I first heard of Summer in February ( 2013) by Jonathan Smith as a movie, thanks to a suggested trailer at IMDB starring the lovely Dan Stevens (from Downton Abbey) and Dominic Cooper who I had previously seen in the film Tamara Drewe. So, seeing that it was based on the acclaimed novel by Jonathan Smith and seeing that Penguin was publishing a movie tie-in edition, I asked for a review copy and they kindly sent it to me.
While making a speech attacking modern art, Sir Alfred Munnings is taken back 40 years to a special time and place. Major Evans, listening to him on the radio, is also flooded with memories, and wonders how everything changed in both their lives.
As it has been happening of lately with my readings, I did not know anything about this book apart from the possible spoilers from the trailer that, having now read the book, one has to admit are pretty innocuous. Actually, I did not even know that the story was based on real-life events although when I started reading the name A.J Munnings did ring a bell, only that my mind did not know how or why.
So, I started reading and found myself totally invested in the story. The setting struck me as perfect, almost too perfect, for the characters and the mood. Without giving away too much, let’s sum it up as a commune of artistic and liberal people living in turn-of-the-century Cornwall. I am a huge fan of novels set in turn-of-the-century UK because the clash between Victorian morality and Modernism – broadly understood – is one of history’s most relevant and drastic changes. Also, being this an artistic community, there were all kinds of people living and working together: from London models to couples and, for the first time in history, a middle-class man who dared to dream of becoming an artist and made a living out of it. I think this was one of A.J Munning’s stronger points, how he defied social class assumptions and became what he really wanted to instead of what everyone expected him to.
As you can imagine, the novel turns out to be a study character in close relation to art and philosophy, how they can change people and how people change it. In fact, art itself is a central character without whom all the characters would find themselves distanced by social class, gender and age. That is how A.J Munnings, Coronel Evans, Laura and Harold Knight and Joey and Florence Carter-Wood came together. If you are interested in art, probably these names will be familiar to you, but they were not for me, so I approached them as characters in a novel and kept all my research for when I had finished it and for me, it paid off.
But the most important thing: Summer in February is a love story. I am not a fan of romantic novels although I have to admit Romeo and Juliet is one of my favourite stories ever, so how I enjoyed and how emotionally invested I found myself in Summer in February came as a surprise. One could argue the love story takes place in many levels and in very different forms and that is one of the reasons why I loved it so much: brotherly love, passionate love, irrational love, platonic love, love for your art all come together in the novel and it is very easy to feel sympathy for them.
Finally, once I had read Summer in February, I did some research and the following is a commentary on real-life events as they had arrived to us, so stop reading if you plan to do some fresh reading 🙂 First of all, I could not believe A.J Munnings decided to forget this important period in his life, especially taken into account what went on with Florence both professionally and emotionally. The Morning Ride (1912) is a masterpiece and it was during this period that his career took off, yet he never talked about anything that happened. It was not until Jonathan Smith researched the period and wrote the novel that everything came out. I felt betrayed – in Florence’s name – and also enraged, not to mention that from the very beginning – his infamous speech criticizing modern art – I did not think well of him (and this is, by the way, a huge understatement).
Would I recommend Summer in February? Totally. It is an epic love story set in the last years before WWI changed the world and the way we live, love and see art forever. I actually think I may re-visit some of the chapters and I will definitely do more research on the real-life A.J Munnings and Florence Carter-Wood.