“SUMMER AFTERNOON—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language,” wrote Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady. It’s a perfect summer afternoon here in the Northwest—FINALLY—after the rainiest June ever, and I’m in a mood to appreciate it.
Wait—I’m wrong! I just looked it up and discovered, to my surprise, that that famous quote is actually from one of Henry James’ short stories. But his preoccupation with perfect English summer afternoons is also evident in Portrait’s opening scene:
“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. . . . The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country house in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf.”
I love James’ description of the summer afternoon as being “of the finest and rarest quality,” like a delicious wine, with all the leisure, relaxation, and ease that evokes. I’ve always been in love with such gorgeously described literary moments, perhaps even more so because I did not grow up enjoying them. From the age of eleven on, I spent my summers sweating in the berry fields.
I’ve always wished I’d had the kind of childhood where I spent the summers reading in a convenient, shady apple tree, but since I didn’t, I always vastly preferred the school year to summer. As an adult, I’ve experimented with trying to capture those kinds of leisurely summer moments for myself, with varying success.
I’ve written in earlier posts about some of my favorite books that evoke summer for me. I was charmed to read a bookstagrammer I follow recently confessing she prefers reading about the beach to actually going to the beach!
And I sort of get it. Of course, there’s always the sand that gets into everything, especially your food and your sandals, but apart from that, maybe that summer beach-vibe thing has been idealized to the point where possibly the actual experience never really quite matches the romanticized vision of it.
I have a vivid memory of myself at around five years old, packing for a trip to the Washington coast, and because of a story about Betsy McCall I’d read (or more probably, had read to me), I was certain I would only need swimsuits, shorts, and flipflops. My parents tried to explain that I needed to pack some warm clothes too, but I wasn’t having it. From books, I knew that it was always warm at “the beach”! (Fortunately, I think they threw in some long pants and sweatshirts for me. I’d have frozen if they didn’t!)
I wonder if that idealized idea of “the beach” is really about finding that summer place—wherever it is—that makes you feel like you can lie back, let go of all the difficult stuff you’ve been carrying, and finally rest. It’s hard to find joy in the world right now, let alone that carefree feeling of summer. But I really believe it’s worth devoting some energy to the quest.
For me, right now, the place where I feel happiest and most carefree is in the garden. As Fanny Price says in Mansfield Park, “To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.” Add a few flowers—or better yet, LOTS of flowers—and I’m right there with Fanny.
Wherever your perfect summer afternoon place is, I hope you find it, and that you can devote some quality time to enjoying it, surrounded by the things that bring you the most joy. For me, that has to include books and tea. And I’d love it if you dropped me a line and shared what your summer afternoon place and your happy things are!
“In summer, the song sings itself,” wrote William Carlos Williams.
Let’s not miss it!
Featured photo by Natasya J, courtesy of unsplash.com