William Dean Howells was one of the stalwart gentlemen of American 19th century letters. Best friends with Mark Twain and Henry James, a champion of the work of Emily Dickenson and Stephen Crane among others, he was a wholly self-educated man who began life as a reporter and worked his way up to the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly before retiring to devote himself to fiction. Not that many of his thirty-six novels remain in print, and reading the delightful and inconsequential Indian Summer, it’s possible to see why. It’s rare that gentle, comic literature lasts through the ages, unless you’re Jane Austen. Howells called himself a realist, but he had his own particular take on the term; he didn’t mean realist as a number of late 19th century authors like Dreiser and Zola do, which is to say darkly depressing and in constant touch with a kind of kitchen sink grimness, bringing to the educated public’s attention the reality of poverty, strife and ignorance. What he meant was that he wanted his characters to be honest, ordinary people, as he might find in his strata of society, flawed and well-meaning, good-hearted and self-effacing, bound by the conventions and the restrictions of their day but quietly dreaming of a little local heroism in their souls. These kind of people don’t make it into literature much because they are not the sort to have a great deal happen to them, and Howells was aware of this; but their sorrows and joys were as valid and valuable as anyone else’s, and his treatment of their lives was, if Indian Summer is exemplary, compassionate, sensitive and laconically humourous.
So, the story focuses on Theodore Colville, a 41-year-old American recently deposed from the position of newspaper editor in his home town of Des Vaches after a failed stab at a political career. Not sure what to do with himself, Colville has travelled to Florence where he intends to spend some time resurrecting a youthful dream of becoming an architect. But his memories of Florence are bittersweet; he visited first in his twenties and had his heart broken by a young American woman who dallied with his affections and moved on. We get the impression that, hurt as he was, Colville has used it as an excuse to avoid romantic entanglements ever since.
All that’s about to come to a sticky end, however, as he happens by chance upon a former acquaintance – the widowed Lina Bowen, who used to be the best friend of the woman who broke his heart, her small daughter, Effie, and her youthful, exquisitely beautiful charge, Imogene Graham, who is ‘doing’ Europe under her care. Colville is drawn to his countrywomen and they are delighted by his witty social charm. He’s a minor king of small talk, is Colville, most often ready with an amusing rejoinder to all superficial polite remarks. Little Effie recognises prime father figure material when she sees it and bonds with him. Imogene Graham is seduced by the sad story of his lost romantic attachment and invests a great deal more in the mission of saving him from his solitude than is wise. And as for Lina Bowen, well, there’s the sense of a missed encounter from their first time around in Florence that might be subject to a miraculous reprieve, if only pride, uncertainty and confusion don’t get too much in the way.
There’s another character with a significant role to play, the elderly Mr Waters, a former minister also from America, come to end his days in spiritual contemplation. He’s reached the age where he is both wise and disinclined to meddle in the lives of others, and so his role is to transcend the emotional flurry that surrounds Colville and his women, and to comment upon it from the vast distance of contented, elderly renunciation. ‘The young suffer terribly,’ Mr Waters admits. ‘But they recover. Afterward we don’t suffer so much, but we don’t recover.’ This is a novel that is profoundly concerned with the different stages of humankind, as Colville struggles for most of its length with a midlife crisis, no less real for the lightness with which he attempts to treat it. This is what makes him dangerously susceptible to the dramatic overtures of Imogene Graham, despite the fact that he knows better than to take them seriously. She insists that the question of age is irrelevant between them, when it is evidently a source of great awkwardness. ‘You had better make the most of me as a lost youth,’ Colville advises her. ‘I’m old enough to be two of them.’ But if Colville is at his most easy with little Effie, it’s because something in him is still immature; playing with her, he’s in a comfort zone. The verbal dexterity and wit which make him such an amiable literary protagonist, is what holds the deeper, serious world at bay. Colville has used duty, convention and affability to guard against soul searching and profound emotional disarray, and now, caught up in a romantic muddle with Mrs Bowen and Imogene, he is distinctly out of his depth.
As a romance, it’s quite unromantic, and as a comedy, it’s not laugh out loud funny; but it is rather sweet and touching and frustrating on the way that polite people with nice manners can disclaim responsibility for themselves. Imogene is determined to sacrifice herself in a grand and noble gesture, refusing to attend to what she feels because that would be small-minded and selfish; Mrs Bowen rather got on my nerves, I’m sorry to say, by endlessly telling everyone she utterly and completely refused to instruct them on what to do while emanating ferocious waves of disapproval and tragic despair, and Colville gets stuck between his ladies, wanting to please them all and quite incapable of pleasing either in what he knows is a false situation. They have all abdicated their will for the sake of another who doesn’t want it, and the plot is delicately balanced; it could easily end in lives of bitter but disguised renunciation. The spirit of Colville infuses the book, however, and is, I suspect, highly reminiscent of its author, and so despite the seemingly hopeless tangles of the characters, a happy ending is neatly and satisfyingly brought about. I read this while suffering still from a cold, and feeling unequal to anything demanding or depressing, and it was just the right book for the circumstances. It is gentle and light and kind, a good companion of a novel in times of exile from the thick of life.