Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classics; 224 pages; 2006.
Before I discovered the wonderful world of book blogs I had never heard of the English writer Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975). I simply associated the name with the Hollywood actress.
I made a mental note to read something from her extensive bibliography, but it wasn’t until very recently that I acquired my first Taylor novel. I’m not sure why I picked In a Summer Season, her eighth novel (first published in 1961), to begin with, but I spied a cheap copy on Amazon Marketplace and the deal was done. (Apparently the book is regarded as her raunchiest, although I did not know that at the time!)
The story revolves around a wealthy widow, Kate Heron, who marries Dermot, a man ten years her junior. The couple live in a large house in the picturesque Thames Valley, within sight of Windsor Castle, with Kate’s elderly aunt, the housekeeper Mrs Meacock and Kate’s two children, Tom, 22, and Louisa, 16.
But despite this cosy little world, it is clear that all is not well, that Dermot views the arrangement as claustrophobic and that Kate is all too aware of this:
At this time of evening Kate felt that he was restless. He had too many years of pubs and clubs and pleasing himself. Not be free to walk out of the house when he wanted to must seem a monstrous tyranny. She, herself, sometimes in the course of this second marriage, found it a tyranny, too; found other people’s presence irksome.
While nothing much seems to happen — there’s no real plot to speak of — the narrative inches forward by a series of largely domestic scenes that are filled with delicate nuances and innuendo. You soon learn that everyone is working at cross-purposes, that everyone is wearing a mask to protect others from their real feelings. These tensions build and build until a rather tragic, and unexpected, climax is reached.
But while the story might lack a certain — how shall we say it? — page-turning quality, it is a wonderful psychological portrait of a middle-aged woman coming to terms with a new identity, because within In a Summer Season we find the protagonist desperate to be true to herself rather than conform to society’s unwritten moral code. Her friends cut her off because they regard Dermot as a parasite only interested in her money and even her Aunt Ethel thinks the marriage will last “five years at most”. Her teenage daughter sums it up even better:
I think my mother gets jealous [of my brother’s girlfriends], and that’s why she married Dermot; perhaps she thought that she would be getting someone quite young; who would be a bit like her son, but who would have to take her everywhere with him.
But Kate feels she can overlook the gossip and rumours about her because she’s found a man with whom she can enjoy a passionate sexual life. Her lust is such that she can even overlook Dermot’s flaws: his lack of career, his drinking, his lack of “cultural awareness”.
But what Kate refuses to acknowledge is that erotica is no substitute for companionship and a peaceful domestic life. It is only when her old friend Charles — refined, cultured and now widowed — returns to the village that she can begin to see what she might have lost…
In a Summer Season is a fascinating portrait of domestic life from another, more innocent era and how the choices we make impact on our own lives and the lives of others.