If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, you know that a comedy of manners can be coupled with serious matters of war. If you’re in Downton withdrawal, Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War might be just the cure. Simonson slices a knife through the class, race and gender prejudices in parochial small-town England with humour and gravity in turn.
Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye at the beginning of summer 1914. She is the new Latin teacher, well-qualified, travelled, young and single. Her father recently deceased and her inheritance in trust, she is determined to make her own way as an independent woman.
Her mentor is Agatha Kent, wife of a high-level Foreign Office official. Agatha seems to take many under her wing – be it treating her nephews Hugh and Daniel like sons, or including the local Romany encampment in her rounds of good works.
The manipulations, intrigues, jabs and snobberies in the first part of the novel deftly sets everyone in their place in the hierarchy.
(Bettina Fothergill) was dressed in a narrow mustard linen suit and was using her free hand to steady an enormous green straw hat covered in red velvet cherries. …
“Good heavens, she came as a tree,” said Agatha, waving back.
Oh, I think she was going for the whole orchard,” said Daniel. (p 73)
Folks fawn on Tillingham, the celebrity author amongst them (a pastiche of Henry James, who did in fact live in Rye at the time). Beatrice longs for him to recognize her as a budding author worthy of his counsel. Lady Emily has all of his books in her library. Goodness no, she doesn’t read them. But the latest is conspicuously displayed with a “gold bookmark with a Fortuny silk tassel.” (p 62)
Cue the war.
The citizens of Rye vie to be the most patriotic. They must outdo each other in doing their bit. Within reason, of course. Send Belgian refugees only of suitable rank and quality, if you please. The social order is disturbed, the war starts to touch the people they know, doubts and tensions rise.
Sympathy for the plight of the refugees does not overcome narrow-minded judgments: when young Belgian Celeste discovers she is pregnant, having been raped by German soldiers, she becomes a social outcast.
Cue going to war.
The mood takes an abrupt turn on the Western front. The carnage is seen through the perceptions of Hugh, now an army doctor.
They had surprised him, the nurses, with their quiet endurance. It was harder for the women. Not because they were weaker, but because the patients, seeing a woman’s face, that halo frill of a cap, would so often clutch for a hand and beg a momentary word of comfort – a plea for pity that no man would impose on him, the doctor. The job was hard enough encased in numbness and ticked off on medical charts. How much harder must it be to have that veil of professional ice pierced many times a day by a dying man whispering a message to his mother? (p 414-415)
This is a book of character and witty repartee, not action-packed plot development. Some elements are predictable. Beatrice and Hugh are fated to be together from the moment they meet in the first chapter. A requisite number of favourite male characters must meet an untimely end.
Simonson doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Beatrice’s unquestioning admiration of her father slowly evolves to realization that she bears the cost of his selfish motives in tying her inheritance. Celeste’s father looked to save his books over his daughter, and was thus complicit in her violation. A scholarship cannot be wasted on a gifted Romany boy.
A good read for belly laughs and thoughtful insights.