“You have run away,” said Minna placidly. “You’ll never go back now, you know. I’ve encouraged a quantity of people to run away, but I have never seen any one so decisively escaped as you.”
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1936 novel about runaway 19th-century revolutionary Communist lesbians. What’s not to like?
Sophia Willoughby is the proprietress of a 19th-century estate. Sophia is very much the English lady, connected to her part of the land; as we join her at the beginning of the plot, her husband, who is a sort of aristocratic parasite on her holdings, has run off to be with his mistress. She spends her time cultivating her estate and her children, until smallpox carries off the latter. Sophia, drowning in grief and raging against the constraints of her life, joaurneys to Paris to find her husband and his despised mistress. She plans to demand another child of him, but when she meets the mistress, Minna Lemuel, she falls instantly in love and plunges into a completely new way of living.
Sophia is used to being her own master—under the law, her husband controls all her money, but Sophia is undoubtedly the true heiress. Her qualities don’t change in her new life—she is good at everything that is needed, from bargaining in the market to shooting pistols on a barricade, the Englishwoman character whose main characteristic is her competence in action. Minna is her opposite. She’s a storyteller, free with her emotions, left in her politics, older, and Jewish to boot.* Sophia’s growing obsession with Minna, and the way that her hatred of this enchanting woman transforms into love and freedom, is the strongest section of the book.
Sophia and Minna’s relationship develops in tandem with the revolutions of 1848, and Sophia’s newfound freedom includes the freedom to develop her own political views. In conjunction with her practicality, Sophia is attracted to the Communists, who seem the most likely to “do something.” I wonder if the unfashionable politics are what has buried this book as a depiction of gay lives. My grandfather was vaguely socialist; he died before I could form any memories of him, but he left behind a room full of books which reflected his political views. According to his collection, the 1930s were a time in which the main character’s commitment to socialism or communism was an appropriate ending for a novel, just like marriage or death. Summer Will Show was definitely not in his library, but it follows the same narrative pattern. Perhaps the ending—while not as didactic as, say, the endings of Upton Sinclair—is what keeps university students struggling through Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood as the “lesbian novel.”**
Warner’s most famous novel is Lolly Willowes, which is about a woman who turns into a witch, and on the basis of Summer Will Show I’ll have to read it as well.
* Minna is constantly described as Jewish and as possessing Jewish traits, but since the reader sees from Sophia’s point of view, this isn’t very surprising. Minna uses her own Jewish identity to encourage her listeners towards her cause, intertwining her sufferings from anti-Semitic horrors and her desire for freedom. She’s a human character with a past, not just a sort of anti-Christian germ.
** I’m doing Nightwood an injustice—in my defense, I read it under a strict time constraint and with a purpose, that being to look for all the parts about sexuality because we were doing the queer texts part of class. Never mind that it’s a modernist novel and not supposed to reflect the exact, realist life-as-it-is-lived. It was like reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to find the parts about oppressed Irish people. I should re-read it so I know whether I dislike it on its own terms. (Here’s a link to an Amazon review where somebody compares Djuna Barnes to Steven Segal; in case the reviewer ever stumbles on this, I have it on good authority that what T.S. Eliot was smoking was crack, because HE WAS A TIME TRAVELLER.)