, often in communities of women. The teachings of the established church are challenged, as are the accepted attitudes to women. They have included lyrical descriptions of landscapes and women’s love.  The Corner that Held Them (1948) was set in a nunnery during the time of the Black Death in the C14th. The main character in Summer Will Show is a rich English woman who travels to France and gets caught up in the 1848 revolution and involved with communists.

Summer Will Show

I cannot trace the origin of the title, but this verse is quoted at the start of the novel:

Winter will shake, Spring will try,
Summer will show if you live or die.

Sophie Willoughby has been abandoned by her husband in 1847, and he now lives in France with his mistress Minna. At home, trying not to be shamed by her husband, Sophie has to endure the death of her two children, and in her mourning takes on the fancy of conceiving another child. She follows Frederick to Paris, meets Minna, becomes involved in the 1848 revolution and falls under Minna’s spell. 

Sophie becomes a revolutionary, sharing the excitement and poverty of the activists, collecting lead to make bullets, distributing Communist tracts, talking, and exploring the poorer side of Paris. The story follows her as she evades reconciliation with her husband, who cuts off her financial resources, and learns to love Minna. Taken prisoner at the barricades, Sophie is spared execution because she is ‘a lady’. She refuses her rich relative’s offer of support and will continue to live in rebellion.

This brief summary does no justice to the writing of the novel. The richest passages are the descriptive scenes: the landscape of her country house, Blandamer, in England, the scenery as she is travelling to France, and the streets of unfashionable Paris. Perhaps the most vivid scene is at the barricades. This is the moment before the climax of the story, when both Sophie and Minna are behind the barricades, supporting the insurrectionists.

This barricade was not holding out so well as the other [in the next street], or maybe the time of fighting went more swiftly than the time of waiting. Yet, when the assailants rushed it, the hand-to-hand fighting revived a fierceness that the failing ammunition had belied, and for a minute or two it seemed as though they might be driven back. Then, in the street running parallel, the sound of cannonading burst out, and as though this jarred the rhythm of fighting here, there was a wavering, a pause, and like a swarm of bees the Gardes Mobiles came over, yelling and jeering. (291)

The story itself is revealed in a way which put me in mind of the magician who pulls out and endless rope of knotted, coloured handkerchiefs from his sleeve. The reader can never predict what will happen, will be carried along by the excitement of events, especially in Paris. We are privy to Sophie’s doubts and emotions and see her struggling for integrity. 

Despite her upbringing Sophie is able to challenge the accepted modes of behaviour and beliefs about society and about women in particular. This is why she ends up defending the revolutionaries’ barricades. While still in England, mourning her two children, she considers one possible future.

For everything would go on, and she with it, broken on the wheeling year. Next summer would come, and she would walk in the silent garden, her empty heart stuffed up like an old rathole with insignificant cares, her ambition for seemliness and prosperity driving her on to oversee the pruning of trees, the trimming of hedges, the tillage of her lands, the increase of her stock. Urged and directed by her will, everything would go on, though to no end. The balsams would bloom, and she would be proud of them.
If I were a man, she thought I would plunge into dissipation. (58-9)

And the most poignant passage is spoken by a modest Frenchman, M Martin, who addresses the National Guard firing squad, while they await a priest to administer to those awaiting execution. He muses first on the effect of the delay, but then turns to the similarity between the firing squad and their victims. 

‘For you, who are here to execute us, it is probably more tedious, certainly more embarrassing [to wait]. For this break in the common routine, it lets in a draught of cold air, it gives inconvenient leisure in which to reflect on this odd business of killing one’s fellow men, one’s country-men, and people of the same class as oneself, at a word of command. For after all, you and we have much more in common than you and your officer, you and the ruling class whose orders your officer orders you to carry out.  … And if you reflect on it, you will see that you and they are constantly at war with each other, and have been during all your lives and the lives of your forefathers. But as it is a war in which, so far, they have always won, you have failed to notice that it is a war.’ (297)

This is a very rich novel, full of action, drama, unexpected events, and lively and interesting characters.

Sylvia Townsend Warner

Born in 1893 and living until 1978, Sylvia Townsend Warner was well known to other writers of the time, including, for example, TF Powys, and David Garnett. For most of that time she lived in Dorset with her ‘lifelong companion’ the poet Valentine Ackland. They had a tempestuous relationship but were fiercely loyal to each other. For more details of this relationship see: Valentine Ackland: a transgressive life by Frances Bingham, published in 2021 by Handheld Press. The couple went to Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, with the Red Cross. They were members of the Communist Party.

I reviewed The Corner that Held Them in August 2020. You can find the post on the blog here. That same year I enjoyed a short story called Sweethearts and Wives by STW in the collection of war-time stories called Wave me Goodbye. That post can be found here.

Penguin Modern Classic cover: Nude Seated on a Red Armchair (1897) by Felix Valloton, from the Musée de Grenoble, France.

Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner, first published in 1936. I used the edition from Penguin Modern Classics (2020)310pp

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