Thursday, August 28, 2014
Summer's Day - Mary Bell
At the beginning of term, the staff & students prepare to return to school. Housemaid Alice tidies the Headmistress, Unity Bishop's, office; Miss Meadows, retired Classics mistress prepares to return to work to help out Miss Bishop who has lost another Classics teacher. Assistant Matron Honor Christow reluctantly prepares to leave her father's rectory to return to a job she loathes. Students & best friends Jasmine & Sophie prepare for one last fling at a grown up cocktail party before returning to the Upper Fifth. Young Margery clings to her Nannie & prepares for misery, comforted only by her stuffed toy, Augustus.
Other staff begin the term with mixed feelings. The Cook, Mrs Prior, longs to see her sailor son, Jim, & lives for the times he has leave. She's a comforting presence in the kitchen & keeps an eye on the younger housemaids, Doris, Nora, Maude (known as Noranmaude) & pretty Shirley Briggs, who comes from a large, loving family that she visits on her days off. Mr Walker, the Art teacher, is an unhappy man. Forced to live with his miserable mother, he longs to be able to make a living with his painting but has to teach at St Helens instead. He's a bad teacher, with no real sympathy for his students & a hopeless passion for beautiful, aloof Jasmine. Albert Munnings, the gardener, lives with his wife & baby in a cottage in the grounds. Albert has been drifting since the War & exploits his Apollo-like beauty to flirt with Honor, Shirley & Poppy, the barmaid at the local pub.
The narrative intertwines all these characters as we follow them through the term. Jasmine & Sophie spend as much time as possible subverting the rules & are more often to be found in Mrs Prior's kitchen eating cake & listening to stories about Jim's adventures or in their attic hideaway, than studying. They do each others homework & answer for each other at roll call. They hate sports & do everything possible to avoid it. Both girls are attractive but Jasmine is a beautiful girl, fully aware of the effect she has on Mr Walker, Albert & Sophie's cousin, Tom, home on leave from his Civil Service job in Africa. There's a core of steel in Jasmine & she is the despair of the Headmistress who can never accuse her of insolence, just complete indifference to school & all that it involves. Sophie is a gentler girl, spending hours playing with Albert's little boy, Geoffrey, although she fears she'll never marry "for already she despaired of finding Mr Knightley's equal."
In some ways, this isn't really a school story at all. We see very little of the classroom & the characters only really live when they're outside it. There are romances & tragedy & a lot of humour but also much quiet despair when romance goes wrong or the future seems bleak & drab. The least sympathetic characters are those who subscribe to the hearty school ethos that seems more appropriate to a different era. Summer's Day was published in 1951 & describes life in post-war England. The class structure is still very evident, with the girls addressed as Miss Jasmine & Miss Sophie by the servants, but the efforts of some of the staff to instil the school spirit in the girls are met with complete apathy. One of my favourite characters is Games Mistress Celia Warrinder, who is Honor's only friend & in her hearty, uncomprehending way tries to cheer Honor up after a romance goes wrong. Celia longs for the days of her youth when sport was taken seriously,
"Believe it or not, but one of the Sixth supposed to be watching the match was half-way round the pavilion and reading a book. And guess what it was?"
From her expression Honor was about to hazard No Orchids for Miss Blandish but Celia said, "Poetry!" and taking a draught of tea she added profoundly, "Shelley" as if that made it worse.
The structure of the book reminded me of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet novels, where we move from character to character, almost hovering above them listening to their thoughts before moving on. Small details tell so much about the people in this novel. The teacher who has a passion for detective fiction & keeps Jasmine waiting outside for her reprimand while she hides her latest mystery under the cushions; Miss Meadows returning to her dusty cottage for half-term & deciding to read in the sun rather than clean; Jasmine's lovely, cosy Aunt May (who has brought her up after her parents died) conspiring with Jasmine to avoid her boring clergyman husband; Mr Walker becoming known as Fishy after he unfortunately brings a lobster into class as part of a still life composition, "Before the lesson was half over he wished it at the bottom of the sea." The omniscient narrator does such a beautiful job of setting the scene, showing that the characters are all true to their natures, even in sleep.
When the school was quiet the moon rose late and flooded the seaward rooms. It swept into the dormitory and turned Jasmine's yellow hair to silver, exposing with fine impartiality her sleeping features and Charity's button nose. It dropped on Matron's countenance, who pulled the sheet over her head. Honor dreamed that Albert was coming towards her over gold and silver flowers. Miss Bishop stepped firmly from her couch and drew down the blind. In Miss Meadows' room the moving flood lit up an open Theocritus upon a pair of cotton interlock combinations; in Alice's it received a welcoming grin from a tumbler containing her teeth. It fell upon the reverberating mound that was Doris and caught a gleam from Shirley's open eyes.
There's a large cast of characters & it took me a while to work out who everyone was. I even started a list of who was who. Once I had a chance to read more than a few chapters at a time, I became caught up in the spell of the story & I loved it. I haven't even begun to mention all the characters & the subtle interweaving of their stories. It's a book that you have to set aside time to concentrate on but I think it's well worth it. I'm so glad that Scott from Furrowed Middlebrow raved about Summer's Day so much & made me feel that my life would not be complete until I'd read it!
There are copies of Summer's Day available from Anglophile Books.