I recently read a stack of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, in preparation for writing an introduction to her novel A Game of Hide-and-Seek, to be reprinted as an NYRB Classic in February. In one of her later novels, In a Summer Season, published in 1961, there is a description of the advent of television into an upper-middle-class British household, which strikes me as an early attempt by the novel to reckon with its new rival. I wonder if anyone has made a collection of such scenes.
The book’s heroine is named Kate. Her adult son Tom lives with her, as does her second husband, Dermot, and an aunt named Ethel who tries to keep out of everyone’s way. The two men are to a certain extent allied against Kate in not-quite-reputable habits of leisure. Their unseemly alliance culminates in Tom’s purchase of a television set.
“Why can’t you read a book instead?” Kate asked [Tom]. She disdained such ways of passing time, not realising that she very seldom read herself these days and was just off for an evening in the pub with Dermot. Tom kept the television set in his bedroom and he and Dermot liked to sit there with curtains drawn against the sunshine, watching cowboy films. “Too good an evening to waste out of doors,” Dermot would say, taking a last glimpse out of the bedroom window while the set was warming up—Ethel’s dog lying on the hot gravel down there, a column of gnats dancing in the shaft of light under some trees and high above the trees some cirrus clouds paling and dissolving. “Right!” Tom would say, drawing up two uncomfortable bedroom chairs. On the screen, rods of light ran blindingly into one another, the picture steadied until they were able to see a packet of soap powder capering on tiny legs, singing a ditty. It then took a dive into a washing-machine, and a head of jostling bubbles, singing too, rose up.
The scene visible through the window is quiet enough to lend itself to a meditative description; the screen, by contrast, is too loud to meet with anything but sarcasm. But even more telling is the perfidy of Ethel, who means to resist but isn’t strong enough to.
Sometimes Ethel joined them, looking in with a trivial excuse, begging them not to stir and lingering to watch, but as if her attention was only momentarily caught. After hovering for a while, she gradually merged into the shadowy background and was forgotten, until at last, with sick-bed caution, she tiptoed away. Like hares before a serpent, Tom and Dermot sat rigid and in silence. From time to time, their hands groped on the floor for their glasses of light ale, their cigarettes burnt to their fingers.
A chapter or so later, after deprecating the television in a gossipy letter to a friend, Ethel is mesmerized by a broadcast of Swan Lake on ice.