Summer’s Day by Mary Bell ~ 1951. This edition: Greyladies Press, 2008. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-9559413-2-0. 281 pages.
My rating: 10/10
Craftsmanship of any sort is an admirable thing, and one of life’s greatest joys is coming unexpectedly upon an example of mastery in execution, no matter what the field.
Finding craftmanship in writing is perhaps rarer than one would hope, what with the amount of people practising the trade. A book can easily make it to the bestseller lists without this elusive element – I won’t be giving examples, leaving it to you, dear fellow reader, to nod in recognition of this rather cheeky assertion – and how ironic it is (I often think) that some of the most creatively or just downright cleanly styled books are to be found languishing all unapplauded in the out-of-print stacks.
A case in point is this minor novel in a minor key, brought to my attention by Scott of the always-dangerous-to-browse Furrowed Middlebrow (“Off the beaten page: lesser-known British women writers 1910-1960”). After reading his post regarding this book back in 2013, and the follow-up post regarding his search for the identity of the writer some months later, I decided that this was something I needed to investigate for myself.
Summer’s Day proved not that easy to access, for though it had been re-published in 2008 by Greyladies Press, it was no longer on the available list, having been sold out of its print run. (Which makes me wonder just how many copies a typical print run might be for this sort of thing. I’m guessing not particularly high, but it would lovely if I’m wrong, and if there were thousands of these second-life titles being snapped up by discerning readers like myself. But I suspect the number is in the hundreds, or even less. Ah, well, we do what we can to spread the word.)
I did find a used copy on ABE, and it arrived promptly, and I just as promptly dove into it, but sadly the timing of my reading was all wrong, as I took the book along to enhance and occupy my time in a surgical waiting room (not for any operation of my own, but for one of my family members) and, needless to say, I was not as focussed as I should have been, for the story did not take, and I set it aside to tackle in future.
Future having arrived, and an opportunity for quiet, mindful reading along with it (thanks to the sudden onset of bitterly cold weather and the temporary sidelining of a major outdoor project), I’ve now read the book.
Scott is right. It’s a gorgeous example of its sort of thing.
In an English girls’ boarding school, shortly after the end of World War II, on the first day of summer term, a variety of characters are assembling. We see them at first in delicately sketched vignettes, and as the novel progresses and the camera pans out, as it were, we discover the inter-connectedness of each to the others, and with each succeeding page our interest grows, as we become acquainted with what is going on inside each of the character’s heads, and how the others in their circle react to their words and actions, and what makes them all tick.
The plot is episodic and not terribly dramatic: a number of schoolgirls deal with the everyday issues of communal life and occasionally wonder what their future will bring; a number of schoolmistresses (and one schoolmaster) ponder the same – both for themselves and their charges; a number of supporting characters (the school gardener, the housekeeper, members of the auxiliary staff, assorted parents, a potential lover or two) weigh in with their own thoughts on the girls they are attached to or otherwise interact with.
The appeal of Summer’s Day is not in what actually happens in the course of the narrative, but in the picture it creates of this common-yet-arcane micrososmos. The author has her characters well in hand, and she parades them across her stage with competence and delicious humour and deeply relatable poignancy.
For such a short book, less than 300 pages, there are an unusually high number of fully formed characters created who take shape and live in the reader’s mind, though none of them are likely to trouble us much, with the exception of two who are bereaved of their beloved, and whose grief follows us after the book is closed. I found myself genuinely anxious on their behalf, and had to give mself a litle mental shake – “It’s fiction, you silly – these people aren’t real!”
But they could be, and that’s a sincere compliment to the writer’s art.
More detailed reviews are presented here (same Furrowed Middlebrow link as earlier on) and here (from Lyn, of I Prefer Reading) complete with a number of quotations. I am perhaps not quite as enamoured as Scott was – though everything he says I concur with – and I nodded happily throughout Lyn’s review, for in it she says everything I’d like to, saving me the trouble of a recap.
Both are correct in that you really do need to concentrate on this one – it rewards a close examination, and is perhaps not the type of thing to take up if one is in the midst of any sort of emotional turmoil in one’s real life. But once you enter in, so much to appreciate.
And – as I do believe I’ve mentioned once or twice – with a lovely vein of ironic humour. Good stuff. Thumbs up to Mary Bell, whoever the heck she was, and boo hiss that this was (apparently) her only foray into writing.
“Who’s that chap?” asked a small girl’s father as Mr. Walker went by, liking the look of him. “I don’t remember -”
“Oh, that’s Fishy Walker,” his daughter informed him. “He’s not anybody’s father. As far as I know,” she added with intent – a failure – to shock.
“Yes. The drawing master.”
“And what do you draw?”
“Fish,” she explained patiently. “Do watch the bowling, dear.”
He did so, taking furtive glances at his daughter during runs. Did they really draw fish? he wondered. It seemed an odd reason for him to be scrounging for those fees. Perhaps it was a prelude to one of those modern careers, like girls looking after animals in the zoo, and he had a vision of himself creeping through the dim shades of some future aquarium to an assignation with his daughter among the octopuses.