The Summer of '39: A Novel

The Summer of '39: A Novel

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by Miranda Seymour

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Nancy Brewster, a recluse living on the shore in New England, reflects on the baleful events that have cruelly shaped her life. As The Summer of '39 opens, she is writing her memoirs, largely to exorcise the "insanity" that for years kept her locked within a sanitarium. From her life in the bohemian world of Greenwich Village in the 1920s to her marriage to Chance… See more details below


Nancy Brewster, a recluse living on the shore in New England, reflects on the baleful events that have cruelly shaped her life. As The Summer of '39 opens, she is writing her memoirs, largely to exorcise the "insanity" that for years kept her locked within a sanitarium. From her life in the bohemian world of Greenwich Village in the 1920s to her marriage to Chance Brewster, a luckless literary dreamer, to an ill-fated visit from strangers from across the Atlantic in the pivotal summer of 1939, Nancy's thoughts linger most deeply on her encounter with Isabel March, an enigmatic poet and practiced husband-stealer. Their friendship, while beginning auspiciously, ends in a tangle of divorce and madness. Soon Nancy's wistful, seemingly random memories carry us to a climax as startling and monstrous as any in contemporary fiction.

Editorial Reviews

Tina Brown
"The stuff of legend" is called the bizarre story of The Summer of '39when poet Robert Graves and his compaion Laura Riding came to stay at the home of Kit and Schuyler Jackson. Within a month, Jonathan Mahler writes, Riding had taken over the Jackson household, set ther hooks into Schuyler, burned all of Kit's possessions, and gaslighted her into a nervous breakdown....this strange summer may finally be elevated to its proper place in the pantheon of literary love scandals, thanks to Miranda Seymour's The Summer of '39, an enchanting new novel inspired by these events.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Novelist and biographer Seymour's inspiration for her fourth novel (following a biography of Robert Graves, Living on the Edge) comes from a notorious 1939 incident involving Graves and his then-companion, poet Laura Riding. As a result of the summer the two spent with Schuyler and Katharine Jackson, a young American couple, Jackson left his wife for Riding, and Katharine was institutionalized after attempting to strangle one of her daughters. Seymour's narrator is a Katharine Jackson-like character, who tells her story from the perspective of a reclusive old age. Nancy Parker grows up enduring her father's abuse and her mother's scorn; only her visits to her aunt and uncle at Point House in Falmouth, Mass., afford solace. On a trip to New York, she meets Chance Brewster, a promising young writer, literary impresario and founder of an obscure small press. After years in Greenwich Village and on New Jersey farms, always in close proximity to Bill and Annie Taylor, their closest friends, they end up at Point House, where Nancy, who has never entirely recovered from the trauma of her childhood and sensing herself out of place in the intellectual world she married into, finally feels safe. Gurdjieff and Edmund Wilson make appearances, but it is visionary poet Isabel March who has the greatest impact on the foursome. When Isabel and her lover, Charles Neville, move in with the Brewsters, Nancy allows the enigmatic woman to gradually take over her husband, poison her relationship with her children and push her over the edge into madness. Too late she learns that Isabel's mesmerizing obsession with truth in art masks her deceptive wiles. Although Isabel is not convincingly the charmer for whom men would die, the reverberations of her acts are powerful. In elegant, richly evocative prose, Seymour moves back and forth from Nancy's childhood to her old age, weaving a delicate net of narrative around an ominous core of darkness, in which personal demons are mixed up with a general dread of Hitler and the horrors to come. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Biographer (Robert Graves, 1995; Ottoline Morrell, 1993) Seymour offers the tale of one Nancy Brewster, whose unstable life is blown out of the water (and into an asylum) by the unscrupulous Isabel March, a character based on the poet Laura Riding. The central event that we wait (and wait) for here is the 1939 stealing of Nancy Brewster's putatively brilliant literary husband Chance by the putatively brilliant Isabel March/Laura Riding. Isabel has come to the Brewsters as a long-term houseguest, bringing her English non-husband Charles Neville, based on the poet Robert Graves, who in real life did live with Laura Riding but who could be eliminated here (he does in fact just go away) without loss. The sources of Nancy Brewster's vulnerability are in no doubt as Seymour invents for her a deeply repressed childhood in Boston, a family who adored her brother but neglected her, a frigid mother, and a father who smothered Nancy with a pillow in order to molest her. Strange it can hardly be that Nancy at 18, when she's moved to New York and marries the penurious but brainy Princeton grad Chance Brewster in 1925, is still afraid of the dark and has problems with sex. History repeats itself, too, when, like her own mother, Nancy dislikes the daughter born as her first child but adores the second, a son. When a beloved uncle dies and the Brewsters move to his big old house—Nancy's one childhood Eden—on the sea near Salem, Mass., things seem bucolic on the outside, but when the imperious Isabel arrives and begins to steal Chance away, Nancy breaks down amid the symbols of war, witch-hunts, black magic, and danger gathered about her. Appealing glimpses of the day's East Coast literarylife (watch Edmund Wilson take a whipping), but credibility is strained as the psychology of characters is simplified to fit the tale that needs to be told.

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Product Details

Cengage Gale
Publication date:
G. K. Hall Core Series
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.43(h) x 1.11(d)

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Chapter One

November, 1979

MY DESTRUCTION OCCURRED forty years ago, in the space of a single month. Recovery took somewhat longer. But I triumphed. I am still at Point House, looking out over the cliff at my familiar bay. I have lived here, unguarded, for twenty-five years. That counts for something in the survival stakes, wouldn't you say?

    Sane? As much as any woman can be who's learned to keep herself to herself. Regarding the past, it is not a subject on which I am ever likely to achieve a settled view. It doesn't do to depend on love. Let me leave it at that for the moment.

    I keep pretty quiet. The garden's my passion. I'm up by seven and out there for as long as I've light to see by. I had Silas Cooper at the hardware shop out from Falmouth last year. Fixed me up a couple of tree-lamps so that I could work on after sundown. I told him how I almost pitched off the cliff path hunting for my trowel one night and he slapped a coat of luminous paint on all my tool handles then and there. Free of charge. On account of my being a good customer, he said, though I never spend more than two dollars a year in his shop. Too fancy and tricksy for my taste, the stuff he gets in. I told him so, but he just laughed.

    When I'm done with working in the garden for the night, I settle down with a sandwich and hot soup at my desk by the window, try to gather my thoughts and make a tidy shape out of them. Everything has to be set down now, but writing isn't my trade. I always seem able to find an excuse, drawers to be tidied, photographs thatneed sorting out, anything that keeps my hands busy. If they're busy, they can't fluster me.

    Prattling on paper like this may be the way to get going. It's becoming quite pleasantly conversational, like talking to a friend in another room. Not that I'm lonely. Why should I be?

    And why should I not? Be honest with yourself, Nancy. If I am occasionally a little downhearted, I've no one to blame but myself. Living to an old age has become a kind of victory over circumstances, but I haven't yet learned to behave as the old should. I'm not grateful, and I'm not tolerant, and I don't like small talk. That should be enough to keep away those well-meaning souls, newcomers all, who make a vocation out of doing good to those who never did enough harm to deserve it.

    It doesn't stop them at all. I had a whole rash of them over the place this summer, worse than measles.

    — Oh, Mrs Brewster, we wondered if we could help care for your beautiful garden.

    — if we could persuade you to join the Golden Age Voyagers' Club.

    — if we could take you on a visit to the church ... the whaling museum ... the old harbour.

    I do my best to be polite. But why should I be, when all they've come for is a peek at the hermit, a spoonful of gossip to be carried off and shared out at the next club convention. I see the gleam in their eyes as they shout their charitable invitations. I used to see such faces in my nightmares, pressed up against the bars of my room, waiting for the freakshow to begin.

    There have been occasions when I've felt sufficiently angered by these intruders to show them the door with a donation to their chosen cause, as if they were no better than hawkers. On the whole, I'm gracious. Point House always had a reputation for hospitality and I'm proud enough to cherish family traditions. I thank them for their thoughtfulness and explain that gardening and housecare don't leave me much time for outings. Then I call in Joe Finnis to give them a tour of the place. That's what they've come for, apart from a personal sighting of the freak. Joe's job is to see that they don't start taking cuttings from the shrubs. They ask him questions, of course. But he's a good boy, Joe. He doesn't give any secrets away. He came here too late to have any worth the telling. Isabel had gone south by the time I returned in the summer of 1954. For which, while sceptical of any power above nature, I am prepared to thank God.

I love this place. I always have. Every summer, when my parents and brother left the house in Louisburg Square to visit my mother's family in Vermont, I came here, to spend three months with my father's childless older brother, Caleb Parker, and Aunt Louise. They treated me as if I was their own daughter and, for all the old-fashioned ritual of their ways, they offered me an ease I never knew in my parents' house.

    They called this the Gold Coast in those days, on account of the millionaires who were building themselves Tudor palaces and baronial castles above the shore. But the Parkers were the first to settle the place and my aunt and uncle kept themselves as distant from the newcomers as I, for other reasons, do now. They lived in a different world, in a different time. The newcomers' big yachts swam out of Falmouth harbour each day like a flock of haughty white swans; their long shiny cars went tooting and swerving along the narrow roads with never a stop for the beauty of the overhanging woods or a glimpse of dark water between the trees. No more sense in them than in a flock of sandpipers hopping this way, then that way, over the glistening sand washed down by the waves.

    I had just turned seven when my mother brought me here for the first time in the summer of 1914.

    `Will you stay too?' I asked her in the car.

    She shook her head. `I've told you so many times now, Nancy -- don't you ever listen? Daddy and I will be taking Michael to Aunt Sarah for the summer. The doctor says the sea air will do you good. You need to get your appetite back. You haven't been well.' She shot a look at me as I slipped my hands between my legs and the hot sticky leather of the passenger seat. `Uncle Caleb and Aunt Louise aren't as young as they were,' she said. `It's kind of them to offer to have you, but they've no knowledge of children. Just try not to cause any trouble.'

    I shut my eyes and closed her out, letting the roar of the engine fill my ears.

    My first visit. I saw tall green woods and the house floating above them, lying at the highest level of a terraced lawn. The car crunched gravel. I jumped out before my mother could stop me and ran in through the open door.

    I saw long cool rooms, hushed by canvas blinds and smelling of roses and lavender A wind from beyond blew against the blinds and spattered them with shadows. If I closed my eyes, I was on a ship under sail for the tropics.

    `Nancy? Nancy! Come back here at once before I —'

    I ducked under a blind and came out onto a broad, stone-flagged terrace. Below me, bright as a tray of silver, I saw the bay, curving forward from a wide arc of sand. Out in the water, straight ahead of me, a little island of yellow rock and rough grasses jutted up from the sea. The wind caught hold of white feathered birds and whirled them up at the sun; all about me, the air vibrated with shrieks and cries and the low lion's roar of the ocean. I stood still as if my feet had grown roots.

    A hand lay on my shoulder. I looked up to see my uncle Caleb peering down at me and smiling in the shy way I came to love.

    `Well now, Nancy, and would you like to go down there?'

    I nodded. `Take this along,' he said, handing me a rusty tin pail. `Follow the path down to the right and see what you can find for us.' He glanced at my fancy little city shoes. `I'd take those off first. Barefoot's best, but don't tell your dear mother I said so or we'll both be in trouble.'

    I stayed down on the shore for the best part of two hours and came back triumphant with a harvest of pale oyster-turret shells and the plump hollow body of a cushion star.

    `Quite a treasure trove, Nancy,' Uncle Caleb said. `But we'll see if you and I can't find something even better before you go home.'

    `Not on the rug, ma chérie,' Aunt Louise said in her light whispering voice as I started arranging my trophies on the floor. I pretended not to hear.

    `Don't make me ashamed of you.' My mother spoke against my ear as she bent to kiss me. `We've had trouble enough already.'

    I clung to her hand. `Will I have a nightlight in my room?'

    `A light! At your age!' My aunt's sandy lashes fluttered open. Her eyes were blue and soft. `She's surely a little old to be afraid of the dark, Evelyn dear? Or is it something that the doctor ...' Her voice trailed away uncertainly.

    `Nothing to do with doctors.' My mother's narrow fingers nipped at the flesh of my shoulder. `We don't want any more nonsense, Nancy. Stop it now. This minute.'

    I knew better than to say any more. But I cried so hard when Aunt Louise put me to sleep in a black room with not even the glint of a passage light under the door for comfort, that she took pity on me and pulled open the curtains on a sky bright as a box of diamonds. Then she bent down and put the starfish I had picked up on the beach under my bed. `There you are,' she said. `Stars in the heavens and a pretty pink star of your own under the bed. There's nothing to harm you here, ma petite —' Sobbing, uncomforted, I shook my head until she sat down on the edge of the quilt and took my hands in hers, gently rubbing them. `What frightens you so much, little Nancy? Won't you tell me?'

    I couldn't say. I would have let her throw me into the cold salt waves before I told her the cause of my distress. But she was right. There was no threat in the murmuring, sea-filled darkness of Point House. And, when I held my five-pointed trophy in my hand and looked out at the peaceful bay and the glitter of starlight on the water, wonder swallowed up my fear. Soon, I could hear the creaking of floorboards without feeling a responsive flutter of terror, of wings beating against my ribs. I began to loiter near the kitchen door in the hope of treats between meals from the slow old cook. My cheeks grew plump. Aunt Louise made cuts in the side of my dresses to give me room to breathe.

    `I'd hardly know her for the same child,' she remarked to Caleb after one of these operations.

    `Rosy as a peach,' said Caleb. `You'll have to make us another visit, Nancy. Would you like that?'

    `Most of anything,' I said. And, for once, went uncorrected.

    Because I was a child, I saw nothing as eccentric. It seemed to me tedious but unremarkable that we should drink hot water out of yellow Worcester cups every afternoon because Aunt Louise didn't care to waste the contents of her tea caddy on family occasions.

    There was no quarrelling at Point House, although my aunt and uncle divided in their passions as neatly as astrological signs. Louise, brought up in Normandy, had given her heart to the earth and everything that grew in it, while my uncle cared only for the sea and the sky. A feather or the broken rim of a shell were all he needed to identify the owner; every singular fish he had caught was mounted on the staircase wall in its own iridescent skin. It was from Caleb that I learned about the wreck of the Hesperus not far from our shore and of how the skipper's dead daughter was found floating on the water, bound to the mast by her own father to save her from drowning. My uncle sat by my bedside one summer when I was ill, telling me tales of the sea and reciting — he had it all by heart — the poem I loved to hear.

Her rattling shrouds, all sheathed in ice, With the masts went by the board; Like a vessel of glass, she strove and sank, Ho! Ho! the breakers roared.

    Caleb was a natural storyteller, although I wonder now at the kind of tales he chose for a child. Of a privateer that took two English prizes and vanished the next day with a hundred and thirty men aboard, never to be seen again. And of a cruelly cold winter when a cart bringing blocks of granite overland for one of the new houses along the shore went through the ice and down into the long salt marsh inland from Point House, drowning the driver and the oxen. He showed me where the granite blocks could still be seen, buried in the reedy water But Caleb told his stories with a smile and I never trembled as I did at the cautionings against wilfulness that came with my mother's reading of fairy tales.

    My uncle was a tender-hearted man. I remember when Aunt Louise told him to shoot the heron which had been taking carp out of the ornamental pond. I offered to go along with him, seeing how sad his eyes were as he strapped an old cartridge bag over his shoulders and peered down the dusty barrel of his rifle. He did it with his first shot, brought that lovely sharp-beaked predator down to lie like a ghost in the grass, and then he burst out crying, caught hold of my hand and gripped it as though he meant never to let go again. He stayed in his room for the next two days, refusing to answer my aunt when she hammered on the door. I never heard the heron mentioned again.

    Sailing was my uncle's passion; Louise used to say that his schooner, the Dryad, was as troublesome as having another woman about the place. But the Dryad was more of a refuge than a threat, an escape from my aunt's gentle insistence on the fulfilment of local obligations in which Caleb took no interest. I was sixteen and spending my tenth summer at Point House when my uncle gave me a pretty little racing sloop and taught me how to master her giddy ways. I sailed her into Falmouth harbour the next year. I was so proud. I wouldn't have exchanged her for any of the yachts and schooners belonging to our neighbours, although she looked no bigger than a cockleshell bobbing in the shadows cast down by their gleaming hulls. That year still has a kind of glow on it when I look back. Nineteen twenty-three. The last summer before Louise died and those gentle interludes at Point House came to an end.

    My uncle named his boat in teasing acknowledgement of my aunt's nature-loving activities. The well-ordered garden was her province, but she seemed happiest when she let me follow her into the rustling woods beyond it, separating us from the outside world. If I grew up knowing where to look for a saw-whet owl in the thick foliage of a hickory tree, or the ruby eyes of a whippoorwill glinting up from a drift of leaves, I have my aunt to thank for it. Even now, I only have to sniff the shavings from a new pencil to remember the red cedar she showed me when she was still trying to cure my fear of the dark. And I still smile.

    Louise was convinced that my fear could be helped by the trees in which she placed an almost mystic trust. I was eight when she first bandaged my eyes with a strip of cotton and led me, her light papery hand clasping mine, into the green depths where willows and cottonwoods and creaking elms shut out the sky. Each time I snivelled and fumbled with the knotted material behind my ears, she pressed my hand to a trunk or leaf, telling me to remember how it felt before I heard the name. From her, I learned how to tell the silk-smooth bark of an alder from the light, breaking skin of a birch. Gently rubbing my hot arms with velvety mullein leaves, she taught me how to ease the salty pain of sunburned flesh; giving me a sappy stem of cow parsnip to munch as we went along, she told me how to distinguish the flower head from those of its poisonous hemlock cousins.

    Further on, deep in the tawny, tangled labyrinth of the forest, was Astarte's Grove, a circle of white oaks, osiers and birches enclosing a dark pond. Light flecked the surface of the water with yellow motes, but the air was always rank. Sinewy branches of undergrowth trapped my ankles, holding me fast; the darkness of the water, so still, so unimaginably deep, suggested hidden things, slow-moving, blind. The place filled me with terror, but here, unluckily, my aunt had captured some of her finest butterfly specimens and here I was compelled to stand and watch with unbandaged eyes while she darted and stumbled after an elusive skipper or peacock, soon to be pinned and added to her collection.

    Years later, I discovered that witches used to meet in Astarte's Grove and make all kinds of ghoulish sacrifices for their spells. I knew nothing about that when I was a child but the place filled me with dread. Even now, I cannot bring myself to go there. But that is for a different reason.

    I respected and feared my parents. I was torn between love and resentment for Michael, my older brother. My uncle and aunt were the only relations for whom I felt unqualified tenderness. I never felt so sad as when the southbound swallows began to swirl and eddy over the chimneys of Point House and I knew that the time had come for me to travel back to Boston.

Thinking about those days has made me sentimental. There is danger in that. There is dishonesty in sentiment and I have committed myself to being entirely truthful.

    I have only one audience in mind for this story and I am not such a fool as to suppose that my memories of childhood summers here will be of any great interest to them. My two granddaughters, Judith and Catherine. It's five years now since I last saw them. Judith turned eighteen last month. I wonder whom she looks like now. As a little girl, she reminded me of my husband. The same light brown hair and big hazel eyes. There were times when it actually hurt to look at her.

    I wrote their mother a couple of years ago, reminding her that the house is big and that it could easily be divided up between us with no discomfort to anyone. She never answered. I don't intend to humiliate myself by repeating the invitation.

    My daughter Eleanor is a shrewd woman. She has not had an easy time, not altogether, but she has made the most of herself. I'm told that she has quite a reputation now as an attorney. I doubt if such a successful career leaves much time for the girls. I could have given them all of mine. However. However.

    I can't blame her for wanting to keep the girls away from me. Eleanor has her reasons for being uneasy, even afraid. I took notice of her feelings the last time they were up here in the summer of seventy-four. I wanted to take Judith and Cathy out in my old dory to the Point, to show them where to pick up the shells of Angel Wings and fiddler crabs, washed in on the spring tides and stranded high on mossy ledges of rock. This was my own secret spot when I was young and I wanted them to share it, to feel the thrill I had known when I first discovered the place. But just as the children were wading out at the side of the boat and shrieking at the coldness of the water, Eleanor Came hammering down the cliff path. The girls were laughing until they saw her; I think they shared my relief at being away from her guard-dog eyes. Eleanor's face was red as a beet as she came running across the sand, arms waving like semaphore flags, hair flapping down her back. I laid down the oars.

    `You'll give yourself a heart attack tearing about like that,' I said. `Now don't tell me you came all the way down here to say they can't go.'

    I'm sure she meant to be diplomatic, but the excuses poured out of her mouth with such crazy fluency that even the girls must have guessed she was terrified. The tides were unpredictable, the coastguard had informed her. Judith and Cathy already had more shells than they knew what to do with in the apartment. I hadn't checked the life-jackets. And on. And on. I didn't utter a word. I knew what she didn't have the courage to say. I just kept looking at her.

    We climbed the path back to the house in silence.

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