Occasionally, I will pick up a library book (and I vow to do this more, post-pandemic). I wanted to review a striking, mostly forgotten novel by 20th-century English author Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), whose long life spanned almost a century and who was a committed Communist, in addition to being a musicologist, a feminist, and a lesbian in a long relationship with another woman, Valentine Ackland. Unlike many “political writers,” Townsend Warner writes with great sophistication and elegance. Her work seems to owe a loose debt to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Joseph Conrad—and I believe she ought to be placed along with them rather than considered a minor novelist. (Penguin is reissuing new editions of all of her books in England, so perhaps this will happen.)
Summer Will Show (1936), Warner’s historical novel of the French revolution of 1848 that transcends its genre, is split into four parts, and I found them very different as I went along. I struggled with the first part, where the unlikable young aristocrat Sophia Willoughby loses her two children to smallpox; then, once she gets to Paris, I started to become interested. Sophia’s estranged husband, Frederick, proves to be an astonishingly shallow and contemptible character, but at first one barely gleans this from the elegant, elliptical prose that seems to hide as much as it shows. I was reminded again and again of Henry James (and perhaps Joseph Conrad) by the indirect telling and “showing.”
Warner had a wild talent, but a cold view of human nature, so this book seems far more interested in the sights and smells of shabby mid-19th-century Paris than any kind of idealistic portrayal of comradeship or love. The revolt isn’t coherent, it’s a mess. Sophia’s relationship with Frederick’s older bisexual Jewish ex-lover, Minna, is also messy, but we’re to understand that it’s the only taste of real happiness she’s ever had. The final scenes are breathtakingly suspenseful and agonizing, as the women are torn apart at the barricades. I am not convinced by the very last scene, but I do believe that Sophia has found her place in the world.
By putting two women in love at the center of a novel ostensibly about political tumult, Warner was doing something revolutionary, and she must have known it.