A vivid dissection of middle-class life

In a Summmer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Many have told me that I should read the books of Elizabeth Taylor – an author I’d not heard of until the publication of Nicola Beauman’s recent biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor by the wonderful Persephone Books.

Published in 1961, it follows one summer in the lives of a family living in the Thames Valley, with ‘The View’ of Windsor castle visible in the far distance. This is already prime commuter belt – every day the men go off to work on the train to their jobs in the city – well, everyone except Dermot that is. He is the young Irish thirty-something husband of forty-something well-off widow Kate. They live in some comfort with Kate’s sixteen year old daughter Louisa and twenty-two year old son Tom, her Aunt Ethel, and looked after by cook Mrs Meacock.

As the novel opens, Kate is on a duty visit to her new mother-in-law, Edwina, up in London for the day. Edwina is always trying to find a job for her youngest, who has never been able to settle at anything or anyone until he fell in love with Kate. I picked up this particular one for its striking cover photo, and was told by pal Helen, that it was about a woman who marries a much younger man – a toy boy! – well that sold it to me instantly.

In the first half of the movel we find out what makes them all tick – and frankly, it’s all about sex. Kate with her younger husband, Tom with his girlfriends, and Louisa’s growing awareness and crush on the young curate in the village. Aunt Ethel watches all these mostly repressed emotions and assesses it in her letters to her friend Gertrude – “When the sex goes Kate will think him no bargain”.

Then the Thorntons return from abroad. The Thorntons, Charles and Dorothea, were Kate and her first husband Alan’s best friends, and Tom had a thing for Minty, their daughter. Charles’ wife died and Kate is keen to make them feel at home again now they’re back in England. There are bound to be problems – as three’s a crowd – Charles and Kate are the same age, whereas Dermot is closer to the children in age and sometimes, outlook.

“They were walking in circles around each other, Kate thought – both Dermot and Charles. When she had introduced them, Dermot had shaken hands with an air of boyish respect, almost adding ‘Sir’ to his greeting, and Charles seemed to try and avoid looking at him or showing more than ordinary interest. Although he had not met him before, even as far away as Bahrain he had heard stories, and Kate, writing to tell him of her marriage, had done so in a defensive strain, as if an explanation were due and she could think of no very good one.”

The story is mainly told from Kate’s point of view, but we hear not only her voice, but her thoughts also – and the two are often opposite. In that terribly repressed middle-class way, everyone says one thing and means another. The author takes a scalpel to these relationships and dissects them with sensitivity and wit, bringing things to a climax with great skill. I can safely say this novel made an instant fan of me, and I wonder why I never discovered her before. (9/10)

0 thoughts on “A vivid dissection of middle-class life

  1. Juxtabook says:

    Another lovely review – Elizabeth Taylor is on my 'to get' list. I have heard such good things about her this year. Very striking cover you've got there too.

  2. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Thank you Juxtabook. I'm told that 'A game of hide and seek' is her finest and I'm going to seek that one out next.

  3. Helen says:

    I'm glad you enjoyed it – I thought you would (not just because of the toy boy!). You will discover that Virago are reprinting A Game of Hide and Seek (oh yes, her finest…) and it is, annoyingly, not due for publication until late in September. As I wanted to include it on an A level courswork module, I am very irritated.But the new cover looks beautiful!HAve just finished the Carnegie shortlist – some absolute corkers! You should add Bog Child (Siobhan Dowd) and The Knife of Never Letting go (Patrick Ness – and its sequel The Ask and the Answer – bks 1 & 2 in trilogy) to your list!!!

  4. Annabel Gaskell says:

    Thanks Helen! A game of hide and seek was one of the Virago anniversary series – and I've managed to get my hands on one of them (it has a lovely cover design by Celia Birtwell). Can't wait to read it.On the Carnegie shortlist – I'd heard that the Patrick Ness was brill, and will look out the other too. Thank you.

  5. Mark Thornton says:

    By a totally unscientific study, I'd say the Knife of Never Letting Go is going to be the winner this year (and is the only one I haven't read). I have to say though that I'm really enjoying 'Cosmic' by Frank Cottrell Boyce, very blokey humour and I'm finding it very funny…

  6. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Mark – I liked 'Cosmic' too – didn't expect to, but it was very sweet – laughoutloud funny at times but also moving, especially it's celebration of fatherly love.One thing that may stop Knife from winning is that it's bk 1 in a trilogy and Donna said the judges don't like giving the prize to those!

  7. Helen says:

    That was me leaving anonymous comment above – forgot to put in my name!Glad you got hold of Hide and Seek – that is a lovely edition (I've got a Barbara Pym with the anniversary cover)

  8. Annabel Gaskell says:

    We've got diverted onto Carnegie shadowing – something I think I will have to do for myself next year to fully join in! All those titles you've mentioned sound unmissable.

  9. Minnie says:

    Came straight here from your Normblog profile, Annabel – and very glad I did.Loved this review of a favourite book, which reminded me of just what I've been missing for the past few decades since first reading it. Now gearing up for the biography followed by some re-reading, I hope.PS Please could you ask your estimable friend, Steerforth, to enable OpenID on his blog? Often go there, longing to express appreciation; but us WordPress plebs are blocked from commenting!

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