I can't speak for everyone else, of course, but to me Sylvia Townsend Warner is a bit of a surprise. She doesn't seem to be very much read these days, and in many respects she'd be perfect for today's audiences. She had some profound political wisdom, she never did the same thing twice, and she was one of the earliest writers in English to examine gay themes and content on a regular basis. So get with it, audience.
On the other hand, she spent a considerable amount of energy on historical novels - her early career as a musicologist involved collecting church music from the Tudor period in England's 15th and 16th centuries. When she turned to fiction writing, she set several novels in times not her own. Maybe that's why today's audience has missed her. Even with the politics and the gay content, historical fiction is a hard sell these days.
"Summer Will Show", for instance, the author's 1936 offering, takes place about 90 years before that, largely in Paris. We'll get to the characters in a minute, but first let's set the scene. In 1848 France is about to experience yet another in a long series of revolutions. There was a king, Louis Philippe, and the people were sick of him because the economy was lousy. Next thing you know, people are setting up makeshift barricades across the roads and fighting the national troops, waiting for the king to step down. And of course, food is scarce, and there's certainly no time for fancy-schmancy affectations like art.
Meantime, over in England, a wealthy landowning heiress named Sophia Willoughby has sent her philandering husband packing and devoted herself to caring for her two young children. It's no spoiler (the information appears on the back jacket of the book) to tell you that both kids die of smallpox, leaving Sophia with little to do. After a few tries at redefining herself, she goes after hubby to demand that he come home and give her another child, but surprises herself by falling in love with her husband's ex-mistress, the performing Jewish storyteller Minna Lemuel.
So what we've got here is a rich lady who falls in love with another woman and thereby enters into her new partner's association of bohemian artists and secret communist revolutionaries. This actually seems fairly straightforward, and not even an original plotline. In this case, though, the emphasis is not on how the main character changes. Rather, we get to see how both women change and stay the same. It's a risky maneuver, because watching people not change isn't particularly interesting. Townsend Warner pulls it off because she's very wise about one aspect of human nature - people may change their political opinions, their sympathies and even their sexual orientation, but they seldom change their behavior.
Sophia, for instance, approaches every circumstance of her life with the same grand certainty that she knows what's going on and how to bend it to her will. She knows how to manage a great estate and goes about trying to manage the new revolution in the same way. She's in for a big surprise, of course.
Minna, too, clings to pretty much the same behavioral pattern whether it's effective or not. The child of a Jewish community in Poland wiped out in a pogrom, she learns to survive by telling the story of her life in manner that fascinates anyone within earshot. Which is all very well when people have the leisure to sit around and complain - when they're starving, no one has the time or the money to listen to Minna.
So, as usual, Sophia and Minna must confront their public and private lives, a process made more urgent by the fact that both aspects of life are undergoing a revolution. Public life is in flux, to such an extent that Sophia the landowner finds herself providing scrap metal to a communist cell. As for private life, it's fairly clear that neither of these women have even considered gay love before. Not that either one of them tells the other "I love you" in so many words. A professor of gay literature could probably explain why Townsend Warner left that bit out - I can't tell whether she felt overt lesbianism would chase all the publishers away or whether she was just being coy - but interestingly, the absence of any obvious love-talk makes the relationship seem more real. "Summer Will Show", by avoiding any academic discussion or abstract theorizing, shows just how it might be to live as a lesbian during a revolution.
I'll bet most people never even wondered what that would be like, let alone looking for a work of art that would express it, but leaving the specifics aside, there's something exhilarating about a simultaneous revolution in public and private life. You might not enjoy an actual life in which all bets are off - on the other hand, you'd probably enjoy reading about it, especially when the narration is so skillful. It's important, for instance, to see that even with food scarce and possible danger close by, Minna's storytelling abilities are amazing enough to attract an audience of children in a public park without even trying too hard. Townsend Warner was good enough to write that scene in such a way that we believe it, which makes it easier to believe that Sophia would stay with her.
The novel starts with a quick poem to explain the title - "Winter will shake, spring will try / Summer will show if you live or die". Which could mean a great many things, but one thing's for sure; if there's to be a revolution, public or private, our old ways of doing things will not be sufficient. This story is useful in showing us how that might work, for better or worse.
Benshlomo says, One way or another, the revolution's here.