Sylvia Townsend Warner was a female writer with Communist sympathies in love with a female poet when she wrote this story of an upper-class Englishwoman, Sophia Willoughby, who falls in love with her husband's Jewish mistress Minna Lemuel in Paris and who becomes embroiled in the French revolution of 1848. It's much more the story of Sophia's changing politics and class loyalties than it is one of "lesbian love." In her introduction to this edition, Claire Harman calls the book "this lesbian novel" and quotes Terry Castle on "the typical lesbian fiction." The main character, however, has had only two romantic experiences in her life: one with her caddish husband, with whom she falls out of love almost as soon as they come back from the honeymoon, and with Minna Lemuel, who is herself clearly bisexual.
Summer Will Show was wonderful, a novel calculated to appeal to me as it combines feminism with revolutionary upheaval in 19th century Paris - two of my favourite subjects. Sophia is the point of view character, an intelligent, capable, and independent woman unsuited to life as a wife and mother. Frustrated with life, Sophia travels to Paris with a vague plan of confronting her husband and his mistress. The two are estranged from the start and eventually their relationship deteriorates to the point that Sophia straight up punches him in the face. Sophia and Minna are fascinating, inspiring, and unapologetically independent characters.
But Sophia, in a sort of revolution, takes herself to Paris - alone. I thought for much of this novel that the author had deftly overlaid this revolution of an individual with that of the French. I'll simply remark that I did not like the direction of the last approximately one quarter of the novel. Sophia - and a few others - looked upon the Jewish characters stereotypically.
It was pleasant enough at first, perhaps because the English setting suited the protagonist - however when the action shifted to Paris then it began to taste blander with each turned page. The main character (Sophia Willoughby) was so cold and reserved that I couldn't relate to her even in her distresses. Her husband was boring too and even more unforgivably so was the 'captivating mistress' Minna. This was set in Paris, during a revolution!
Readers of my recent fiction reviews will know that Ive been carrying on a literary love affair with Sylvia Townsend Warner these last few months. With Summer Will Show, the third of her novels Ive read, that passionate relationship continues. Once again Warner creates a remarkable character in Sophia Willoughby and presents her life in beautifully crafted, natural prose. Traveling to Paris, Sophia meets Minna Lemuel, Fredericks mistress, and falls in love. You can read a homosexual element into Fortunes relationship with Lueli, the young native man who comes to live with him, but it doesnt need to be part of the story, and it certainly isnt explicit.* In the present story, theres no doubt that Sophia and Minna are lovers. As clear is where Townsends political sympathies lie for Summer Will Show is not solely about Sophias growth and her love affair but is also set against the backdrop of political revolution and the growth of what becomes Communism; the final scene in the novel has Sophia sitting alone in her apartment reading a copy of The Communist Manifesto.
But what is SO COOL in this novel is that Sophia's Rhett Butler is Minna Lemuel, the mistress herself. When Sophia falls in love with Minna, she also falls in love with the revolution, and the conclusion of the novel sees her discovering communism (what???) and her first ideological, intellectual raison d'être. While Minna the "Jewess" serves as the exotic, Orientalized Jew, the depictions of Jewish revolutionaries, while sympathetic, also partake in the Jew-as-strange-and-crippled-Other stereotype.) I like the uncertainty and confusion on the city streets that Warner evokes, but I really didn't care about these conflicts, and the resolution (that Sophia discovers that she really cares about Communism) feels very tidy and tacked-on, much like the Marxist conversion at the conclusion of Native Son. I would really have liked more time spent with Minna and Sophia in their apartment, coming to understand their companionship and intimacy. Also, I don't know what to make of the odd racial dynamics undergirding the plot, as Sophia has unaccountable hostility towards the illegitimate creole son of her uncle who comes to England to be fostered and educated. This character, Caspar, is crucial to the plot; Sophia jealousy of him (both in comparison with her insipid children in the and in competition for the attention of Minna who really likes him) is a central emotion in the text.
Unlike the complex, difficult, and ultimately ambiguous The Corner That Held Them, this novel is the story of a single, fully-realised character during one period in her life. The great thing about this novel is that Sophia is that person too, and the story pivots on her slow unbending and a quiet upheaval of everything she once held to be true and important.
Her father was a house-master at Harrow School and was, for many years, associated with the prestigious Harrow History Prize which was renamed the Townsend Warner History Prize in his honor, after his death in 1916. It was at T.F. Powys' house in 1930 that Warner first met Valentine Ackland, a young poet.