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A Song for Summer

Style: Average → Good

Attitude: Take Care → Positive

In Brief: Marriage as merely a convention. Generosity and maternal care by Ellen for the children and others in her charge. Bravery of those helping Jews escape from Nazi detention. Ironic view of militant spinsters, pretentious playwrights, and alternative lifestyles.

Cover of A Song for Summer

Author: Eva Ibbotson

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Published in: 2006

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Early 20th C

Setting: Austria

Genres:  Growing-UpRomanticSchoolThought-provoking


Characters:

  • Ellen is a young woman starting out as a housekeeper to a school run on modern lines, defying her aunts' idea of the role they think young women should play in society.
  • Marek is a renowned composer who's struggling to help friends escape from Nazi imprisonment while helping out at the school. He's generous and practical.

Synopsis:

Ellen, defying her aunts' idea of what a modern young woman should do, takes up the role of Housekeeper at a school in Austria run on alternative lines for children of rich parents. While there, she brings her practical and maternal side to bear on the way things are run and falls somewhat for Marek, the school's handyman who's also a famous composer.

Notes:

Eva Ibbotson is undoubtedly a romantic. All those of her books which I've read have an underlying yearning for the romantic outcome, whether in terms of human relations or an FHB-esque happily-ever-after for all concerned (except for the baddies, who get their comeuppance, of course). That's not to say that her stories or characters are necessarily shallow, merely that the outcome is never really in doubt.

Let me say up front that the reason for this book's “Take Care” tag is that marriage is pretty much treated as a disposable convention, very much at the service of Romantic Love. Even at the start, Ellen's friend and idol Henny, housekeeper to a professor, is her employer's bedfellow “understanding that this was as important to gentlemen as the proper preparation of their food and the certainty of hot water for their baths”. By the end of the book, pretty much everyone's married to someone else's husband, wife or lover. Of course it's all done in the name of Love: the original pairings are wholly unsuitable and by the end True Love has sorted them all out.

There's much to enjoy and be impressed by throughout the rest of the book, in the way of the author's other stories for younger readers. For all the romantic trappings of the story, though, she doesn't shield the reader too much from the awkward and even dangerous realities of her characters' lives. Some of those helping Jews escape from Nazi imprisonment lose their lives. Children of absent and disaffected parents are still anxious and upset. And perfectly honest Britons of Germanic extraction are still interned on the Isle of Wight.

Ellen's widowed mother and maiden aunts chained themselves to railings alongside Emily Pankhurst and went on hunger-strike in Holloway prison. Baulked of their struggle by the granting of the vote to women, they continue to see their big cheerless house as the headquarters of a battle they wage against an unjust society, holding weekly meetings and petitioning parliament. This is either a testimony to their concern for the well-being of society (at least, society for women) or a sign of their inability to look out of their windows and realise that the world has gone by. Compared to, say, Clare's aunts in Norham Gardens, they seem sterile and foolish. They expect Ellen to follow in their footsteps and chart her progress and intelligence like scientists in a lab. I almost cheered when she took her own path, having had as her role-model not her coldly fanatical aunts, but the housekeeper of a Professor friend of theirs, an Austrian overflowing with domestic virtue, who taught little Ellen to cook and to garden. To please her relatives Ellen does go to University to study modern languages, but sidesteps their plans for her to become the first female Head of a College and focuses instead on housekeeping.

This decision bears fruit when Ellen takes up a post at the oddball Hallendorf School in Austria. Run by a well-to-do and well-intentioned Englishman on atheist and modern lines, the school is full of misfit teachers and outcast children of rich parents. Warm-hearted Ellen overrides the fads and outlandish ideas which have left the children miserable, and becomes everyone's port of call in difficulties. She leads the way in swimming with a bathing costume (as opposed to swimming without a bathing costume). She generally acts as mother to all and sundry. She earns the enmity of the pretentious and love-starved wife of the headmaster. And she definitely improves the food, assisted by the young Lieselotte.

There's one glorious moment when she takes over the running of the kitchen and produces edible food for the first time, but accompanies it with a speech about “the Proletariat”. Ellen points out that she has heard a lot around the school about the proletariat but that the downtrodden workers of the world aren't confined to sweatshops in far-off Hong Kong but are also here in the kitchen. Lieselotte gets up at five to bake rolls; Frau Tauber stands for hours at a sink to wash up after you; the milk you jostle and spill came from a man who got up on a freezing morning to milk his cows while you were still in bed. And then she serves the food to a standing ovation from the school.

As the story goes on, Ellen becomes involved with Marek who turns out to be not merely a handyman, but a rescuer of Jews and an internationally-renowned composer. He was the lover when younger of a famous opera singer who now comes looking for him. Meanwhile a serious if pathetic young Englishman is pining for Ellen whom he invites to Vienna where they see Marek and his opera-singer former lover perform Der Rosenkavelier. The whole thing sorts itself out but, as I say, at the cost of several marriages however ill-considered they may have been.

Religion plays a surprising part, although in a mildly folkloric way. The local Austrians in Hallendorf have great devotion to a young girl saint of the Parish whose miraculous life-story is painted on the parish walls. The school, to the surprise of its atheist headmaster, joins the village to celebrate a pageant of the saint's lifetime. It's acknowledged that the pious legends about the young St Aniella may be less than substantiated, but the devotion of the locals is undoubted, and the mostly irreligious teachers respond with generosity along with their more open-minded pupils.

A Song for Summer is a feelgood celebration of the love of a surrogate mother for her surrogate charges, the love of a people denied their right to live and work in the country of their birth, the love of villagers for their people and for those who help them, and the love of men and women for each other in its many different shapes and guises.

Themes:

  • The internment of Germans and Austrians in Britain
  • The imprisonment of Jews in Germany & Austria
  • A delight in good food

“As you see,” said Ellen — and her voice carried without difficulty to all corners of the hall, “we have tried to make the dining room more inviting — and we hope and intend to serve up more inviting food. You all know that the school is on a budget so we can't perform miracles, but we will do everything we can to see that what you get to eat is fresh and well cooked, even if sometimes it has to be plain. But there is one thing I want to make absolutely clear and it concerns the proletariat.” She paused, surveying her audience, who seemed to be suitably cowed. “I have heard a lot about the proletariat and the downtrodden workers of the world since I came here, and I think that to care about them is right and honourable and good. But I want to make it absolutely clear that the proletariat doesn't only happen in far-off places. Not only in the sweatshops of Hong Kong or the factories of the American Midwest. The proletariat is also here in this kitchen. Lieselotte, who got up at five in the morning to bake the rolls your are about to eat, is the proletariat. Frau Tauber, who washed up for you, is the proletariat when she stands by the sink for hours on her aching, swollen legs. I am the proletariat,” said Ellen waving here ladle. “When you throw a piece of bread across the room you are destroying what a man spent the night making, even though his back ached, even though his wife was ill. When you jostle and shove and spill the milk, you are belittling a man who gets up on a freezing morning and blows on his hands and goes into his shed to milk the cows while you are sleeping in your beds. And if you understand this, then I and all of us in the kitchen will do everything to serve good food, but if you can't then I swear it's back to fishbone risotto and mango shards because it's all that you deserve!”

A stunned silence followed this. Then from the back of the room a deep voice called “Bravo!”. Marek's lead was one that was always followed. It was to an ovation that Ellen picked up her ladle and began to serve.

Saturday 13th October 2007