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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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The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, each one very different. The Corner that Held Them was published just after the war in 1948. 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. This book is quite different, except that it also considers women’s lives, this time in the fourteenth century, in a convent in Norfolk. 

But this is not your run-of-the-mill historical novel. There are no velvet-clad heaving bosoms, not much sex and no romance, but instead we read of daily lives, a murder, a running away, the collapse of the newly built spire and several loose ends. I was very taken with it.

The Corner that Held Them

For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear [The Wisdom of Solomon xvii 4]

This is history, but not the royal progress of male actions, not the events that made Britain great, not even the plucky pulling together of the war just won. Instead it is a view of women’s lives, and not of one heroine, but of a community. 

Nor is it a religious history. While they observe the rituals of convent life, the concerns of the nuns are mainly to do with survival and comfort. Their convent is not well endowed. It was set up in dubious circumstances, to do with adultery, murder and grief by the very impious Brian de Retteville on the death of his wife Alianor in 1163. The convent was established on a small rise near a stream and some villages  in Norfolk. The nuns depended upon any dowries brought by novices and the rents from a few local properties, which were far from reliable. 

After a shocking first chapter the novel settles down to relate the events of the three decades following the Black Death, the rise of each prioress, the arrival of a new priest (who wasn’t) and several bailiffs, and novices. The nuns may individually have admirable skills, embroidery or writing, but they disappear with the nuns’ eyesight, senility or death. Indeed, Oby has nothing going for it.

The Black Death was fearsome. It carries off many of the villagers who have to serve the convent, and sees the flight of their priest. In the decades that follow its terrible cull in 1349 we see the coming and going of four or five prioresses, the careers of novices as they become nuns, the arrival of Ralph Kello who claims to be a priest and stays until his death, the building of a spire, its collapse, the changing bishops and their treatment of the nuns, a sympathetic custos and a runaway. There is a murder, attempts at levitation, a vision and a rape.

There is always the necessity of finding more funding. This takes one prioress to a Christening, the custos to a parish that owes rent, the non-priest to find a new hawk and one nun to the death bed of a relation who is a bishop. Far from being cut off from life around them, the ‘corner that held them’ is exposed throughout the novel to the changes of the time, in society, traditional relationships, music and literature. 

In historical fiction events often hold great significance. But in this novel Sylvia Townsend Warner almost plays with the reader to suggest that this event was no more significant than any other. Small episodes reveal aspects of daily life, relationships within the community that continually change, the worries about funding, the economies or the luxuries. At page 310 novel simply stops. 

It is importantly a view of women’s history. Sylvia Townsend Warner had no sympathy for the established church, but the community of women, mostly without vocation, mostly living in Oby through convenience to them or their family, provide interesting material for this novel. We read of the everyday business of living and dying. For example, as a bishop’s visitation approaches a villager is drowned in the Oby fish pond. The carp will no longer be suitable to present to the bishop. There is a storm.

The storm broke the drought. But on the morrow it was as hot as ever – a steaming, oppressive heat. Everything began to go wrong. The cream soured. The food in the larder spoiled. Doors stuck. Patches of mildew came out on walls. The house was invaded by ants. Feeling as though she had been hit over the head by a pole-axe the prioress drove on through these various calamities, hearing of each new disaster with the grinning patience of despair. (176)

One of the charms of this novel is that it is without the prithhees and other anachronisms we imagine inhabited the speech of medieval people. They do use metaphors and images from their daily lives. For example, on his arrival the bishop meets the prioress and… 

… saw what he was prepared to see: a burly old woman whose air, at once imperious and jovial, made her seem better fitted to rule a brothel than a nunnery. (177) 

Another example:

William Holly was one of those small, tight men like a knot of wood, his cross-grainedness seemed a warrant of longevity. (219)

And her descriptions of the countryside are joyous as she describes some of the inhabitants of the nunnery as they strike out on their journeys. 

The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner was first published in 1948 and reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1988. This is the version I read, which includes an introduced by Claire Harman. 320 pp

Some other observations on The Corner that Held Them

On Vulpes Libris blog in January 2010 Hilary posted her reactions. She refers to Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s exuberant power’ as a novelist.

Kate Macdonald, of Handheld Press, wrote a very interesting post on her blog in 2017 exploring how innovative Sylvia Townsend Warner was in her historical fiction writing. Here is the link

There is an annual Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading week hosted by A Gallimaufry blog. You can find the round up for 2020 here

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