What is it about the beginning of the 20th century that fascinates us so much right now? From Downton Abbey’s first two series, to Parade’s End and the recent television production of Birdsong, those late Edwardian years seem to be the era of choice for TV writers. Do those last years of a fragile world, shattered by the First World War, resonate with our own uncertain times? Maybe in the face of so much unknown, we’re fascinated by those years of contentment giving way to such horrors? Or perhaps it’s simply the rather fabulous frocks and clipped accents?
Jonathan Smith’s 1910s based Summer in February pre-dates our current Edwardian-obsession and has now been adapted into a film, set to be released early next year, starring Dan ‘cousin Matthew’ Stevens and Dominic Cooper. It might share a timeframe with other recent cultural highlights, but Summer in February isn’t simply a tale of posh people in big houses bracing themselves for the end of the world as they know it; it’s a tale of the extraordinary, ordinary people that made up the Lamorna artist community, led by artist and horse lover Alfred ‘AJ’ Munnings.
The book opens with Munnings making his famous final speech as Chairman of the Royal Academy. He gives a damning, if rather incoherent, diatribe on modern art, before stumbling on a word that transports him back thirty years when, as a young artist he moved to Lamorna in Cornwall and became part of the larger group of Newlyn School of artists. The son of a Suffolk farmer, Munnings rather belly-flops into this quiet community, demanding everyone looks up from their easels and pay attention to him – which they duly do.
His attention, meanwhile, is drawn to the beautiful Florence ‘Blote’ Carter-Wood whose resemblance to Botticelli’s Venus mesmerises him and it’s not long before she soon goes from his model and muse to his wife. But the partnership that works so well on canvas doesn’t translate into real life and the marriage is a catastrophic disaster from day one.
And the reason? While AJ may demand our attention, at the heart of this novel (he even gets his own first-person chapter) is Major Gilbert Evans, local landowner Colonel Paynter’s (although he’s not one) land agent. A gentle foil to Alfred, he’s a quietly magnetic figure – and we’re not the only ones drawn to him, he’s already stolen Blote’s heart before she agreed to marry Alfred, himself equally dependent on his new friend.
Gilbert – or ‘Ev’ as he’s known to AJ – is the opposite of the bullish, boisterous Munnings – quiet, gentle, sensitive and selfless – he too falls head-over-heels in love with Florence. He is heartbroken at being passed over for Munnings and attempts to retreat from the newly engaged couple only to be drawn back into their lives when it becomes apparent to Blote, and Alfred, that they can’t survive – quite literally in Florence’s case – without him in their lives.
Rather than keeping her at arms length, Gilbert, ever the gentleman, takes Blote under his (outwardly) brotherly-like arm at Alfred’s request. For a while this love-triangle remains chaste with an uneasy, unspoken truce between Blote and Gilbert, until Gilbert, at breaking point, makes the decision to flee his agonising situation and accepts a job offer in Nigeria. His decision is the catalyst Florence needs, and in their few precious remaining weeks, the pair embark on a passionate love affair.
In addition to the three lovebirds, there’s a lively host of other characters including artist (Dame) Laura Knight and her quiet, but all-seeing, husband, Harold. The wild Cornish coast and the quirks, obsessions and passions of the community are beautifully, understatedly drawn by Jonathan Smith. He’s not an elaborate writer, his prose is economical and precise, but with a beauty and richness that belies his simple style. He evokes the crashing waves of the Atlantic, the prickling sweat on a unnaturally hot February day and Gilbert’s heavy heart so wonderfully that you can almost taste the salty sea water (or maybe that was my tears at Gilbert’s predicament).
The one character that remains as two-dimensional (I believe intentionally so) as a painting is Florence. What we know of her, we know through the eyes of the two men in her life. At first she seems like another privileged idle woman, but through her early sittings with Alfred and later meetings with Gilbert, we get glimpses of the woman behind the paintings, but she still largely remains an enigma, a beautiful figure on horseback sat passively in the dappled shade. We hear nothing of her thoughts or feelings. We never learn why she chose Alfred over Gilbert only to then regret her decision so suddenly and with such gruesome results.
I don’t think Florence’s ephemeral nature is a failing on Smith’s part to draw her, I think he’s making a point that she was an almost powerless woman in a time when female voices were silenced, even upper class ones. And Blote isn’t just a pawn in a man’s world, she’s also trapped and controlled by her mind that will ultimately destroy her.
Summer in February is one of those books that you want to buy all your friends copies of. It’s beautiful, haunting, powerful and, at times, very funny, book about fascinating people in a fascinating time.
by Suzanne Elliott
Summer in February is reissued on 23 May 2013, £8.99 from Waterstones.