The Last Summer, by Judith Kinghorn
The Last Summer is Judith Kinghorn’s debut novel. It is told from the first person perspective of Clarissa Granville. The story begins in the summer of 1914 when she is just sixteen years old. Clarissa states from the outset that the ‘spell’ of her languorous childhood was broken as soon as she laid eyes upon Tom Cuthbert, the only son of the family’s housekeeper.
Clarissa resides at Deyning Park, the grand house she has lived in all her life, with her parents and three older brothers, Henry, George and William. The house was ‘built in the neoclassical style from honey-hued stone’, complete with coach house, several cottages for the servants and a vast garden which touches the edge of ‘six hundred acres of landscaped parkland [leading] to the South Downs in the distance’. The Granville family is built upon a wealth of secrets which they try to keep from one another.
Despite studying at Oxford, it is made clear from the outset that Tom is below Clarissa’s standing. The sheer disparity between the social classes is outlined, Tom telling her on many occasions that she is ‘unattainable’ to the likes of him. Despite this, they carry on with their clandestine relationship, trying desperately to hide their feelings from those around them.
Clarissa exhibits many childish qualities and sees herself as ‘naïve and innocent’. She has built up a vivid imagination to stop herself from being lonely: ‘I’d languished in a daydream… floating through the house and about the grounds, inventing people, places and events’. She is an inquisitive character, determined to break from the bounds of her sheltered life which has protected her from the world. Despite the way in which she longs to know about everything around her, she seems a little too naïve to be believed at first.
Tom’s growing presence in Clarissa’s life alters her character somewhat. She becomes distracted, focused only upon the young man who thinks her ‘quite dangerously beautiful’. Their relationship is strained throughout, beginning with a childish quarrel and fraught with absences from one another. On the outbreak of war, Clarissa’s brothers join up, as does Tom. The enormous shifts in the lives of these characters are dealt with sensitively, as is Clarissa’s growing loneliness.
The narrative style seems rather chatty and even colloquial at times. It is very informative, however, allowing us to learn a lot about Clarissa and her family from the outset. Sadly, some of the dialogue seems a little lacklustre and is not always reminiscent of real-life conversations. The upper class characters are often colloquial in their speech, an aspect which is not historically accurate. The sheer volume of commas throughout does make the prose seem a little disjointed in places. Both of these elements let the book down a little in consequence.
Kinghorn’s writing is very descriptive from the outset. Grass is described as ‘lambent green’ and the lawns an ‘undulating soft carpet’. A few of the sentences do seem a little repetitive in their style, but on the whole the writing is of a high standard and it definitely improves as the novel progresses.
Elements which were of importance or were commonplace at the time have been included. A good example of this can be seen with regard to the vast social expectations which differed between men and women, a factor which Kinghorn has illustrated well. Whilst boys were able to be educated, ‘it was different for a girl’ as ‘marriage and children, a tidy home and manicured garden were a foregone conclusion’. Kinghorn has also made use of the social history of the period, detailing the suffragettes, the changing political climate of Europe and the threat of war. It is clear that the book has been well researched. Factually accurate details of the war have been woven into the narrative, which makes the story more believable as well as historically grounded.
The Last Summer is essentially a love story, but Kinghorn’s use of other characters and the time period makes it more than that. It is an impressive and absorbing tale which effectively shows the boundaries firmly put in place during the time period and the ways in which they could be broken.