In a Summer Season
Some people in our reading group hadn't heard of 'the other Elizabeth Taylor', eclipsed by her film-star namesake when National Velvet appeared in 1944, just as she was beginning her career as a novelist of middle-class mores. She was however greatly admired, by Kingsley Amis among others, and has been considered a very fine writer. She has recently undergone a revival, and eight months ago Mark read In a Summer Season, her last novel, generally considered her finest, and suggested it with great enthusiasm.
Accordingly, he introduced it to our group in glowing terms. The novel charts the events over one summer concerning a wife in her forties and the members of her household, and circles around the question of love and its relation to sex. Previously widowed, the well-off Kate is still living in the same family home in the Thames valley with a new husband, Dermot, ten years her junior, her son Tom, who is not much younger than Dermot, and a spinster aunt, Ethel, while sixteen-year-old daughter Louisa appears from boarding school in the holidays. This family setup, unusual in the upper-middle-class society of the fifties, has caused something of an (understated) scandal amongst Kate's former neighbourhood acquaintances, and Aunt Ethel's letters to her friend Gertrude are full of (guardedly) salacious speculations about the married couple's sex life. Much of the speculation about the marriage in the village is doom-laden, and it is clear from the very start that Dermot is feckless - a fact that Kate is at pains to gloss over to herself and others, protecting him like a child - and very soon that he is a layabout and drinker. Much of the novel is concerned, in Taylor's characteristic understated style, with Kate's struggle between her own sexual capitulation to Dermot and the competing conventional requirements of her role as a wife and mother. The novel's inciting incident is the return from abroad of a widower friend and neighbour, Charles, and his young adult daughter Araminta, which causes complications within the family and finally leads to a tragedy.
Mark said he really admired the writing and the acuity of the depiction of fifties upper-middle-class society, and in particular the insight into the complex psychology of the characters provided by a third-person narration which is both gently ironic yet, in a free-ranging way, enters, at one time or another, the heads of most of the characters. These are the things for which Taylor is indeed generally admired, but unfortunately, and to my great surprise, for four of us present, John, Doug, Clare and I, these qualities couldn't compensate for other aspects of the book which led us, frankly, to find it tedious.
Firstly, there was the matter of structure. Taylor is on record as saying that she had no interest in plot, and we did indeed find the book lacking in form to an extent that made it unengaging. It is quite some way into the book that the inciting incident occurs, and before that the (acutely depicted) events seem there for nothing more than to portray the setup. Kate visits her mother-in-law in London and defends Dermot from his mother's criticism, and, watching the wives meeting their husbands from the train while back home the potatoes are on simmer, wonders if this is really the life that women should be leading; Kate and Dermot go drinking and Dermot encounters the prejudice of the former friends of Kate's late husband; Aunt Ethel discusses the couple in her letters to her friend and plays music with schoolgirl Louisa; we accompany Tom to the factory where he (unwillingly) works for his grandfather, and which he is expected to take over one day; Louisa hangs around the local curate with whom she is in love. Long before Charles and Araminta appear on the scene (and even for some time after it, before the complications get going), I was thinking, Oh no, not another cocktail before dinner! It was hard for a very long time to work out what the novel was about. John noted something else, a seeming lack of care in the revelation of information: Taylor writes, he said, as if she is talking to a friend who knows her and already has the background information (which the reader has not.) For instance, on her journey back from Dermot's mother-in-law, Kate encounters one of the young girls who are interested in her son Tom, who, discussing the plight of those girls like herself who have large feet, asks, 'Doesn't Lou despair?' This is the first-ever mention in the book of Louisa, whose attitude to her own big feet Kate goes on to muse about, but it is several lines into the paragraph before it starts to becomes clear - though not in fact entirely certain - that Louisa must be her daughter. I also felt that, despite - or perhaps because of - Taylor's lack of interest in plot, after such a length of seeming plotlessness, the book suddenly jerks into plot in a way that seems overdramatic and even artificial. And as for the final chapter, a kind of coda in which the tragedy is overturned with a (somewhat low-key) happy ending, everyone agreed that they had seen it coming all along.
Secondly, Doug said he found really irritating the way that the narration moves without warning from the viewpoint of one character into that of another, quite often within a single paragraph so that, now and then, for a moment you don't even realise the viewpoint has changed - and I'm afraid it struck me as inept and amateur.
We did agree with Mark that for a book written in the fifties by a middle-class woman about middle class mores, it is striking in tackling the emotional impact of sex (and for which the book is renowned). At one point Kate, having been to bed with Dermot in the afternoon, is called by him into the privacy of the dining room, away from the rest of the family:
He shut the door behind her and pressed her close to him as he did so.
'It will all begin again,' she thought in a panic, and felt tired and light-headed with desire. She gave him a quick, dismissing kiss and turned away. While he was fetching her a drink, she sank down on the window-seat and closed her eyes, as if she had come downstairs for he first time after a long illness and had found herself too weak for the effort.
'We should leave our lovemaking till the dead of night' she thought. 'and bury it secretly in sleep.'
Ann was the one other person present who liked the book. Like Mark, she relished its acute depiction of that society, and particularly the way that Taylor makes digs at it in every direction, letting no character off scott-free, which for Ann, as for Mark, made the formlessness acceptable. For Doug and me, however, and I think for Clare and John, the irony was not nearly savage enough to make the material palatable, or the lack of story arc beside the point. As John said, Muriel Spark would have made something much more sparky out of this material and situation.
Next discussion (November): The Booker-winning Milkman by Anna Burns (Clare's suggestion).
of books discussed