In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story “The Music at Long Verney” (1971), an old landed couple find themselves listening to music outside the window of their own large country house, Long Verney, which they have rented out to a sophisticated young couple from town. While the story seems to ally our sympathies on the side of the old couple and their attachment to the English countryside, Townsend Warner dismisses them at the end of the story as “impermeably self-righteous.” Fresh experiences, fresh opportunities for empathy and understanding of other lives, fail to penetrate them. They come away from listening to the music at Long Verney grasping at an excuse not to repeat the visit. They shun the opportunity to make a deeper connection.
Townsend Warner’s fiction is peopled with insiders who find themselves on the outside. Lolly Willowes, the daughter of a respectable family, becomes a witch. Mr. Fortune, an English bank clerk, becomes a missionary on a South Sea Island and an outsider among the natives. Ralph Kello, a vagrant fleeing from the plague, finds himself impersonating a priest in a medieval convent in The Corner That Held Them (1948). Ralph, who becomes known as Sir Ralph, is an outsider who finds himself on the inside, but who secretly remains outside the sanction of the church. The conflict in the Townsend Warner’s novels is often between who people are on the inside, and the different spheres in which they find themselves.
Sophia Willoughby, in Summer Will Show (1936), is another such character. Like the couple in “The Music at Long Verney,” Sophia is a member of the English landed gentry, at the same time bound by the expectations of her class and in mental rebellion against them. She’s bored and unhappy, with nothing to give meaning to her life but her children and the rituals of her class. Then her children die of smallpox, and Sophia travels to Paris, where she unexpectedly falls in love with her husband’s Jewish mistress, Minna Lemuel, and becomes caught up in the revolutionary struggles of 1848. The social insider becomes an outsider, living from hand-to-mouth, but always at the same time remaining, by virtue of her class and upbringing, outside the experience of the workers and revolutionaries who now surround her.
Sophia is caught between passionate engagement and critical detachment. She runs hot and cold. For Minna, life is art. She has an ability to pose with perfect sincerity. She is a talented storyteller, and it’s her stories that initially draw Sophia toward her. Warner is interested in the revolutionary power of stories, and in the revolutionary power of love, to change our lives and change the world. At the end of the novel, Sophia is gradually absorbed into words. “Absorbed” is, fittingly, the last word of the novel.
Summer Will Show is itself absorbing—a vivid, lyrical, bold and stimulating novel. It takes unexpected turns, and never gives its characters an easy way out. Warner has a particular genius for the historical novel, which allows her to recreate a world that is like our own, but with telling differences. The reader, like Warner's characters, is thoroughly absorbed, but at the same time stands at a critical distance—looking back, drawing connections, listening to a distant music.
When she wrote Summer Will Show, Sylvia Townsend Warner had begun a relationship with another woman, the poet Valentine Ackland. The two women became devoted Communists, helped to organize workers in rural Dorset, and made a trip to Spain during the Civil War to support the struggle against fascism. Sophia’s journey in Summer Will Show from the world of the landed gentry to the world of the revolutionary worker was in many respects like Warner’s own. Warner was the daughter of a schoolmaster at Harrow, an expert on Tudor church music, a poet and novelist. During World War I, she worked in a munitions factory, where she gained first-hand knowledge of industrial working conditions. She began to see the dissonance between middle-class romanticizing of the working class and the actual harsh conditions of labor.
In Summer Will Show, there are intellectuals who romanticize revolution, who see it as something essentially picturesque, and there are real working men and women for whom revolution is a final tragic act of desperation. Sophia, like Warner herself, can no longer romanticize, but she can never be an authentic member of the proletariat. She remains essentially an outsider. Summer Will Show stands on my bookshelf beside another NYRB Classic, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which has at its center a debutante turned Communist. Sophia, like Mitford, cannot step entirely out of the life into which she was born, but neither can she go back to it.
In a significant scene in the novel, Sophia finds herself listening to a conversation between Minna and the proto-Marxist Ingelbrecht:
What I feel, thought Sophia, is what I have seen painted sometimes on the faces of people listening to Beethoven; the look of those listening to a discourse, to an argument carried on in entire sincerity, an argument in which nothing is impassioned, or persuasive, or reasonable, except by force of sincerity; and there they sit in a heavenly thraldom, as blind people sit in the sun making a purer acknowledgment with their skin than sight, running after this or that flashing tinsel, can ever make. I cannot for the life of me see what Minna and Ingelbrecht are after; to me a revolution means that there is turmoil and after it people are worse off than they were before; and yet as I see them there...it is as though I were listening to music, able to feel and follow the workings of a different world. For it is there, that irrefutable force and logic of a different existence.Unlike the old couple in “The Music at Long Verney,” who likewise stand outside the lives of others, Sophia listens.