Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fourth novel was published in 1936, the year the Spanish Civil War broke out. Warner and her life partner, Valentine Ackland, went to Spain that year, to work for the Red Cross and support the Republican government against Franco’s right-wing Nationalists. The year before, they had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. As Claire Harman points out in her introduction to the NYRB edition, Summer Will Show was Warner’s first novel in seven years, and the first since she had met Ackland. It marked a change in her writing, her political and philosophical outlook, and her life.
The central character is Sophia Willoughby, who begins the story as a wealthy landowner, the mother of two young children, and happily estranged from her husband, Frederick. She is conservative and traditional in her approach to life and strict in her treatment of her children. She resists the impulse to caress her son:
She had to be careful not to make a pet of Damian. Every one seemed irresistibly moved to indulge and befriend him; pliable and affectionate, he lent himself to cosseting, just as his sleek brown curls twined themselves round the fingers of any hand that rested on his head. But petting would do him no good, it would be no true kindness to the child, for soon he must go to school, and he must not go there a milksop. (p. 8)
Damian and his sister Augusta are taken by their mother to the lime kiln on her property. She wants each of them in turn to be held over the kiln to inhale its fumes, which she hopes will cure their whooping cough. The man who operates the kiln appears to be drunk and has sores on his wrists. Shortly afterwards, the two children catch smallpox and Sophia later thinks they must have caught it from the kilnman: “He robbed me of my children …” (p. 71).
In the meantime, another child has become Sophia’s responsibility. He is Caspar Rathbone, the “illegitimate” (p. 27) son of her father’s half-brother, Julius Rathbone.
Julius was part-owner and manager of the estate in the West Indies which supplied the Aspen wealth; and twice a year or so he sent large consignments of guava jelly, molasses, preserved pineapple, and rum. (p. 26)
Caspar is biracial and is now (in about 1847) fourteen years old. We easily infer that he must have been conceived before the abolition of slavery in the West Indies and that his mother was almost certainly enslaved and under Julius Rathbone’s control. Also, that Sophia’s wealth and property are founded on slave labour.
Uncle Julius asks Sophia to enrol Caspar in “some moderate establishment where he could receive a sound commercial education” (p. 27). Sophia and the children are very taken with Caspar at first but after Sophia returns from her visit to the Trebennick Academy in Cornwell, the institution to which she plans to send Caspar, she finds that Damian and Augusta are both very ill with smallpox. Caspar has to go off to school without being allowed to see them again. Damian and Augusta die soon afterwards. After flailing about in her bereavement for a while, Sophia eventually concludes that she must have another child.
Fate should not defeat her, she would have a child yet. And having already a husband it was certainly best and most convenient that the child should be his. So she would go to Paris, fetch Frederick back if needs be, beguile him, at the barest, explain her purpose and strike a bargain. (p. 75)
Travel to Paris she does, getting there just in time for the revolution of February 1848. Looking for Frederick, she goes to the home of his reputed mistress, Minna Lemuel. Minna is a kind of artist, not a writer or painter or an actor on stage, yet a compelling performer who for the most part tells stories. Sometimes these are folktales and fairy stories. But when Sophia first visits her she is recounting the true history of the slaughter of her family in a pogrom in Lithuania. Minna herself was kidnapped by a priest who in effect enslaved her.
In Paris, she was surrounded by a coterie of artists, thinkers, republicans and left-wingers, musicians and composers and would-be revolutionaries. The crowd who attend her recital includes aristocrats (who with a frisson of excitement allow their carriages to be commandeered for the building of barricades) and the ordinary impoverished people of the quartier, all crowded into her rented rooms.
Sophia and Minna are drawn to each other, catch each other’s eye in the crowd, though Sophia is not at first consciously impressed by her supposed usurper. Minna, she decides, is ugly, though before she spoke one voice in the crowd has addressed her as “Most beautiful Minna,” adding “we are here to be enchanted” (p. 86). Before Sophia had ever seen Minna, she had heard of her reputation and had not been jealous of, but rather furious at, Frederick’s relationship with her.
A byword, half actress, half strumpet; a Jewess; a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy, who trailed across Europe with a rag-tag of poets, revolutionaries, musicians and circus-riders snuffing at her heels, like an escaped bitch with a procession of mongrels after her; and ugly; and old; as old as Frederick or older … (p. 24)
Her reaction on actually meeting Minna is more restrained. Her husband’s mistress still appears to her to be ugly and old, but no longer ridiculous or nonsensical.
Are you the prophetess, the brooding priestess of Liberty, who spoke with such passion of the enfranchised river? Are you the woman so bitterly hated, my rival and overthrower? Sophia stared at the sleek braids of black hair and the smooth milk-coffee coloured shoulders, the drooping yellow scarf lined with rather shabby ermine, the attitude of elegant single-minded domesticity. (p. 105)
In the aftermath of the February revolution, the employers lock the workers out, none of the people in Minna’s circle have any work or income; they are all suffering, some starving. Frederick has now broken up with Minna and, learning that he has not made any provision for her, Sophia gives her £25 in gold coins (which Sophia had been intending to use for her own living expenses). Minna promptly donates the gold coins to a collection “For the Polish Patriots”. Sophia starts to live with Minna.
Minna’s friends have a disparate set of political aims and beliefs, though all (except Sophia) seem to support the revolution. Minna herself says she is a republican though not of the same kind as some of her associates. This group includes one Communist, Ingelbrecht, who seems to Sophia to think clearly and to make sense, though her own political views are very different. She says to herself:
I cannot for the life of me see what Minna and Inglebrecht are after; to me a revolution means that there is a turmoil and after it people are worse off than they were before; and yet I see them there, Minna looking like someone in a charade and Inglebrecht like a respectable Unitarian artisan, it is as though I were listening to music, able to feel and follow the workings of a different world. (p. 205)
Frederick sends Sophia’s belongings to Minna’s address, but without her jewellery or other valuables, and he tells her he has written to the bank instructing them not to pay any money to her or to her order. (It’s her own money, but as her husband he is in control of it.) In the meantime, Caspar turns up, having escaped from his school in Cornwall, where he was bullied and mistreated, and made his way with difficulty to Paris. He is devoted to Sophia, who was charmed by him when he was younger but is repelled by him as an adolescent. Minna, on the other hand, likes Caspar but he despises her.
Eventually it occurs to Sophia that the money for Caspar’s education is not hers, it was paid by Uncle Julius. Frederick therefore has no grounds for refusing to pay for his education if she can find a suitable school in Paris. Frederick appears to agree but Sophia finds out later that instead of enrolling him in the school she found, he has enlisted Caspar in the Gardes Mobiles, who are described by one of the fighters on the barricades in the June uprising as “trained by the government to savagery like a pack of trained hunting dogs” (p. 290).
In the meantime, Sophia has met another Communist, Martin, who suggests that, as an evidently aristocratic (though impoverished) Englishwoman, she would be able to collect pieces of scrap iron without attracting suspicion. The scrap iron would be turned into ammunition in the underground smelter beneath the laundry where Martin’s sister works.
Sophia carries out this work on Martin’s behalf for several weeks. Then Ingelbrecht asks her to deliver packets of revolutionary tracts throughout Paris. One of the people she has to drop off the tracts to is a chemist in Villette, who lends her some money and arranges a lift for her back towards the centre of Paris. He sells elixirs and spirits.
They were all traditional remedies, he said, perfectly harmless and perfectly useless.
“My professional hours,” said he, “are spent in the vilest cheating and charlatanry. My leisure, on the other hand, I lay out to good account.” (p. 280)
Sophia arrives back in the city in time to join the June uprising, which is quickly and brutally suppressed. She is at the barricades, reloading guns, when a group of Gardes Mobiles, one of them Caspar, come over it.
The gaslight shone out into the street, a livid square of light falling like a trap. She saw Caspar recognise her, and for an instant his face wore a look of sheepish devotion.
“Why it’s Caspar!”
It was Minna’s voice, warm, inveterately hospitable. He glanced round. With a howl of rage he sprang forward, thrust with his bayonet, drove it into Minna’s breast.
“Drab!” he cried out. “Jewess! This is the end of you.”
A hand was clapped on Sophia’s shoulder, a voice told her she was a prisoner.
“One moment,” she replied, inattentively. With her free arm, she pulled out the pistol and cocked it, and fired at Caspar’s mouth as though she would have struck that mouth with her hand. Having looked to aim, she looked no further. But she saw the bayonet jerk in Minna’s breast, and the blood rush out. (p. 292)
Unlike Martin and many others, Sophia avoids being summarily shot by firing squad, first because she’s a woman and then — when she screams “like a virago of the streets” (p. 298) that plenty of women have already died unjustly — because her accent and diction reveal her to be “a lady”. The novel ends with her settling down to read the tract that Inglebrecht had her distribute: it’s Marx’s and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto.
Caspar’s rage, leading him to kill Minna, has its roots in slavery and in the racist treatment he is subjected to in Cornwall and elsewhere. It is catastrophically misdirected, of course, as the rage of the oppressed so often is. I suspect it’s the clearsightedness of people like Ingelbrecht and Martin as to where that anger should most usefully be directed, that persuades Sophia to read more about the ideas that drove them. Her conversion from a landowning conservative to a revolutionary has not occurred in evenly-spaced stages. She had first been drawn to Minna’s way of living but retained her mistrust of revolutions. She had been impressed by the Communists’ way of arguing, without necessarily being persuaded by their arguments, even after she had begun to collect scrap metal for them.
She had been brought up (and had brought up her own children) to consider the chiefest part of mankind as an inferior race, people to be addressed in a selected tone of voice and with a selected brand of language. Towards the extreme youth and age of the lower classes, one adopted a certain geniality, to the rest one spoke with politeness. But to none of them did one display oneself as oneself; be it for approving pat or chastising blow one never, never removed one’s gloves. (p. 219)
When Caspar first appears in the rue de la Carabine, Sophia is at first embarrassed at having “dismissed him to such a state” as the school she had chosen had left him in, and at her own indifference to his trust in her.
“I would not be so vile now,” she murmured. (p. 225)
But almost immediately she is again meeting his devotion with contempt and distaste, and when she learns that Frederick hasn’t, after all, placed him in the new school she doesn’t do anything about it. So she, too, makes her contribution to the disastrous outcome.
As we’ve seen, before Sophia met Minna she had a low opinion of her and this is based partly on the fact that she is Jewish: “half actress, half strumpet; a Jewess; a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy” (see above). This is written in free indirect style, not isolated by a cordon sanitaire of quotation marks, so it may be worthwhile to stress that these are the character’s thoughts, not those of the author. Warner does not seem to have been either intentionally or unconsciously antisemitic or more generally racist. Her biographer, Claire Harman, tells us that the list of her dislikes which she wrote to Valentine Ackland included:
Priests in their gowns, anti-semitism, the white man who is the black man’s burden, warmongers …
(I haven’t read Harman’s biography and have taken this quotation from David Carroll Simon, “History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner” in The Nation.)
Writing in the mid-1930s, Warner obviously did not foresee the Shoah or the Nazi deathcamps. Had she done so, she might have written this and some other passages differently.
Edition: I’ve used the Penguin Modern Classics edition, 2020; all ellipses added.
I’m late again. The next post, which would normally be due on 5 April, will be late too, as I’ll be travelling that day and the day after. So, expect that post at Easter weekend. I’ll try to get back on the every second Wednesday schedule from 19 April onward.
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