In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Longstanding readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for Elizabeth Taylor and her beautifully executed stories of human behaviour – the small-scale dramas of a domestic nature, typically portrayed with great insight and attention to detail. In a Summer Season is no exception to the rule – a novel of love, family tensions and the fragile nature of changing relationships, all conveyed with this author’s characteristic economy of style.

The novel revolves around Kate Heron, previously widowed and now married to Dermot, a man ten years her junior. Also living with the Herons at their comfortable home in Denham are Kate’s children from her first marriage: twenty-two-year-old Tom, who is struggling to please his punctilious grandfather in the family business, and sixteen-year-old Louisa, a slightly awkward teenager home from boarding school for the holidays. Completing the immediate family are Kate’s elderly aunt, Ethel, a kindly, sharp-eyed woman who delights in noting the smallest of developments in the Herons’ marital relationship, and the cook, Mrs Meacock, who longs to travel and compile an anthology of sayings.

Kate’s relationship with Dermot is a very different affair to that of her previous marriage to Alan. Where Alan was cultured and dependable, Dermot is uninformed and aimless, failing to hold down any kind of job for more than a few weeks – a situation that frequently leaves him short of money when he most desires it. While Kate is aware of many of Dermot shortcomings, she accepts them relatively willingly, believing herself to be liberated in this new relationship. Dermot, for his part, also seems to be very taken with Kate, the emotion of love being a relatively new experience for him, albeit one that comes with its own anxieties.

Nevertheless, the marriage has its weak spots, a point that becomes abundantly clear when an old family friend of Kate’s returns following a period abroad. Into the mix comes Charles, an attractive widower who was previously married to Kate’s best friend, Dorothea, a woman much missed by those closest to her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dermot – who has never met Charles before – is destabilised by the presence of this newcomer with his easy, sophisticated charm and intimacy with Kate. Consequently, Dermot cannot resist going on the offensive with Charles, a development that Taylor conveys with her trademark intuition and skill.

‘What will you imbibe?’ he [Dermot] asked, smiling to himself as he took up the decanter. He picked these phrases with care and uttered them precisely and maliciously, watching keenly for a sign from Charles – for the slightest flicker of distaste; but Charles stayed bland and vague. As the glass of sherry was handed over, their eyes met for the first time that evening, and it was Charles who looked away first. (p. 184–185)

It’s a situation exacerbated by Dermot’s fondness for drink and predilection for petty quarrels. As the tension builds, the fault lines in the Heron marriage are exposed, with Kate adopting an air of edgy restlessness and Dermot responding to her mood accordingly.

There were voices in the kitchen, and then Kate came bustling in. Ever since a few evenings before, when Dermot returning drunk and late for dinner had spoken harshly to her, she had moved in a bright little whirlwind of her own making, with not a minute to spare for anyone. She was always on the wing, setting out on one errand after another, and no one could hope to detain her or say a word that would be listened to. Their words were what she dreaded – their thoughts she knew – and, trapped at mealtimes, she warded them off with a torrent of her own. The flow was more easily come by when she had had several drinks. In attaining this end, Dermot, full of uneasy contrition, was ready to encourage her. (p. 185)

Meanwhile, Kate’s children are experiencing relationship troubles of their own…

Having worked his way through a succession of casual relationships with attractive young women, Tom finds himself hopelessly in love with Charles’ daughter, the cool and glamorous Araminta – now utterly transformed from the uncomplicated girl he knew as a child. Araminta – sophisticated, distant and supremely comfortable in her own skin – looks set to drive Tom wild with her nonchalant behaviour and air of mystique.

‘Will she [Araminta] ever look like this again’, Tom wondered, ‘– in that frock and with her hair like that and the two of us alone?’ He wished that Dermot would be done with staring at her bosom. ‘This bloody, damned family gathering,’ he thought furiously. ‘The mix-up of the age-groups, the cramping fools the this, the that, the rubbishy tedium of it all, with the bloody everlasting chatter, sitting for hours at the table with pins and needles in my feet, all the sodding knives and forks. Aunt Ethel with her surreptitious pill-taking. “Have you seen anything of old so-and-so lately?” “No, old son, I can’t off-hand say as I bloody have.”’ (p. 129)

For Louisa, the challenges of growing up are somewhat different, attracted as she is to Father Blizzard, the local curate. With little fuss being made of her at home, Louisa finds solace in her friendship with the clergyman, even though she wishes it could be something more romantic. (In truth, she misses her father terribly, a loss that has destabilised her sense of comfort and security at home.) Father Blizzard, for his part, is also unsettled, relegated to visiting the least important parishioners while the Vicar keeps the most prestigious parish duties to himself.

Meanwhile, Aunt Ethel is busy observing developments from the sidelines, documenting every intricacy of Kate and Dermot’s relationship in a sequence of gossipy letters to her friend, Gertrude, a fellow suffragette from days of old. As far as Ethel sees things, Kate is far too colourful for her age one minute and rather irritable or over-tired the next.

In a Summer Season is an exquisitely observed novel of the different manifestations of love – from the muddles of Kate’s love for Dermot, to the anxieties of Tom’s adoration for Araminta, to the simplicities of Louisa’s affection for Father Blizzard. As ever with Taylor, the characters are perfectly drawn, complete with little idiosyncrasies and details that make them feel authentic and believable. She is an author adept at catching people in their most private of moments, exposing their anxieties and failings alongside their hopes and dreams. Even the supporting players are beautifully realised, from the watchful Aunt Ethel with her penchant for the cello to the genial young curate with his leanings towards Catholicism.

It’s a novel full of perceptive observations about the changing nature of relationships, the differences in attitudes between the generations, how productively (or not) we spend our time, and the challenges or fears of ageing. The heat and sensuality of an English summer are also beautifully evoked.

While the novel’s denouement is rather dramatic and sobering, much of the narrative is shot through with dashes of sly humour – as evidenced by the passage on Tom and Araminta quoted earlier. (There are some wonderful set-pieces in the novel, mostly revolving around family dinners and social gatherings, events that enable Taylor to flex her social observation skills to the full.)

As the narrative draws to a close, certain individuals find their lives altered forever, a fateful reminder of the transient nature of the seasons in more senses than one. This is an excellent novel, full of insight and lucidity about love and its various complexities. Very highly recommended indeed.

In a Summer Season is published by Virago; personal copy.

34 thoughts on “In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, interesting! There is something Shakespearean about the denouement, that’s for sure. If I had to offer one criticism of this novel, I’d say that the ending feels a tad too brutal. Taylor is such a subtle, perceptive writer, adept at capturing the nuances and intricacies of human behaviour. As a consequence, the shock factor of those final scenes seems somewhat out of step with her usual degree of sensitivity.

      Reply
  1. Liz Dexter

    A very perceptive review and I love the details in the quotes you’ve pulled out. We “did” Taylor all one year ages ago and that was a good year indeed. I must return to her short stories, as I galloped through those when I got that massive volume that came out – couldn’t stop myself!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Ah, yes – I vaguely remember that readalong to tie in with her centenary year. I’d only just ‘discovered’ the existence of the book blogging community back then so it wasn’t terribly high on my radar at the time. Nevertheless, I do recall others referring back to it since then – Ali and Karen, in particular.

      The short stories are wonderful, especially the later ones. I’m desperately trying to save the last collection (The Devastating Boys) for a while, just to have some gems to look forward to. I fully expect it to be the best of the lot!

      Reply
  2. BookerTalk

    You’ve sold me on this one. I wasn’t keen on the first book I read by her but have since come to love what you call her economy of scale. She nails the small moments of drama so well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. I know she’s not to everyone’s taste, but then again, very few writers are! As you say, she captures those small moments of drama very well – the disappointments and minor tragedies of everyday life.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Brilliant review. I love this novel, it is so very 1960s, rather sensual at times, and Taylor is masterly at portraying these relationships. It’s a novel I have read twice and will return to again.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Yes, it is rather sensual at times. Kate seems more liberated in her attitudes to sexual relationships than the women in Taylor earlier novels, e.g. Julia from At Mrs Lippincote’s or Beth from A View of the Harbour. She is perhaps more relaxed than those early protagonists, less isolated in her marriage in spite of Dermot’s (many) shortcomings.

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      PS I couldn’t help but think that Father Blizzard had walked straight out a Barbara Pym novel! Very reminiscent of Some Tame Gazelle, don’t you think?

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Sounds great. I want to read Elizabeth Taylor partially because of you commentary on her books. As I like Victorian literature that tries to realistically delve into human nature, I am sure that I will like her books.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I think you’d love her, Brian, but there are probably slightly better Taylors to start with than this. At Mrs Lippincote’s and A View of the Harbour are both excellent – either would give you a great introduction to her style and skills with characterisation. Plus they both come fairly early in her career. So, if you like what you see, it’ll be relatively straightforward to follow her development over the years.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review, Jacqui – you really pull out all of the strands so wonderfully. It’s one of Taylor’s best, I think – she nails her characters brilliantly, and her social observation is so acute. You make me want to read it again! My blog, in its early days, was the host for the month we had of reading this book, and I really enjoyed pulling out its various themes! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you. That’s high praise indeed considering you hosted a virtual discussion on this book. I’m guessing that must have been part of the event to mark her centenary, would that be right? I liked this a lot – maybe not quite as much as Mrs Palfrey, A View of the Harbour or The Soul of Kindness, but definitely more than Angel which I found too cutting or cruel for my tastes. (I know that novel is quite divisive relative to Taylor’s other books.)

      As I was saying to Simon earlier, my only caveat would be the nature of the denouement in Summer Season (which I probably ought to been a bit more explicit about in my piece above). It just felt a bit too brutal and rushed compared to the rest of the novel (and most of Taylor’s other work in general) – quite shocking, in fact. Did that crop up in the conversation at all when you were discussing it back in 2012?

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        Yes, it was when the LT Group were doing the readalong in 2012. I’d just started the blog and I had initially been going to do a guest post on Laura’s blog, but then ended up hosting the book on mine. It was an intense year of reading! :D

        I know what you mean about the denouement and I think we did discuss it, though in my posts I was trying to avoid too many spoilers. But I did wonder about what kind of retribution Taylor was meting out to her two most sexually active characters. There was discussion about how much of the book was drawn from own life, which is a vaguely controversial subject too, as it was covered in depth in Nicola Beaumann’s biography of Taylor.

        If you can be bothered to go back all those years the posts begin here! :DDD

        https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/elizabeth-taylor-centenary-in-a-summer-season-week-1-death-and-wreaths/

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, interesting. I’d like to read the Beauman biography at some point, particularly as Taylor lived quite locally to me for most of her married life. Many thanks for the link, too – I’ll definitely take a look at the discussion!

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I don’t think it’s as well known as some of her others – possibly because it was published in the early ’60s, a time when her work might have been seen as somewhat traditional in light of the sexual revolution that was beginning to kick in? I’ll be interested to hear what you think should you get a chance to read it.

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    Spent time reading this book afternoon. So much to enjoy; the awkward dinners, the feckless Dermot with his inability to hold a job, the cello and piano duets by Ethel and Lou, Tom and Dermot’s fascination with their new television, the poor curate on the outer because he is too ‘high’ and of course that turkey. It seems it was ‘off’.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Delightful, isn’t it? Taylor is so good on these little details like the musical duets and the scenes in the hairdressers. As you say, the awkwardness of social occasions is beautifully captured, the underlying tensions threatening to break through the civilised facade at any moment. I think my favourite character was Aunt Ethel, furtively watching every development from the sidelines to document in her letters to Gertrude. Taylor’s secondary characters are always a delight, and Dermot’s mother, Edwina, is no exception to that rule. Marvellous stuff!

      Reply
  7. Radz Pandit

    Lovely review Jacqui! I loved the passage you have highlighted on Tom’s thoughts, it’s quite funny. This is a novel I almost bought many times, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet. I have Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness on my shelves, so I keep thinking i should get to them first before I buy more!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I would recommend all three of those ahead of Summer Season. It’s still very good (particularly the secondary characters and set pieces), but maybe not quite as rounded or well balanced as the others. Such treats you have to look forward to there!

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I actually have a copy of this – my anticipation of reading it now duly increased. I somehow seem to have not read any of her work this year so must rectify that in 2020 – I think I have three of her novels unread!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a fine position to be in. It’s always good to have something to look forward to, especially with a writer of Taylor’s calibre!

      I’ll be interested to see what you think of this one, particularly the denouement. I loved it up to that point, but the ending just felt a touch too melodramatic compared to the rest of the book (and Taylor’s style in general). As Karen touched on above, I wondered there was an element of punishing the central protagonists for their progressive attitudes towards sex. Not that there’s anything overtly risque going on – it’s just more sensual than Taylor’s usual fare.

      Reply
  9. madamebibilophile

    Lovely review Jacqui. I thought this was so brilliantly observed and the quotes you pulled reminded me just what joy Taylor’s writing is. She really is so skilled at the close observation of people and situations, without being heavy-handed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that lightness of touch is such a skill. She manages to capture her characters and their situations in just a few carefully chosen sentences. Quite remarkable…

      Reply
  10. Lisa Hill

    I’ve decided it’s high time I read some Elizabeth Taylor, and I’ve ordered A Game of Hide and Seek, recommended to me by Tony from Tony’s Book World:)

    Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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