Polished reviews I saw online for The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson’s second novel (Random House 2016), did not wholly mesh with what I was thinking when I put it down. If I had based my decision to read the hefty 450+ page work of historical fiction about 1914 England on what they said, I may have opened it later than sooner. It’s a good thing my sister gave me a hardback copy for my birthday.
The war is World War I, of course, then known as The Great War. A young Latin teacher named Beatrice Nash leaves the clutches of her extended family to take a job in the small town of Rye in East Sussex. Because an aunt controls the trust left by her father, it has been next to impossible for the 23 year-old unmarried woman to live on her own.
Beatrice does break away, riding by rail to Rye. She is up against human walls on several sides: the mayor (and his farcical wife), the landlady, the town gossips, and the barrister who would take a percentage of her small income for himself. But her savior is Agatha Kent, a middle-aged woman who had pushed for her hiring.
Another protagonist of the story is Agatha’s nephew, Hugh, a young doctor; among several antagonists is a nobleman who blames the death of his son on Agatha’s other nephew, poet Daniel.
I suppose it was to engage more readers that reviewers of The Summer Before the War invoked the memory of small and large screens for comparison: Downton Abbey (at least three) and Star Wars (!) (one). This is an injustice to the printed page. Readers do not need wardrobe departments or special effects men to make them want to know about the world of the past. They count on authors like Simonson to draw them to it.
We do agree that Simonson’s exquisitely orchestrated word pictures equal those in her first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, also set in her homeland but in modern times (She now lives in Manhattan). “The Wheaton’s garden could not be anything but a felicitous scene: the emerald of the lawn, the rightly pitched white marquee heads of summer flowers, nodding above the ladies’ linen and cotton dresses. The uniformed servants, a small navy, ferried trays of sandwiches and buckets of ice across a green sea…”
Most social remarks made by the critics about this book touched on discrimination of women of the time and a public oblivious to the horrors of modern warfare just ahead. “‘I avoid the papers altogether,’ said Daniel. ‘I’m pretty sure wars would be shorter if we weren’t eager to read about them.'”
But nobody mentions the father/daughter relationships key to the plot. Poignant but pathetic, it was/is often the way love is shown. I can’t understand it, having had a pretty fair-minded dad, but I know it exists. Beatrice’s father thought the best way to help her was by leaving older family members to control her inheritance, even though she capably took care of him in his last years. A Belgian refugee professor treats his young daughter with tenderness but abandons her at the worst possible time to save his university’s books. Mr. Tillingham, a character suggestive of Henry James and supposed surrogate father to both, is ultimately concerned most with his own writing.
Another very interesting part of the tale is the presence of the Romanies, commonly known as gypsies. From reading about the Edwardian Period in Indiana I also found news articles about these mysterious people. “In a small clearing, two lean dogs emerged barking from under a dark wooden caravan with a black tar roof. A shaggy horse tethered to a long rope looked sideways from one large eye but did not bother to take his mouth from the long grass. The old woman sitting on the caravan steps was as wizened as a dried apple and, though the day was hot, was wrapped in several shawls.”
The gypsy lady, an unlikely friend of prominent citizen Agatha, has a main role along with her great-grandson, a bright boy whom Beatrice tutors before school begins. The injustices he suffers are unnerving, tragic and catastrophic to the future of the town. The irony is that few people realize what he could have become and done for them. Doctor? Barrister? Scientist? Author? They will never know.
I appreciate Simonson’s notes about her research at the end of the novel. She was raised in the places she describes, so knows how to relay feelings her characters would have had and expressed. She read actual copies of hundred year-old newspapers; shortly afterward these were morphed into microfiche.
“Microfiche and searchable digital content cannot replace the thrill and serendipity of reading a full newspaper just as my characters would have done…” I feel the same way.
The sting of this year’s election lingers with those who know women are on an equal plane with men to lead, govern, and plan for the future. Beatrice’s summer before the war a century ago is a harbinger of the same.