Summer is here! Rejoice! Actually, there’s probably only been a week or so of actually good weather and even those days haven’t been consecutive. Still, I decided to not let that hold me back – I’m going to think about which have been the most memorable summers in literature! For this list, I’m thinking about stories where the weather actually plays a part in the narrative or as a theme, rather than books that just happen to take place in summer. As a further proviso, I am limiting the list to books that I have actually read, meaning that I will probably need to do another list next year when I’ve actually gotten through other books with summer as a central theme which look interesting. So this installment list is by no means exhaustive. I’ve noticed that hot weather in fiction tends to indicate that some rule-breaking is about to take place, whether in the legal or the moral sense. Even though sunshine should mean for happy days, it has a tendency to cause nothing but chaos for many of the entries on this list …
To Kill A Mockingbird conjures up powerfully that childhood sense of summers being endless – but also that as in Romeo and Juliet, heat makes people do strange things. One day, Scout and her brother Jem watch as a rabid dog weaves its fevered way down the street and is shot – the parallel is strong with the behaviour of the people in Maycomb. We see an attempted lynching and a town turned to hate as racial tensions simmer and seethe in the heat. The Finch children’s friendship with their summer visitor Dill is forged in the summer and it is their games in the sunlight that draw the eye of their unseen observer, so that once the summer is over, they will have a guardian in the autumn twilight. There is a strange kind of nostalgia in Lee’s writing for this time when ‘it was hotter‘ and ‘men’s stiff collars wilted by nine [and] ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum‘ – but these are no ordinary childhood reminiscences.
Another tale of childhood innocence lost too soon; the Gray family head off to France to learn to be polite by seeing the War Graves (it’s their mother’s idea). Unfortunately, mother takes terribly ill on the journey and so the children find themselves without adult supervision, living in a French hotel. With a rather disreputable guardian nominally in charge of them (Eliot), lead character Cecil describes their descent into decadence – the small ones never go to bed on time, they have no thought about what to eat or what to dress and in the case of the eldest, how to respond to the attentions of Eliot. The heat sends all of the children out of doors to make their own amusements, disintegrating British values along the way. This is very much a tale of travel to another land, another way of life, another world.
The story turns around events that happened one very hot day in 1930s England, where sexual tension is running high. Briony looks out of a window and witnesses her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and jump in the fountain outside their home. Directly observing her is Robbie, son of the family’s cleaner who has been put through Cambridge by Briony and Cecilia’s father. Briony’s adolescent imagination and prim views on the world weave a dark story around the two which will snare Robbie forever. There is an agony in the inevitability of it all – thirteen year-old Briony skips about, getting under the adults’ feet and acting as go-between, feeling overlooked and unaware of where reality stops and where her own inventions are taking over.
There is something about the heat – not only does it summon up a kind of nostalgia in the reader for the golden summers of pre-war England but it also seems to bring out the desires of the characters. During a supposedly light-hearted dinner conversation directly before the Terrible Awful occurs, one of the characters remarks on whether the hot weather has inspired any particular bad behaviour – Briony responds archly that she has done nothing wrong, the implication being that Robbie has. But yet, it is pointed out that her temper meant that production of her play folded, just as it prompted Emily’s headache and prevarication over the food. Jackson and Pierrot’s frustration and subsequent absconsion can be traced back to it, and also the dark desires that are bubbling unspoken between two of the characters unsuspected. Robbie would never have been brought to his doom had it not been such a fearfully hot day.
The Heat of the Day
The Heat of the Day is set in London, September 1942 – wartime. Elizabeth Bowen was herself in London over the war and she describes the experience vividly in this her ‘wartime’ novel. Stella is warned by the sinister Harrison that her lover Robert is in fact a spy. Despite being set in September and thus practically autumnal, it still sprung to mind because the heat of the title symbolises the pressure that the characters all exist under. There is the satellite character Louie, anchorless with her husband at war who finds herself in a pattern of adultery with anonymous men in parks. There is Stella, living the life of a scandalous divorcee and with no fixed home. There are the men whose true selves remain opaque. The very prose feels humid. One of the characters asks another if they are making the most of the ‘last of the fine weather’ – with no clear end to the war in sight, this is a novel of people who have nothing to lose, for whom death may be just around the corner. They will seize the heat – but ironically when I think of The Heat of the Day, it is not the events of the day that come to mind, but the hot evenings with orange-lit skies.
I have heard about the legendary heatwave from the summer of 1976, although as far as I recall, my mother’s family spent it holed up in a caravan enduring non-stop rain and actually came back from holiday early. The heat is an invisible character in this novel, arriving like an ‘uninvited guest’ and refusing to depart. O’Farrell describes how the heat inspires out of character behaviour amongst various people in the novel’s locality, before zeroing in on the Riordan family, where Mr Riordan ups and leaves one morning without warning. Gretta summons their three adult children home to help find him. The stickiness and sweat of an unexpected British summer is conjured up convincingly – Michael Francis’ children patter about wearing very little clothing, unruffled by their grandfather’s disappearance but tempers fray for their father and aunts. It is the sweating, heavy, weariness of extreme heat that O’Farrell captures so perfectly – no wonder people go mad.
The Great Gatsby
This novel would never have worked had it been set in any other season – it is a story of all-night garden parties, tennis matches, hot afternoons spent hiding from the sun. The women wear white cotton dresses, refusing to move for the heat. Gatsby has been trying for years to build himself up to be able to reclaim his erstwhile sweetheart, determined to take her from her husband. Yet he is like the grasshopper, singing all summer and has no back-up plan. Akin to Atonement, there is a certain romanticism in how the novel recalls the long, hot summers of the Roaring Twenties, the characters’ decadence seeming a symptom of the weather – things will return to normal come the autumn but by then it will be too late.
Not many people remember that the classic film Stand By Me was originally the novella The Body, part of the collection Different Seasons (stablemate to The Shawshank Redemption). Twelve year-old Gordie and friends are on an adventure – they are going to find a body. They know roughly where it is thanks to an overheard conversation involving one of their older brothers and they want the acclaim of discovery. This is another story told in flashback, with the adult Gordie revealing afterwards the eventual fate of each of his fellows. This is one of those stories that highlights yet again that Stephen King really is a remarkable writer – making deep observations about life and how we cannot any of us expect to be consistently happy, The Body captures a moment in life, a sense of freedom before adult decisions weigh in. The summer is metaphorical as well as meteorological (hence the title of the overall collection) and the emotional kicker in the finale only underlines how fleeting the season will be.
Another fairly unhappy tale here – thematically it does not appear that summer is particularly uplifting. One Day charts the lives of Emma and Dexter as they meet, become friends, test the friendship and fall in love, checking in on them one day a year, 15th July – St Swithin’s Day. Not only do we never see the characters in winter, but one of them is not destined to reach the autumn of life, making their romance a perpetual summer. I get fizzy-nosed just remembering it. Agonising.
The Growing Summer
Children’s adventure stories tend to centre around the months of summer – Swallows and Amazons are other excellent examples with necessary obstacles (Nancy’s mumps, accidental sea voyages) having to be invented to allow for expeditions in alternative months. Summer is the season of the long holiday – a strange thing given that this was originally scheduled so that children could help their parents bring in the harvest and few participate in this these days. Similarly, the famous fives and secret sevens also choose summer months as peak sleuthing time. However, I have picked The Growing Summer because while writers such as Enid Blyton may send their child protagonists out on adventure and then bring them back unchanged, something quite different is going on here. The four Gareth children have led a very ordinary suburban life until their father’s serious illness leads to them being deposited in Ireland with their Great-Aunt Dymphna. They feel very hard done by, not only expected to entertain themselves but also to cook for and look after each other too. It is sign-posted at various points that the Gareth children, though pleasant enough in their way, had little idea about how much their mother did for them, having enjoyed various camping holidays where she did all the work. Through the verse of Louis Carroll and Edward Lear and a heavy dose of plain-speaking, Great-Aunt Dymphna makes it clear that she will not do the same – and it does the Gareths no harm. I used to think that she was very cruel, but having taught for two years, I rather see her point, and that of Streatfeild – there are children out there who have a sense of entitlement and who expect everything to be done for them, and this does nobody any favours. A wonderful summer’s improvement.
This is a real inversion of the above – Cadence grew up spending golden summers at her grandparents’ private island in the company of all of her adored cousins. There were three in particular who were around her age and who she loved dearly. Cady’s family are wealthy, beautiful, clever – they are incapable of failure. But yet behind all this glitter is something very dark, a cruelty and insensitivity that will destroy what it loves most. The Sinclairs could hardly have shone any brighter, their lives a perpetual summer so that their downfall is all the more unpleasant. This is one of the few Young Adult novels that I have read that had what I would think of as a true ‘gut-kicker’ finale – the summer of Cady’s life is over and she will have to learn to live with the darkness. I think I need to read Bonjour Tristesse (I only know the radio play) but I feel this expresses similar themes.
Leo was determined that there would be no summer, he believed that he himself had the power to prevent the temperature from rising. Yet the mercury in the thermometer rises just the same. Leo chronicles the temperature obsessively, with the metaphor underlined by him taking on the role as ‘Mercury’ as messenger between his friend’s sister Marian and the men in her lives. Not only does The Go-Between play again on the nostalgia common in novels which use summer as a theme, since the story is told in flashback, opening with the famous line ‘The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there‘, but it also plays heavily on the classic set pieces of an English summer (cricket, haystacks, swimming outdoors), but all the while with a cloud of suspicion hanging over them. A stunning piece of literature.
I’m linking these two because I feel that they use similar ideas. The action of The Virgin Suicides takes place over a year, with the major action taking place in hot weather, while Picnic at Hanging Rock kicks off on February 14th in Australia with a summer picnic. Both play on the idea of beautiful young girls passing from this world, with differing degrees of supernatural involvement. The Lisbon girls of The Virgin Suicides seem unable to break free of parental control, to have decided that life is just not for them while the girls of the College seem more to have been absorbed by the magic around Hanging Rock. Yet the fuss that the Lisbons make to save the tree their youngest sister once loved also links them to nature and both novels seem to play on the idea of being too pure for this world. The Lisbons have their only ever unsupervised date at their Homecoming dance, with Lux being named Homecoming Queen. Miranda of Hanging Rock toasts to St Valentine. Beauty is a transient thing destined to wither but the girls in these books remain forever young. It’s not a very uplifting message.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
I felt that the list would be incomplete without a mention of Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s partly a send-up of theatrical traditions (the mechanicals with their play about Pyramus and Thisbe are very similar to a lot of contemporary material) but it’s also just an excuse for everyone to romp through the forest unsupervised and generally get themselves into trouble. And into bed with people who they shouldn’t do. Which it would be too cold to do in winter. Basically, summer is a time to get rowdy!