The Summer Before the War
by Helen Simonson
2016 / 498 pages (ARC – Kindle)
rating: 9.25 / historical fiction
(With thanks to Random House via Netgalley for the advance reader copy!)
Good read – quite enjoyable but a warning – although it is never explicit, this book does not pull punches. For a good chunk of the novel I wanted to call it a delightful satire. Then some real life circa 1914 stuff happens – difficult situations, hard choices and tragedies.
I first encountered Helen Simonson with her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, a really delicious fiction I recommended to both my mom and my daughter and probably other folks online, so I managed to get copy of Simonson’s second novel in advance reader copy (ARC – from Netgalley) form. I’ve never done ARC before – we’ll see how it goes, but at least I’ve got something I’m looking forward to as a starter.
The setting is the small town of Rye in East Sussex England, during the summer 1914. These are the years of rising tensions about the wars in the Balkans, suffragettes in the streets, labor uprisings,the clash between 19th century Victorian ways and more modern ideas as well as the normal, petty local jealousies. It’s Imperial England just past its prime and full of ignorance, arrogance, entrenched tradition, class issues and small minds.
Beatrice Nash, a very intelligent and nicely pretty, but rather naive, 23-year old woman, orphaned and of limited means is a niece of Lord and Lady Marbely of Rye. Because of that connection she has been recommended by Agatha Kent to tutor a Latin class at a local grammar school. Beatrice was educated by her father, a writer of some renown, and she really has her eye on being a single lady school teacher and writer. Agatha’s husband, John Kent, is a highly placed government official. Agatha is an enormously complex and intriguing character.
Staying with the Kents are Hugh Grange, a medical student studying under Sir Alex Ramsey, a noted surgeon, and Daniel Bookham, a budding poet. Hugh and Daniel are of the right age and temperament for romance, but well … the woman would have to be of the “right class” which Beatrice, although possibly respectable enough, is decidedly not. Unfortunately, the two cousins are also of the exact right age to join the military and serve in what is initially a very popular call to arms.
There are several minor characters with thematically important roles like the local gentry, Sir Alex Ramsey and his beautiful and very marriageable daughter Lucy, the Colonel and Lady Emily Wheaton, Mayor Fothergill and his wife Bettina, and Daniel’s school friend Craigmore, the son of Lord North. These folks are mostly as snobbish as only the provincial can be, and their children are spoiled. Mrs Turber, Beatrice’s landlady, although decidedly not of the upper echelons, is also extraordinarily concerned for respectability and she tends to gossip a bit. But reputation is all, gossip is fodder and no one is immune – can anyone stand up to majority pressure when right is on the side of the minority?
The numerous Belgian refugees (BBC) including Celeste, a beautiful young woman whom Beatrice befriends, and her father, a rather famous artist, are a seriously sad lot. There are a few “scholarship” students in Beatrice’s classes (public does not equal free) along with a couple of apparently bright girls. Snout Sidley is one of the poorest students but he isn’t even considered suitable scholarship material mainly because his family is of Gypsy or Romany extraction. And then there are the “bohemian” ladies, one of whom is the minister’s daughter, are on hand, but they insist on doing what they want – like swim nude, drink champagne, smoke, wear trousers, read poetry, ride motorcycles – who knows what all they get up to? In addition to those, there is the newly arrived artistic couple, Algernon Frith and Amberleigh de Witte, who, like the bohemian ladies, seem to be more intent on enjoying life than in social climbing – but they have their own attitudes.
There are a few others but all in all, the characters are representative of a wide variety of general elements in the population, the minor characters are probably a bit typed, the major ones not at all. And they are so individually drawn the reader never gets confused.
Oh, and is that Henry James in the guise of Mr. Tillingham, “… the American author widely described as one of the age’s leading literary figures”? He’s “great friends with that American woman who insists on writing even though her position and fortune make it quite unnecessary.” Is this Edith Wharton? And do we see bits of Virginia Woolf in the character of Beatrice as she contemplates the spider in a room of her own –
“Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps,
but still attached to life at all four corners.”
” … a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is
to write fiction”.
Both from “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf – 1929
Yes, Beatrice does manage to get a small cottage, but she still needs a little money because hers is tied up by the rather unfriendly “trustees” and her father’s family. It is almost insurmountably difficult for an unmarried woman to come by any kind of independence. These are just the opening challenges.
Several interwoven themes dominate the book, social class with the accompanying respectability and money is but one. The other two deal with women’s issues and the tragedy of war – there may be more – love, loss, loyalty and betrayal in a time of war.
The themes neatly play into the plot threads and then around each other to go back again through the plot threads. Simonson really did an incredible job here. I’d get completely caught up in one thread when another took over – and then I’d be gob-smacked by a bit of truth – the kind I underline -the kind that hits home.
It’s the old Victorian morés held up by a the creaky foundation of Edwardian and Imperial England and Simonson does a marvelous job of recreating the times with its patriotic war fervor as it interplays with the class and rule-bound lives of the characters. Historical fiction at its finest.
This is the war that eventually sent almost a million young Englishmen to the front lines to be slaughtered in the trenches. Many never returned, many returned to a life in hospitals and a whole generation (or more) never recovered. War can be a great leveler.
The tension builds as the reader wonders who will live, be sent home completely injured and who will die. What will happen to the Belgian refugee in trouble? How about the poor student who loves Latin? Will Beatrice remain true to her dream or will the pressures of society and her own physical desires take precedence? How will the tragedy of the Belgian refugee play out? Again, it is to Simonson’s credit the book did not turn into a romance – but, like life, that’s part of it.
So the plot unfolds slowly with a lot of character and setting development plus a sense of impending horrors. It doesn’t really get moving until about half-way and then it turns into a page-turner. But it takes that much time to really develop a fairly large cast of characters about whom the reader cares as well as a real sense of the times. Then there are all the winding themes and the twisting plots – it’s worth every page and minute.
I’m so very glad I read it – it could very easily turn into one of my best reads of the year as it certainly competes with last year’s favorites. And I might have to recommend it to a reading group and listen to it when it comes out in audio format.