The Summer of ’39
The transformation of old griefInto a present grace of mind–Laura Riding, "The Forgiven Past" (1938)
"I wish this was a nice story," writes Nancy Brewster, the narrator of Miranda Seymour’s new novel, in her memory-haunted home on the coast of Massachusetts. "I wish I could just write about the good times. But then none of it would make any sense, and making sense of things is the purpose of it all."
On one level, The Summer of ’39 is an attempt to make sense of a historic, as opposed to fictional, reality. Seymour has fictionalized a chapter in the lives of Robert Graves and Laura Riding, the British writer and American poet with whom Seymour became intimately familiar when writing her biography of Graves, Life on the Edge (1995). It is an episode that–like much of Graves’ long, complex, and creative life–left its mark on poetry, autobiography, fiction, criticism, and historical scholarship.
Riding met Graves in England upon the publication of her first book of poems in 1925, when Graves was in a troubled marriage with the artist Nancy Nicholson. The two poets collaborated on several works, and then entered into a volatile relationship that remains the subject of much speculation. They moved to Marjorca, where Riding wrote her best poems and Graves began his cycle of historical novels, including the groundbreaking I, Claudius (1934). Then, in the fateful summer of 1939, they traveled to America to visit former poet, unconventional literary scholar, and Time magazine critic Schuyler Jackson, and his wife, Katharine. It is this summer that gives Seymour’s novel its name.
By then, Graves and Riding’s relationship had become strained, competitive, and, by Riding’s command, platonic. Their American sojourn led, not unexpectedly, to its demise. What couldn’t have been foreseen, however, was Riding’s role in the destruction of the Jacksons’ marriage. The strong attraction between her and Schuyler, and the subsequent revelation of their involvement, pushed both Graves and Katharine over the edge. Graves suffered a nervous breakdown and returned home, where he recovered, remarried, and wrote such seminal works as The White Goddess (1947). Katharine also suffered an emotional breakdown, during which she allegedly attempted to strangle her young daughter. She was placed in a mental institution.
The Jacksons divorced. Riding and Schuyler married. Riding renounced poetry, and she embarked with Jackson on a massive book about language, titled Rational Meaning. Laura Riding Jackson died in 1991, leaving behind her potent, hard-edged poems, and a less than flattering personal reputation.
• • •
It's easy to see why Seymour remained obsessed with the story, especially the emotional and spiritual dimensions that were off limits in the Graves biography. Free of those constraints, Seymour is able to invent a fictional protagonist whose fate parallels Katharine Jackson’s but whose soul and life are her own. Graves and Riding appear in mythologized form, and the Jacksons’ lives served as the slenderest of armatures for Seymour’s richly imagined tale.
Seymour’s characters and their predicaments–as well as the novel’s moral and metaphysical concerns regarding the violation of the innocence of children, and of the sanctity of friendship, love, and marriage, as well as spiritual abuse–are so compelling in their own right that a reader who knew nothing about Graves, Riding, and the Jacksons–or Seymour’s interest in them–would readily embrace the narrative’s sensual imagery and sharp insights into human nature. Hope for such open-minded receptivity may have led Seymour to save her succinct Author’s Note, which reveals the real-life source of her inspiration, for an addendum to the novel. This placement may seem disingenuous, but it does subtly make the point that this is a work of art which possesses its own vital reality.
Nancy is a commanding narrator. In the present, she spends her days at her beloved Point House gardening to the music of the wind and sea. She pines for the company of her two granddaughters, but isn’t surprised by her daughter’s reluctance to arrange a visit, and calmly reminds herself of the hard lesson her hardships have taught her–which is simply and brutally that "it doesn’t do to depend on love." And so she instead confides her long-suppressed secrets to the holdfast of her notebook, scenes from which come to dominate the novel.
Seymour uses this classic story-within-the-story structure with great fluidity. Nancy begins with an account of the summer of 1914, her first at Point House with her affectionate aunt and uncle. She is delivered unceremoniously by her impatient parents, who travel on with her brother, the favored child. Point House becomes her refuge. She is safe there from what the dark brings at home: her cold and proper Boston Brahmin father, who sexually molests her, and her unloving and ambitious mother, who pretends ignorance.
Nancy grows up to be so shy and awkward her dreadful parents despair of ever marrying her off. In 1925, she’s shunted off to another branch of the family in New York City, where she falls in love with Chance Brewster. His passion is literature, and his appearance marks the first intimation of the true-life framework Seymour will be working within: Chance is based loosely on Schuyler Jackson, and Nancy’s life has just lined up to match the contours of Katharine’s.
The magical and the inexplicable are everywhere present in what becomes a diabolical tale of false saviors and blasted dreams. Nancy’s first meeting with Chance is like a scene right out of a fairy tale: exiting a bookstore, he executes a perfect somersault. Ardent and artstruck, and shaken by the first rumors of war from overseas, Nancy and Chance dream of finding a guru to enlighten and guide them. They are pulled, briefly, into the orbit of the spiritualist George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. But soon they discover someone much more alluring–the poet, seer, and self-styled goddess, Isabel March, Seymour’s bold interpretation of Laura Riding.
When first they hear of March, said to possess transcendent brilliance, and her consort, Charles Neville (Robert Graves), Chance is skeptical. But Nancy–who is unnerved by her inability to love her daughter, a tragic repercussion of her ruined childhood–fixates on the idea that March can bring them peace of mind and strength of spirit. She starts writing regularly to March, extending repeated invitations to her and Neville to come and visit Point House, which Nancy has inherited. And it is there, at her childhood haven, her heart’s home, that Nancy finally welcomes March, who, with Neville, arrives in her native land in the high-tension summer of 1939, expecting room and board, adoration and subservience.
March’s appearance in the last 50 pages of the book is electrifying. Nancy had come to idealize March with such intensity she had elevated her to the stature of a goddess. This makes March’s manifestation in the flesh disorienting, even bewildering: in person March is monstrous–vain, imperious, manipulative, and, with her elaborate attire and diction, somehow outside of time, and hence of all acceptable modes of behavior. Nancy, defenseless and trusting, quails before her. So anxious is she to please the woman she views as her own personal savior, she is excruciatingly slow to understand that March, voracious and cruel, is taking over her life, claiming her home and her husband, and plotting to send the children away. It’s a bloodless coup facilitated by a besotted Chance, who seems relieved to no longer have to watch over a not-quite-sane wife.
Seymour gives us not merely a retelling of a historic event but an intricate microcosm of tyranny. Nancy embodies the tyranny of parents over children, having both suffered abuse at the hands of her father, and made her own children suffer the consequences of her extreme behavior. Chance is emblematic of how the selfish tyrannize the generous. He is supported first by his wife, and then by his friends, only to abruptly align himself with March, the epitome of egoism. And March exemplifies the tyranny of false messiahs over true believers. Not only does she callously betray the faith of her follower, she banishes her from her own home, declares her unfit, and has her incarcerated.
Nancy’s loss reminds us of what we know in our souls but so consistently lose sight of–that tyranny and other evils begin at home, and that the personal is the universal.
Seymour reveals this essential truth by setting Nancy’s tragedy against a backdrop of the Salem witch trials, which took place not far from Point House. This juxtaposition reveals a complex array of delusions, longings, and fears that–along with her love of the sea and her auburn hair–Nancy has inherited. They form a dire, emotional tangle that runs in her blood, and was bred in her bones. But there’s more. Seymour gradually turns up the volume of her references to the first stirrings of war in Europe once March and Neville arrive. This ensures that March’s invasion and conquest (even her name has military connotations) will resonate both as a cruel private assault, and a chilling presage of the cult of personality that granted Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini such demoniacal powers, and that hurled the world into a living hell. Nancy’s pain and madness are just sparks in an out-of-control, all-consuming blaze.
• • •
Contests of will and the abuse of authority also figure prominently in Laura Hendrie’s inventive novel, as does a pervasive sense of place. Seymour’s The Summer of ’39, which is vaguely British and frequently gothic in tone, is inextricably tied to the land of the Puritans and the great moving temple of the sea. Hendrie’s Remember Me, which is strongly American in pitch and Western in flavor, is stitched tightly to tiny Queduro, New Mexico, where nature is far more adversarial than comforting.
The original Quedurans, Hendrie explains, were sheepherders of mixed Hispanic, Irish, and Indian blood, who took up needlework during interminable winters. Today’s townspeople also labor over their samplers and tapestries while snow and ice isolate their mountain-clinging town, but they’re preparing for the summer tourist season. Rose–29, defiant, proud, sexy, and solitary–is the gossipy community’s most disreputable embroiderer, and is, accordingly, ostracized in the hope that she will call it quits and vanish.
Part of the problem is the history of Rose’s Uncle Bob, who had no use for the finicky life of the needle, and took to carving immense and magnificent wooden sculptures of American Indians. His bold and extravagant art enraged the small-minded embroiderers, but his confrontation with the town was left unresolved when he died–along Rose’s mother and brother, as well as a neighbor, Florie Pinkston–in a freak car crash. Rose, the only survivor, was 16.
A few of the town’s more off-beat citizens hold Rose in great affection, but none so much as Florie’s 60-something, reclusive, booze-loving brother, Birdie. Birdie taught Rose to embroider, and she spends every winter living in a cabin at his motel. This year, however, things have changed. Birdie has been left paralyzed and unable to speak by a stroke. And Alice, Birdie’s surviving sister, evicts Rose so vehemently that the sheriff, Frank Doby, all but escorts Rose out of town to avoid what seems like an inevitable conflagration.
But this is no straightforward interaction between a vagrant and the law: Rose and Frank share a poignant history. Frank’s family took Rose in after her father abandoned the family; Rose and Frank were pseudo sister and brother for a spell. Then, as teenagers, they fell in love. Rose, who always (and maddeningly) operates on the most self-negating of principles, worried that she would jeopardize Frank’s future with her unorthodox ways, so she ended their relationship, and left them both miserable.
Rose has no intention, however, of leaving the only home she’s ever known or wanted. "Let go of where you belong and who you belong with, and you’re lost," she thinks. She realizes, too, that Alice and Birdie are the closest thing she’s got to family. If she loses them, she will be utterly alone. So she sneaks back into town and manages to infiltrate Alice’s house so that she can keep an eye on Birdie. Her defiance of Frank’s warning means that they will meet again, and it soon becomes apparent that the unfinished business between them will generate the heat that propels the rest of the novel. Rose’s habit of living on the periphery of life, of not creating her own home and of running from love, has passed for orneriness, but now that she’s about to turn 30, she’s in danger of becoming permanently marginalized. Frank, a model of steadfastness and reason, may well be her only hope for finding her place in the world.
Hendrie’s novel is as dense in plot as a New Mexico hillside is in sagebrush, and it’s busyness can result in static or repetitive passages. But the reader is lured on by a piquant blend of romance, the accoutrements of a murder mystery, and Hendrie’s agile humor. When Rose and Alice end up heading for Texas in Alice’s swanky El Dorado, for instance, Hendrie presents a remarkably funny and poignant on-the-road scenario, then segues unexpectedly and gratifyingly to some choice satire about the sterility of corporate culture.
Hendrie is also able to make a room inhabited by two people, one in a wheelchair and unable to speak, vibrate with as much life as an entire city block, and she has a solid grasp of the absurd. Her cast of secondary characters is as eccentric, conniving, and charming as those found in the best of Southern fiction; she evinces a passion for country language, witty and inventive.
Early on, Hendrie has Rose remember how dazzlingly energetic and confident her Uncle Bob was, how hard-working, talented, and forthright. The first time he ever set eyes on his niece, he tells her, much to her astonishment, that "out of all the instinctual needs we humans have to put up with–sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water–the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings." Hendrie goes on subtly to contrast Bob’s larger-than-life sculptures–genuine art–with the meanness of the embroiderers, who have turned their small-scale craft into a cutthroat business, clearly aligning herself, as a novelist, with Bob’s grander vision. For all its dithering small-town goings-on, Remember Me is concerned most with the nature of the soul, which is illuminated in the end more through the growth of Rose’s feelings for Birdie, Alice, and Frank, and theirs for her, than by the conflicts of will, apparently irreconcilable, that introduced the novel–a progression that reflects Hendrie’s faith in love, and her belief in that rare and precious gift, a second chance.
And then there’s Rose, whose reactions are always extreme and haphazard, and who in all things is simply hilarious. The running commentary that characterizes her inner life is spiked with tart observations, crazy schemes, and desperate attempts to interpret irrational events. Such portraits of the mind are the gold of fiction, offering, as they do, an affirmation of the fact that the reader is not the only one who suffers from inner chaos. Novelists remind us that everyone is prone to rogue thoughts, delusions, and the spontaneous surfacing of memories both welcome and otherwise.
Hendrie shares Seymour’s concern with the abuse of power, especially when conformity and greed are confused with morality and sanity. Rose’s obstinate loyalty to Birdie and Alice, and her willingness to oppose the Quedurans’ strict sense of propriety, elevates love above all other concerns. In The Summer of ’39, Nancy is unable to stand up for herself as Rose does, but she does have the strength and spirit to protect her core self, the light within her that no one–not her father, nor March, nor the doctors at the asylum–can extinguish. Hendrie’s and Seymour’s heroines are more than survivors: they take charge of their stories and strive to make sense out of the tragedies they’ve suffered. Rose forgives Alice for her years of animosity, and is there to care for her in her declining years. Nancy finds freedom in expression, confiding the truths of her life in the pages of her notebook, in the hope of protecting her daughter and granddaughters from the pain she has endured. And, finally, both Rose and Nancy learn to accept the mystery of other people’s inner lives, and to revere beauty, whether it is manmade, as in Rose’s Uncle Bob’s reclaimed art, or nature’s glory, which is Nancy’s solace. By the conclusion of these thoughtful, imaginative, and significant novels, their heroines have come to understand that the wrongs done them, and their own suffering, are only part of their stories, because if there is one meaningful assumption that can always be made about another it is that there is always more to know.