I thought that I had given up writing book reviews, but even though I gave up a more than a year ago – when my health became a problem and something had to give – I missed it and continued to think of what I would write about many of the books I have been reading.
When I read this book, I had so many thoughts whirling around my head that I knew I had to write about it. That wasn’t because it is a great book. It is some way from being a great book but it is by one of my favourite authors and it is a book that doesn’t entirely deserve the bad reputation that her very late work has.
When I ordered ‘Summer Visits’ from my library’s reserve stock it wasn’t with high hopes but because it was the only one of Margery Sharp’s novels for grown-ups that I hadn’t read. I try not to be a completist, but in this case I had to know for myself what exactly this book was.
I knew that it was her final novel, published in 1977, when she was 72 years old; and it was dedicated to her husband, as so many of her books were.
‘Summer Visits’ is a family saga centred on a big house in the country, telling the story of the family and the house from late in the reign of Queen Victoria to the days immediately after the second World War. The plot is wonderfully subversive, but it lacks the wit and the sparkle to be found in Margery Sharp’s earlier works. It is just as well written, wonderfully engaging and much of the time I really couldn’t predict what was going to happen.
The story begins with the purchase of that house in East Anglia by John Henry Braithwaite. He immediately changed its name to Cotton Hall; a tribute to the industry in which he had made his fortune. John Henry had two sons – an heir and a spare – who had both established themselves as lawyers, married well and were raising families of their own. He also had two daughters: one had married an architect and one remained at home with her father. She was far from devoted to him but she was philosophical about her situation, and only a little perturbed at the possibility of a fuss when her siblings made their summer visits and discovered the relationship that had blossomed between their father and his young housekeeper.
They didn’t find out until John Henry married her, in the belief that he was the father of the two young children that she presented to him. He wasn’t, and the truth was quite complicated. There was two different mothers and two different fathers and in time the story would reveal what happened to all four of them.
His two sons and his elder daughter took the news better than his younger daughter had expected; but the family fractured when John Henry revealed that he had made a new will. They were disinherited and everything was left to his infant son. He stated, not unreasonably, that he had established his grown sons in the world but would probably not live long enough to do the same for his youngest boy, and so he would need an inheritance to establish himself.
That was the end of summer visits to East Anglia and the beginning of seaside holidays for three young families, which they found they rather liked.
The story follows those three families and the inhabitants of Cotton Hall. In time the younger generation comes to the fore, and the changing times are caught wonderfully and bring unexpected changes in the ownership and occupancy of Cotton Hall. None of the younger generation learn the secrets of the older generation, so they don’t see as the reader does that the ownership of Cotton Hall moves back on track at the very end of the book.
One strength of this book is its plot construction. The story was wonderfully unpredictable but I never doubted that the author knew what she was doing, that she would forget nothing and that she would pick the right moments to stop and share details and the right moments to keep things moving along.
Another is its wide case of characters. Some of them live to a grand old age, some meet unusual ends and the family is completely reshaped by losses in the Great War. Two women – one a life-long spinster and one who became a widow when she was very young – took turns at the centre of the story. I loved the author’s appreciation of them, her understanding of two young men who didn’t follow the paths marked down for them, and her drawing of the more conventional family members.
‘Summer Visits’ is definitely not the book for anyone looking for a conventional or cosy family drama set in country house. I also loved the references to the author’s earlier novels. Sometimes it was a familiar theme but often it was the reuse of a name of a character I remember well. That made me wonder if Margery Sharp knew as she wrote that this would be her final novel.
Its weaknesses are some plot points that stretch credulity a little too far, and some errors of judgement by the author. I read those errors as mistakes by an elderly author who was trying to adapt to the tastes of the modern age but misjudging what would be palatable and what would not. We often say that we should evaluate books in the context of the era when they were written. We say less often – if at all – that we should consider the point in the author’s life or the arc of their writing career when the book was written.
This would undoubtedly have been a better book if it had been written when the author was at the height of her powers, but I think that it does gain something from being written at the very end of her writing life.
The ending was a little rushed, but it was right.
This is not one of the Margery Sharp novels that has been reissued, and now that I have read all of them once and some of them twice I can say that publishers have picked the right books and only missed ‘The Sun in Scorpio’ which is one of her best.
The other books that are out of print are not essential, I wouldn’t recommend investing time and money in tracking them down, but I would say pick them up if you have loved her other books, if you spot copies and can approach them with understanding.
One thought on “The Final Novel of a Beloved Author”
How lovely to have something new from you to read! I think your point about taking books in context not just of when they were written but of when in an author’s life is an important one. We make many allowances for first novels from young writers but are less rather than more forgiving as they age. I had a similar experience recently in reading a novel by Agnes Sligh Turnbull. I had read and loved one novel by her before, which was was written in her 60s, but the second I read was written in her 90s and fairly awful.