In A Summer Season
In a Summer Season is one of Elizabeth Taylor's finest novels in which, in a moving and powerful climax, she reveals love to be the thing it is: beautiful, often funny, and sometimes tragic. 'You taste of rain', he said, kissing her. 'People say I married her for her money', he thought contentedly, and for the moment was full of the self-respect that loving her had given him. Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate's old friend Charles - intelligent, kind and now widowed, with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm . . .
Release date: July 7, 2011
Print pages: 224
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In A Summer Season
The limitations imposed by domestic life on the stockbroker belt in no way deterred Elizabeth Taylor from friendships further a field, with writers whose work was judged ‘literary’ and not, as was hers, ‘occupying a position somewhere between literature and popular fiction’. Ivy Compton-Burnett, Angus Wilson, Elizabeth Bowen and James Agate were among those who recognized her wit, clarity and stylishness and regarded less sympathetic readings of her work as misunderstanding of its subtlety. Her canvas may be small – as is Jane Austen’s, with whose work hers has been compared - but she is an incomparable colourist.
Taylor was reticent about disclosing details of her private life, and modest as to her achievements. The fact that she had been a member of the Communist Party in the thirties and throughout her life atheist and a Labour voter shows how skilful she was in creating a credible heroine with whom she sympathized and yet who fell far short of her own intellectual and creative aspirations.
In his book Elizabeth & Ivy, Robert Liddell published letters that reveal Taylor as an intelligent, compassionate woman with an acute ear for dialogue and eye for detail, and an unusually retentive memory, faculties that could lead her, she admitted, to lose sight of the wood for the trees. In this novel, details fasten tenaciously to memory. Who could forget the ‘little gusts of song’ shaken from the housekeeper, or the maiden aunt (who regards breakfast as ‘a test of character’) bending by a closed door ‘not listening … but ascertaining’? And who will ever think of bell-ringing without recalling it as an excellent cure for chilblains? What woman victimized by the affectations of her own hairdresser will not remember Elbaire when her practitioner ‘with the solemnity of a votary’ holds a mirror to the back of her head?
In a Summer Season is Taylor’s eighth novel, an entertainment in which the plot - more a storyline - is nugatory. There is no concern with consciousness or big themes. Taylor is on record as saying she could never write about tragedies. There is right and wrong but no good and evil. The novel proceeds in a series of scenes ‘rather than in narrative which I find boring’, she explained.
Published on the cusp of ‘you-never-had-it-so-good’ and the Swinging Sixties, the book ignores the events of the decade altogether. Suez, the Wolfenden Commission, the abolition of the death penalty and the power of CND do not detain Taylor. Her canvas is the unsettling heat of early summer in a village in the Thames valley. Nor does she try her hand at working-class realism, becoming fashionable elsewhere. She restricts herself to the portrait of a middle-aged, middle-class housewife living in a comfortable house set in a well-maintained garden presided over by a housekeeper and a gardener.
The temptation is to conflate author and heroine, for their environments are similar and from what the author owned were her preferences - an appreciation of the dailiness of domestic life in ordered countryside, where nothing of a sensational nature is likely to occur - she and Kate share a disposition. The significant difference is that whereas the author had a creative life, her heroine had none. In her personal life Taylor achieved a balance she denied her heroine. The cause for which Kate’s suffragist aunt valiantly endured the rigours of Holloway did not ignite the Thames Valley; Kate has no job, nor does she pursue an interest; she cannot develop. Her life is as circular as the novel it defines.
Kate Heron, a widow of means, marries a charmer as attractive to men as to women, the old as to the young. Dermot is ten years younger than Kate and lacks all purpose. He has none of the cultural interests Alan, Kate’s late husband aroused in her - Henry James, Beethoven quartets, long country walks - just lust. It is the experience of intense sexual feeling that encourages Kate to overlook Dermot’s ignorance and share with him his preferences for darts, drink and race-meetings, not to mention ‘kissing in public’. But Kate belongs in time and place to an order of women whose sense of identity is forged by their husbands and her present situation discomposes her. Through Alan she discovered herself, and that identity persists, even if currently starved of nourishment. Once Dermot has been disposed of she will marry Alan’s childhood friend, Charles, a man with a job and a house. She will have been returned to old certainties.
In a Summer Season is seen through Kate Heron’s eyes. A year past this conventional woman relinquished the world in which husbands support their wives financially for a man who does not conform to that pattern. Hardly surprising that the virus of speculation runs riot through the village, let alone the family. Everyone wonders upon what such a liaison can be founded and for how long it can endure. Lou, Kate’s sixteen-year-old daughter, believes her mother is in competition with her twenty-two-year-old son’s girlfriends: ‘I think my mother gets jealous, and that’s why she married Dermot; perhaps she thought that she would be getting someone quite young; who would be a bit like a son, but who would have to take her everywhere with him.’
Aunt Ethel gives the marriage ‘five years at most’. She regards Dermot as a parasite, bought with Alan’s legacy: ‘When the sex goes Kate will think him no bargain.’ Mrs Meacock, the housekeeper, reflecting on her own life, observes that whereas she has achieved peace of mind, her employer has traded tranquillity for sex. In a Summer Season records the tension between domestic routine and the erotic. Most of the characters are ‘blighted’ by sex: the whole novel is suffused with the sense that beneath urgent physical pleasure lies permanent unrest. Stability is what is prized in the Thames Valley; Dermot is an erotic diversion from that bourgeois compass reading and can only lead to a dead end.
Kate and Dermot believe they love one another and intermittently they hold dear. But their regard is deflected by self-interest. Taylor is always commended for her ability to convey self-deception. She does so keenly in this book. It is taken for granted in the village that Dermot married Kate for money. But to insist on that judgement as being the only explanation for his driving force is to ignore his unconscious motives.
Dermot is a child who discovers in Kate a mother who desires him, who is more amenable, more pliant than the getting-and-shopping example assigned him by birth. Edwina set him a thoroughly bad example to follow in the first place and, in the second, fell short of gratifying his demands. Kate, well equipped to answer the requirements of a child, treats her husband as such, not only from her deep pockets but also from the deep concern she feels for his future. Kate cannot face the implication of what she is doing by extending her gift for mothering to a husband able to satisfy her lust but unable to interest her, let alone fulfil her. Added to which she is ambivalent in her feelings towards the young; she is both envious and disapproving of them. This places her in an uncomfortable position while she considers whether she should be ‘making herself young for her husband’.
Aunt Ethel writes to her friend: ‘Take away the physical side and what have you there but disillusion!’ The message of Kate and Dermot’s experience may lack enchantment but its telling is captivating. Taylor’s ‘despairing struggle’ with her craft results in nice descriptions of place, subtle observations of behaviour and tender reflections on the torments of the affections. But the lasting reward of In a Summer Season is the accurate account of a particular type of adult woman in the 1950s, living in the Home Counties. A woman chosen by a man for his mate, to bear and rear his children and run his home, exclusively. Kate is so dominated by these twin roles that without one or the other she is disorientated and, being off-balance, plunges into an aberrant relationship. She is, therefore, something of a victim. She continues to lead the morally good life by demonstrating a sense of duty towards her dependent relations, but she leads life at the expense of her own development. She has no access to her deepest needs and appears unaware of having potentialities to fulfil. Whereas the author recognized both obligations to her own life, her heroine sensed conflict between self-fulfilment and the requirements of the common good. This is a conflict that can only be resolved through self-knowledge, the very quality Elizabeth Taylor has created her protagonists to lack.
Elisabeth Russell Taylor
‘AFTER all, I am not a young girl to be intimidated by her,’ Kate decided, as she waited outside her mother-in-law’s house. When she had reached the stage of thinking that if there were any intimidating to be done she might even do it herself, one of Edwina’s foreign girls opened the door.
The house was in a terrace, leading off from a tree-filled London square, and Kate was always surprised to find how much quieter it was than the country. She followed the girl upstairs to the drawing-room. Facing her, as she turned the stairs, was a trompe-l’œil panel, designed to lengthen the passage into an endless arcade with recurring statues of Roman emperors set on a black and white chessboard pavement. ‘Only it doesn’t trompe my œil,’ she thought.
The drawing-room was all white, except for a sofa and one or two chairs covered in silvery-green silk, and some leaves of the same green arranged amongst white flowers.
Waiting for Edwina, who was probably not up yet, Kate found nothing to look at, nothing interesting left lying about. The room was like a room in an exhibition and she could not imagine any of the beautiful flowers fading or dropping their petals.
Such silence everywhere. The two foreign girls and any kitchen noises they might be obliged to make were two floors down. Overhead, floorboards very softly creaked. ‘I have caught her on the hop,’ thought Kate. She had always guessed that Edwina lay in bed till noon. How otherwise get through the triviality of the day? She went to one of the windows to see if there were any signs of life in the street below. A milkman in a white coat was defacing the elegance of doorways with groups of pint bottles; at one door, just half a pint—a sad sight, Kate thought, imagining a solitary old lady and a cat.
‘Darling,’ said Edwina. ‘I was just doing my nails and they wouldn’t dry.’
She kissed Kate’s cheek and held her hands out of harm’s way as she did so. Charm bracelets and twisted gold chains slid down from her plump wrists.
‘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 was out of doors too much in the country. 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.
‘I don’t know how you keep so slim,’ Edwina said.
Kate looked complacent, but she knew that if Edwina ever lost her plumpness she would not be half so happy, would be less busy than ever without her Turkish baths and massaging and all the other slimming tricks as they came along and the books she read about it and the articles in magazines, to say nothing of the conversations with her friends.
‘And how’s that darling son of mine?’ Edwina asked but, without waiting for Kate’s answer, went out to the landing and began calling down the stairs, ‘Paulette, Solange,’ then muttered irritably and, shrilling more than ever, called again.
A voice like machine-gun fire began a rattling volley down below and at once, without replying, Edwina came in and slammed the door.
‘What do I want indeed! Do they expect me to have long conversations with them hanging over the banisters?’
‘Dermot is very well,’ said Kate, answering the other question. ‘He sent his love of course.’
‘He never comes to see me.’
Kate thought, ‘Because when he does come, you say “Hullo, stranger”. No wonder he puts it off.’ Trying to avoid a breach for which she knew she would be blamed, she had to come herself, from time to time, and very heavily she always dreaded it.
Paulette or Solange could now be heard dragging herself up the second flight of stairs. At last she stood in the doorway, breathless and sulky.
‘Ah, Paulette,’ said Edwina, in a light and kindly voice. ‘Will you bring up the decanter of whisky from the dining-room, and some ice. A nice lot of ice. You will have whisky, Kate? No? Oh dear. You’ll find something else down there, I expect, Paulette. There should be some gin, or some sherry. Forage round. Is sherry all right, Kate? Yes, I’m sure there is some. You understand “sherry”, Paulette?’ she asked, raising her voice.
‘Whisky, ice, sherry,’ Edwina said, ticking off each on her fingers and enunciating carefully, as to an imbecile.
When the girl had gone she sighed.
‘It’s about Dermot that I want to talk to you,’ she told Kate. ‘But that we can do over lunch.’ She liked to keep people needlessly in suspense, and at the back of her mind Kate now had a feeling of unease. She wondered if her mother-in-law had another of her schemes for Dermot’s future and, although she could not guess what it was, her thoughts from then on were busy planning a counter-attack. A look of animation on her face was supposed to hide the fact that she was no longer listening to anything Edwina said. In fact, an admiring or sympathetic murmur from time to time was all that Edwina required, once she was settled passionately to her shopping-talk. Triumphant forays, dignified rebukes (by herself) she described; goods returned and goods tracked down; from the jersey with the pulled thread she drifted to the matched saucer, some trouble with the dry-cleaners, praise from her dressmaker for being long-waisted. (A proper Harrods woman, Dermot, her son, called her.) And all the time Kate was wondering what she could be going to suggest this time and what she herself could say in reply.
Although everything was grand at luncheon, Edwina fussed as if it were all being done for the first time. It was surprising that she, to whom social occasions meant so much, should never have been able to master the art of being a hostess. At meal-times, even with just the family, she became as uncertain as a young bride, quite obviously checked the table to see if all was there that should be, bothered the maid, lost the thread of conversation, became absent-minded when dishes were brought in and stared anxiously and silently as Kate helped herself to some chicken fricassee.
‘About Dermot,’ she began, when at last Paulette had left the room; then ‘Oh’, she said repressively, as the girl returned with something she had forgotten. Edwina watched her and saw her out of the room in silence. ‘About Dermot,’ she said again. Kate was ready. When she chose to speak her voice would be cool, but she did not intend to use it yet.
‘I know he’s made a good many false starts and had some bad advice,’ her mother-in-law went on. ‘I’m not blaming you, naturally.’
It would have been wonderful, Kate thought, if she could have found the effrontery to do so, since she had had so long to set him on the right path, and Kate had only had a year.
‘He hasn’t any plans yet, I suppose?’ Edwina asked.
‘He is trying to grow mushrooms in one of the outhouses and may make a name for himself that way,’ Kate said, and her voice sounded just as she wished it to, light and amused. ‘This is very good fricassee, Edwina,’ she added.
‘Growing mushrooms! I have never heard such nonsense. It isn’t fair to you to be so irresponsible and it certainly isn’t fair to himself. I hope you are not encouraging him, Kate. It will be the ruin of him if you do. He is grown-up and a married man.’
As this was already known to Kate, she made no reply.
‘It was his father’s fault for leaving him that bit of money—little as it is, it has sapped his ambition. I can’t imagine what all your friends and neighbours say.’
Kate thought it surprising that Edwina could have brought herself to say this. She was afraid that she was blushing now and that her silence appeared stubborn, not off-hand any longer. She drank some water and felt that Edwina was watching it going down her throat.
‘You mustn’t think I am interfering,’ said Edwina, sensing Kate’s angry embarrassment. ‘But I have been worried lately. I hoped that marriage would make him settle down. Gordon always said it would.’ Gordon was her elder son; a model husband and father, too. An actuary. ‘Whatever the hell that may be,’ Dermot had said.
‘His father was the most industrious, the most utterly selfless man,’ Edwina went on. ‘I can see him now, the minute dinner was over, going off with his papers to his study. He would sit there till midnight. Just as Gordon often does. I have always wondered why Dermot is 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 rather 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 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. Gordon never had a trace of it and Dermot only when he was trying to get round me. 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.
Then the dreamy self-indulgent look suddenly faded and Edwina said briskly: ‘Well, I was discussing Dermot with my old friend, Lord Auden. He had always thought a great deal of Dermot, you know.’
‘Yes, I thought he was quite in love with him, that time we met.’
‘He always asks after him. The other day he was telling me his plans for starting a rather amusing little business—selling Victoriana … well, buying it first, I suppose … you know those shell flower-arrangements under glass domes and wax fruit and funny old Jubilee mugs. He’s been looking for premises. Yesterday I went with him to a place quite near Harrods, but unfortunately there was another shop near by selling the same sort of things.’
‘And where does Dermot come in?’ It had gone on long enough, Kate decided.
‘Lord Auden—Wilfred—wants someone to go into partnership with him and we thought it seems the very thing for Dermot.’
‘Victoriana? You amaze me, Edwina. He would break all the glass domes. You can’t be serious.’
‘It would be much better than doing nothing at all,’ Edwina said primly.
‘What on earth would he do—dust the shells and wrap up parcels? And how much would Lord Auden pay him for that? Not much, I’ll be bound.’
‘Wilfred wouldn’t pay him anything if they were in partnership.’
‘He’d have to put money into it?’
But the money would not be Dermot’s. It would be Kate’s—that left to her by her first husband. The matter was a little delicate and Edwina hesitated.
‘Wilfred is sure that it will prove to be a gold-mine,’ she said. ‘He has the right contacts and such a flair. He has only to start something and everyone follows suit. Moreover, although I am his mother, I think Dermot is very good-looking and has a pleasant personality.’
‘And although I am his wife, I agree with you.’
What a complicated little dish those two had been cooking, she thought. Lord Auden, the pink-faced, mincing creature, would get the money he needed and Dermot thrown in—Dermot amongst all the Victoriana; and Edwina would be able to hold her head up again, if her son were no longer living idle on an older woman’s money. (He had married her for it, everyone at the Bridge Club must have said behind her back.) He would have to go to London every day, Kate supposed, and his mother could pop. . .
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