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The Summer Before the War


The Summer Before the War

It’s been more than a hundred years since the first of the world wars cast its blight on an entire generation. In England, separated from the beleaguered continent by only a ribbon of water, the home front was also a theater of battle, and there’s no better way to trace the arc of before and after --- from glory-seeking naïveté to the hell of trench warfare and death on a hitherto unimaginable scale --- than to zero in on a single small town.

Novels of village life are practically an institution in the UK --- from Elizabeth Gaskell to Agatha Christie, Barbara Pym to Joanna Trollope --- and Helen Simonson is a brilliant new voice in this tradition. Both her novels are set in rural Sussex, where she lived as a teenager (she’s now a Brooklynite). Her first, the popular and charming MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND (2010), is a comedy of manners-cum-romance; in her second, THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR, the locale becomes not simply quaint but ominous, for the southeastern coast of Britain is historically the spot most vulnerable to invasion. This new book also takes us back a century, and it has a darker tone than Simonson’s debut novel.

In the summer of 1914, the town of Rye is serene and orderly. Although it has petty rivalries and prejudices, like any village, it is positively awash in well-being, at least if you belong to the more fortunate classes. In Part One, Simonson introduces us to the major players: Beatrice Nash, who is educated by her late father, a classics scholar, has come to Rye to teach Latin at the local school; she is all too aware of the social constrictions (and corsetry) that impede a smart, independent woman. The resident matriarch Agatha Kent, who has wangled Beatrice’s appointment, is similarly ambitious, but she doesn’t stray too far from the moral strictures of the day. Agatha dotes on her two nephews: Hugh Grange, a would-be surgeon with an eye to marrying his mentor’s pretty daughter (until he finds himself drawn to plain-spoken, unpretentious Beatrice), and the more flamboyant Daniel Bookham, an aspiring poet in the Wilfrid Owen/Rupert Brooke mode (his sexual preference is spoken of in veiled terms: “moral decadence” and references to Oscar Wilde). 

"I am heartily grateful that Simonson doesn’t fall into the common historical-novelist mistake of projecting a modern feminist sensibility onto characters of a different era.... Agatha reminds me of a younger version of Isobel Crawley in 'Downton Abbey': passionate, practical, open-hearted --- a thoroughly sensible rebel."

Finally, there is the irresistible half-Gypsy lad known as Snout: poacher, scrounger and Latin scholar. Simonson’s portrait of Snout and his family is both droll and heartbreaking; it is also a means of defending the much-maligned Gypsies against the narrow-mindedness of villagers who label them “thieves and vagabonds.” THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR, indeed, champions the cause of outsiders: gay, poor, feminist, bohemian, Gypsy. “It seems we are all refugees of one sort or another,” says Alice, a local suffragette, remarking on the way Rye closes ranks against anybody unconventional.

Literal refugees appear in Parts Two and Three, as England enters the war and Rye takes in Belgians fleeing the German invasion. Beatrice shares her lodgings with a young woman who has escaped with her professor father; she thinks that providing sanctuary is her way of finding “some small connection to the war.” To raise funds, the village organizes a cheerful fête (“[T]he widows and the grieving mothers were expected to keep their black weeds and pale faces in their shuttered homes”), but its patriotic floats and tidy “model trenches” show just how far Rye still is from a realistic grasp of the conflict. In Part Four, with Hugh and Daniel having enlisted, some of the action shifts to the front itself. Both young men are deeply changed, their illusions gone. “War is truly humbling,” Hugh says. Daniel agrees: “It’s a kind of freedom. I am free, not from fear of death, but from believing I can control death.”

The somber battlefield scenes are relieved by the black humor of ambulance drivers Archie and Bill (“Anything more than three quarters of a man and we bring him in”). Hugh thinks, observing the pair, “that such earthbound ruffians formed as indelible a part of England’s fabled backbone as any boys from Eton’s playing fields.” Another consequence of the war, clearly, is to undermine the strict class system that has dominated for so long.

Perhaps THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR is a bit predictable at times. Some of the characters verge on “types” familiar from novels and films. There is little suspense as to how the attraction between Hugh and Beatrice will play out (that said, it is an enchanting romance), nor is this the first novel (or the last) to show how careless golden youths were transformed seemingly overnight into cynical-yet-heroic soldiers. Yet there is also something comforting and infinitely touching about this familiar trajectory, and Simonson infuses it with her trademark intelligence and emotional depth.

My favorite character, hands down, is Snout, but Agatha runs a close second. She is older than Beatrice and more complex. At 45, she is happily married (there is nothing in the least servile about the way she spars with her husband) and in some ways liberated (inspired by a demonstration at a German spa, she takes exercise and sunbathes nude in the open air); she has no patience for snobs and blowhards, of whom Rye has many. But Agatha still worships the god of respectability. “I fear I am as small-minded as the next woman,” she admits, refusing to receive a bohemian writer or an unmarried pregnant woman, the victim of rape. She is fond of Beatrice but does not regard her as a proper match for Hugh, as she confides to her husband: “Compounding lack of funds with intelligence, she makes herself unmarriageable.” And though she has power in the village, she exercises it indirectly, by subterfuge and manipulation.

I am heartily grateful that Simonson doesn’t fall into the common historical-novelist mistake of projecting a modern feminist sensibility onto characters of a different era. Agatha and Beatrice are flirting with liberation --- there’s plenty of anger, yearning and stifled desire for a contemporary woman to identify with --- but their imagination and behavior have limits, both socially imposed and self-imposed.

Agatha reminds me of a younger version of Isobel Crawley in “Downton Abbey”: passionate, practical, open-hearted --- a thoroughly sensible rebel. Mourners for that beloved miniseries would do well to hope that somebody options THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR for television. I’ll bet it would be a hit on both sides of the pond.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on March 23, 2016

The Summer Before the War
by Helen Simonson

  • Publication Date: February 21, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812983203
  • ISBN-13: 9780812983203