What a painful, heart-wrenching read is In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor. It is about love – giddying heart-spinning young love, the intensity of teenage crush, the love and companionship of friendship, parental love, second love, age-gap love, tragic love and lust-love. Widow Kate is seen by friends and family to have married again, unwisely, to a younger man, the charming and feckless Dermot. Kate’s sixteen-year-old daughter Louise hates the way Dermot speaks to her mother, while Kate’s son Tom struggles to make his way in his grandfather’s business and retired teacher Aunt Ethel fears for the new marriage which she believes is founded solely on sex. As Kate adopts new hobbies to fit in with her husband – going to the races, the pub – Dermot feels excluded by the things he doesn’t know, and by Kate’s shared experience with first husband Alan. The household exists in an uneasy alliance. For the first half of the book, this calm is layered with a troubling current eventually brought to the surface by the arrival of Alan’s oldest friend, Charles, and his beautiful daughter Araminta. Tom becomes too caught up in his own calf love for Minty to worry about his mother, Lou falls for the local curate, while Ethel tells all in sensational letters to her friend Gertrude. ‘Ethel had a way of bending her head at closed doors, not listening, as she told herself, but ascertaining.’
None of the characters are endearing. Their paths to the truth, or not, about love – their own love and that of others – their assumptions, misjudgements and blindness, are beset with challenges. Some I forsaw, others I didn’t. Elizabeth Taylor draws a delicately coloured picture of life in a middle-class English family in the Home Counties in the fifties. Times are changing, post-war, particularly the role of women. Kate drifts, used as she was to being the junior partner to her first husband Alan, now she finds herself acting as both mother and lover to her second, younger, husband. Neither are truthful to the other.
More a story of consecutive scenes than a novel with increasing tension, In a Summer Season was published in 1961 and so combines the slower classic style of the older novel, injected with the new sexual tension appropriate to the times. The ending, so long awaited, finally arrived abruptly. My favourite Taylor novel, to date, is A View of the Harbour.
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