Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Outside Looking In: Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show

Sylvia Townsend Warner is one of my most favorite writers.  It's hard for me to describe how wonderful she is.  Her work consists of cutting and polishing a diamond until it shines out in all its facets, cold, burning, phosphorescent.  And funny.  Moreover, I admire her life as much as her work.  She is very much like a queer Communist Jane Austen. 

Her novel Summer Will Show tells the story of a love affair between two women, who to a certain extent resemble herself and her life partner, Valentine Ackland.  (Interestingly, she imagined the two characters long before meeting Ackland, but didn't write the book until after they were together.)  As much as I enjoy the book, I couldn't help but recognize, upon re-reading it recently, that it has some flaws in its approach to race.

Sophia Willoughby (rather like Emma Woodhouse) is young, handsome, rich, and mistress of all she surveys.  She lives contentedly on her country estate with her two children.  It doesn't really bother her that her husband has run off to Paris to live with another woman - she doesn't want him back - although her conventional mind is rather unsettled by the discovery that this woman (whom she's never met) is not only older than Mr. Willoughby, but also Jewish.

 Sophia always knows the right thing to do on all occasions.  As the story opens she is taking her children to breathe the fumes from the lime-kiln.  It's a sure cure for their whooping-cough; she underwent the same treatment as a child and it fixed her right up.  Unfortunately, the lime-kiln man is infected with smallpox, and within a month her children are dead.

Deranged by grief, Sophia decides that the best thing to do is to seek out her husband and conceive another child with him.  She heads off to Paris, but her carefully-laid plans go awry when it turns out that her husband's mistress - now his former mistress - is much more fascinating than he is.  Moreover, she arrives in February, 1848, and gets caught up in the revolution.  (Friedrich Engels appears as a supporting character.)

This "other woman," Minna Lemuel, is Jewish, as I mentioned above.  Warner clearly delineates her as a person of color.  More than once, her skin is said to be the color of "milk-coffee."  Her hair is jet-black, blacker than any white person's hair.  She's exotic.  (Of course, to a proper Englishwoman like Sophia, all these Europeans are exotic.)  Minna is a revolutionary, because she believes that will bring more freedom for her people.  Incidentally, Summer Will Show was published in 1936 - when it was no small thing for Warner to remind her readers that Jews had always been part of European history, or to declare that when the revolution comes she wants to be on the Jewish side.

There is also another person of color in the book, named Caspar, Sophia's cousin.  Sophia's uncle is a plantation owner in the West Indies.  He has a child with one of his slaves, and sends the boy to be educated in England.  (Apparently Warner's own great-great-uncle did the same thing.)  Sophia finds a school for him, and he stays at her house briefly, before her children come down with smallpox.  (How he manages to avoid catching the disease I don't know.)  Later he shows up again.  Caspar is problematic.

When discussing Minna, Warner trots out all the Jewish stereotypes, and dispels most of them.  The easiest way to dispel a stereotype is to present someone as an individual, and Minna certainly is that.  Most importantly, she gets to speak for herself - in fact, she rarely stops talking.  By contrast, Caspar has only two or three lines in the whole book.  He never truly expresses himself.

Warner has a talent for describing people in terms that are both superficial and significant.  But with Caspar it's all superficiality - she never gets below the surface.  She also habitually points out her characters' foolishness.  What this means is that, although everyone in the book is prejudiced against Caspar, Warner doesn't necessarily condone their prejudice. Unfortunately, she doesn't argue against it either.

Warner loves outsiders, and she loves being an outsider.  I think that's part of the reason why she put Caspar in the book.  Unfortunately, he is too much of an outsider for her.  What she enjoys most about being an outsider is the ability to critique her society, as an outsider looking in.  But in order to understand Caspar she would have to be an outsider looking out.  That's too uncomfortable.

The people of color in her earlier book, Mr Fortune's Maggot, are more realistic.  I think that's because they are rooted in a stable culture - they live on a Polynesian island, and Mr Fortune is the white outsider who comes to visit them there.  Warner understands that they have a traditional society of their own, and she knows how to depict a traditional society.  There is not much difference between her small Polynesian village and her small English village, except for the lack of sexual repression.

But Caspar is rootless.  He doesn't fit into white society, and as for black society, which in this case means slave society - I don't think Warner could face it.  She never denied that white people were capable of injustice and oppression.  In many of her stories she unflinchingly describes cruelty and suffering.  But for some reason this is too much.

She liked to write about people escaping their fetters, or failing to escape, or choosing not to, but as far as I can recall her fetters were always metaphorical.  What would she have done with real ones?

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