Ready for a thoroughly ‘modern’ drawing-room drama? Look no further than Elizabeth Taylor’s In a Summer Season.
No, not Elizabeth Taylor the actress – I wonder how many times Elizabeth Taylor, author, introduced herself with “No, not the Elizabeth Taylor…”. Which is unfortunate because she is the Elizabeth Taylor when it comes to very fine stories that, in so many ways, were far ahead of their time.
In a Summer Season is the story of Kate Heron, a wealthy widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior, Dermot. Add to the mix the return of a dear old friend, Charles, and his beautiful daughter, Kate’s children Lou and Tom, each with problems of their own, an interfering mother-in-law and a watchful aunt.
“Now Kate was blushing, Charles noticed. ‘I could never have married a man who didn’t simply dote on Jane Austen or Henry James,’ she had said years ago.”
Needless to say, Dermot does not fit that bill. Instead, he is young, handsome, has no ambition whatsoever and is devoted to having fun (and Kate). In some ways he is the stereotypical younger lover – out of his depth intellectually, always looking for a scheme, out for a lark. Yet you do feel for Dermot – his awkwardness in the company of Kate’s friends, the gaffes that expose him and his dedication to keeping up appearances for Kate’s benefit.
Taylor is often commended for her wry observations of middle-class and upper middle-class British society and for good reason. In the spirit of Austen, Taylor’s stories are packed with stolen glances, private thoughts, loaded comments and pointed looks. Taylor’s light-handed wit adds another dimension.
“Ethel, who thought breakfast-time a test of character, was interested by what this one was revealing.”
I have a few favourite characters in In a Summer Season. Notably Edwina, Kate’s mother-in-law, and Ethel, Kate’s spinster-aunt that lives with her.
“Although Dermot would have entirely avoided his mother’s company if he could, he was quickly suspicious of any hint of criticism or amusement when other people spoke of her.”
“Aunt Ethel descended the stairs wearing her beaded jersey and a touch of talcum powder… – a concession she made in the evenings. She had the ample, maternal, bosomy looks to be found in so many elderly spinsters….Living in her niece’s house involved her in all sorts of problems that no one else knew existed… Ethel had a way of bending her head at closed doors, not listening, as she told herself, but ascertaining.”
Some may find Taylor’s stories a little obvious – they’re not. They were there first. Given the time period in which they were written, issues such as blended families and women marrying younger men (for fun and pleasure!) were well ahead of their time.
Finally, and for my own benefit, I had to make note of one of Kate’s musings about motherhood. It’s so true.
“Kate was always, like most mothers, wasting words and knowing she wasted them. ‘It can’t be anything but painful, having daughters,’ she thought, closing the door. ‘Wanting so much for them, and dreading so much, yet unable to ensure or prevent a thing. One is quite useless.'”
Take In a Summer Season with a buttery teacake – I’m sure Ethel would approve.
4/5 – Taylor is my reading equivalent to ‘comfort food’. Enjoy!