Elizabeth Taylor, In a Summer Season. Virago Modern Classics, 2006
In a Summer Season takes its title from the opening line of the medieval alliterative poem, The Vision of Piers Plowman. This alerts us to the likelihood of a story that will involve a quest for a good, honest life and essential truth in the face of vice and worldly obstacles – a search for a vision of what the world might be, uncorrupted. This will involve epiphanies and life-changing experiences.
The surprising amount of sex in the novel is largely due to the mid-life crisis of the protagonist, Kate Heron, an attractive woman in her early 40s who lives in a comfortable former vicarage in a middle-class commuter neighbourhood of big houses and what Kate sourly calls ‘Underwriter Georgian’ developments (it’s the Thames Valley, just an hour by train from London). It’s the era when Kate’s class of women didn’t work (husbands did that) and kept servants; Kate has the eccentric cook-housekeeper Mrs Meacock and an irascible gardener.
After the death of her first husband Alan she’d quickly married again, a year before the action of this novel begins. Her second husband is a charming but irresponsible ‘drifter’ called Dermot, ten years her junior, only ten years older than her son Tom. His only interests are gambling and drinking and feeling sorry for himself. Kate’s maiden aunt, Ethel, who lives with her in a state of sadly genteel dependency, considers Dermot a fellow ‘parasite’ – a view that’s harder on herself than on Dermot. At least she teaches cello to Kate’s untalented 16-year-old boarding school daughter Louisa, on the long summer holiday during which the novel’s action takes place, emphasising that sense of change and mutability that the title hints at. Ethel encourages in Lou the passion for classical music that Kate’s late husband shared with his wife and daughter, and which bores Dermot and Tom (who prefers jazz) – they’re like twins, not stepfather and son. Two Hamlet types (more on that later).
Most other people in this affluent, worldly neighbourhood assume Dermot married Kate for her money. Even he dimly perceives the truth of this, though he likes to think he’s passionately in love with her – hence all the sex – and this enables him to convince himself that he is no parasite. Kate’s self-deceit mirrors his: for her the sex sustains and justifies this mismatched marriage; she’s allowing lust to cloud her judgement and overcome her growing sense of guilt and shame. Even teenaged Louisa perceives that her mother is competing with her older brother Tom’s string of girlfriends, of whom Kate feels jealous, and that in marrying Dermot she thought she’d be getting a sexually fulfilling partner and a loving son. He’s the Oedipal Hamlet to a Gertrude who doubles as Ophelia.
In a series of keenly observed scenes characters and relationships are revealed: Kate at the hairdresser’s, apparently unaware that dyeing her greying hair and ‘making herself look young for her husband’ makes her seem pathetic – or maybe she chooses not to see this. In the opening scene she visits Dermot’s wealthy, elegant mother Edwina, who never rises from her bed before noon, and who greets Kate superciliously:
“That’s a nice suit,” she said in a surprised voice.
Kate had felt just right, perfectly dressed for a day in London, until Edwina had come downstairs. She still thought she could not have chosen better and wondered if what was wrong with the effect – and something was now seen to be – was herself. She hadn’t a London face like her mother-in-law’s, her skin was a different colour and she looked too healthy for the dark suit – a country woman dressed up in London clothes.
In the introduction to this VMC edition Elizabeth Russell Taylor writes that In a Summer Season has a ‘nugatory’ plot, and no ‘concern with consciousness or big themes’. She cites Taylor’s comment that she could ‘never write about tragedies’. But the novel has other elements like those in Hamlet, and there are verbal echoes that subtly indicate this.
When Kate’s closest friend Dorothea died some years earlier, the widower Charles – the two couples had been best friends – left to work overseas, taking his daughter Araminta with him. Halfway through the novel they return, bringing to a crisis Kate’s crumbling confidence in feckless Dermot, as she realises Charles has the cultural sophistication and emotional maturity she’d loved in Alan, and which Dermot so palpably lacks. Araminta has grown up to become a beautiful but shallow young woman, training to be a fashion model. She’s the same age as Kate’s son Tom: 22. He unwisely falls madly in love with her, but she’s not cut out to be his Ophelia, for she enjoys simply flirting and being admired by men, preferring Dermot’s carefree superficiality – and propensity for driving his sports car too fast. All very tangled and ominous.
When the two families resume their intimacy Charles ruefully admits he ‘hardly knows’ his glamorous, vampish daughter. She makes him feel ‘as old as Polonius’, he jokes. Kate’s reply, that she can’t understand why Polonius was always made to look so old, subtly reveals her own discomfort at playing Gertrude to child-like Dermot (and his twin soul, Tom).
Dermot behaves like a petulant child. She gives him ‘motherly smile[s]’, indulging his latest hare-brained money-making scheme (growing mushrooms in an outhouse). When Charles and Kate share a private joke about a woman they know (who’d introduced Kate and Dermot, so it’s not a trivial topic) name-checking a character in Alan and Kate’s favourite novel, The Spoils of Poynton, Dermot, culturally void, is nonplussed and feels excluded – adding to his default emotional state of disgruntled thirty-something moody adolescent, unable to understand why he’s so angry with everyone.
When he finds James’s novel lying around and reads the inscription in it that Alan had written for Kate – a couplet from Donne’s ‘The Anniversary’, with the line ‘Who is so safe as we?’, he again feels excluded and ignorant, ashamed when he realises he’d missed the literary allusion, and that the grown-ups had pretended not to notice in order not to embarrass him. Kate, on the other hand, is aware that the “safety” she’d found with Alan has been lost with Dermot.
Dermot’s mother Edwina, briefly mentioned above, ‘a proper Harrods woman’ in his dismissive opinion because of her passion for shopping, is a poor role model for him. When Kate in the opening scene pays her a duty call (Dermot is too feckless to endure visiting his mother and exposing himself to her misguided attempts to find him a job he might hold down) Edwina proposes her latest business scheme for Dermot – as hare-brained as his mushroom-growing. Sensing Kate’s resistant embarrassment, she says she’s worried about her reprobate son, and had hoped that marriage would ‘make him settle down.’ Her elder son Gordon had ‘always said so’, and he’s a ‘model husband and father… An actuary. “Whatever the hell that may be,” Dermot had said.’ As ‘industrious’ and ‘utterly selfless’ as his father had been (a Claudius figure?). She’d always wondered why Dermot was ‘so different’:
“Perhaps he takes after you,” Kate said. Her voice was bold, and no longer under control.
To her surprise, Edwina’s face softened. She looked dreamy and pleased with herself. “I was certainly a handful when I was a girl,” she said. “Gracious, the escapades, the parties, the young men. ‘She is like a butterfly and no one will ever manage to catch her,’ they used to say.”
“Then Patrick [Dermot’s father] caught you and shut you up all alone in the drawing-room, while he went off to work on his papers.”
“It was the beauty of his voice I couldn’t escape. The Irish in it.”
The ironies in this brief exchange are typical of the novel’s subtlety throughout. For Edwina goes on to mention that although Gordon has no ‘trace of it’, Dermot has that Irish brogue ‘only when he was trying to get round [her].’
“Oh, it was a very happy marriage. I had everything I wanted. He worshipped the ground I walked on . I was just a little bored sometimes in the evenings.”
“Harrods being closed,” thought Kate.
Kate allows herself this moment of superiority over Edwina’s shallow complacency, but is blind to the similarity of her own Freudian-Shakespearean domestic/marital trap with Dermot.
I’ve posted in the past about these ‘Madame Bovary’ narratives that deal with commuter-belt middle-aged women in despair at the dreariness and lack of fulfilment in their lives, their dim sense of being defined only in terms of their husbands, from Evan Connell’s Mr and Mrs Bridge to Taylor’s own short stories. The ‘summer season’ in which the narrative takes place heightens the sense of temporariness and looming disaster for the meticulously, perceptively anatomised central characters, all with their own defects and thwarted dreams. I particularly like prurient Aunt Ethel, and teenage Louisa with her hopeless schoolgirl crush on the virginal curate with the wonderful name of Father Blizzard.
Apologies for writing at such length; this novel is packed with so much understated, apparently inconsequential but essential and artfully constructed detail that it’s difficult to do it justice in brief.
PS 11 July: I asked fellow bloggers to supply links to any posts they’d done on IASS: in case you don’t scroll down through the comments to find them, here they are:
Liz Dexter, Adventures in Reading, Running and Working From Home
Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings has links to four of her own posts HERE
…and this link is to her roundup of other bloggers’ posts who’d joined in her readalong – including HeavenAli’s