The Summer before the War is a story set in a small English East Sussex village just before the first world war. A perfect romantic setting for a story that is equal parts touching and lovingly crafted. Helen Simonsen is famous for her much acclaimed earlier work called Major Pettigrew’s last stand, which I have unfortunately not read and was therefore pleasantly surprised with this piece of wonderfully written historical fiction.
The book cover is a triumph of simplicity and elegance – especially that floating red scarf. Also, as all good covers, it manages to catch the zest of the story in a simple etching. The woman on the bicycle manages to convey a delicious sense of freedom and abandon that immediately raises the spirits and makes one want to plunge into the story without much ado.
Beatrice Nash comes to East Sussex as the new Latin teacher for the local village school during the summer just before the war. The only trouble – she is much prettier and younger than the matrons of the town expected, apart from the considerable handicap of being a woman in the first place. She is taken immediately under the wing by Agatha Kent, the more moderate and modern of the village women and is thus sheltered from the various small squalls and large storms that the other conservative women dredge up to sweep her out of their hallowed sanctums. Agatha’s nephews, Hugh and Daniel, are much loved and an almost constant fixture in the village. Daniel is the artistic type, a poet, while Hugh, a surgeon in training, is the stolid Englishman to the bone. Apart from them there are the grand old ladies of the village like Lady Emily, Mrs. Bettina, Mrs Stokes and the resident American – a famous writer, Mr Tillingham.
If you live in a small town or village (even apartment complexes may qualify as communities akin to a small tribe nowadays), you have definitely felt the heat and scorch of the women’s committees that effectively rule the roost in such places. And if one is part of such a group it is quite entertaining to watch and marvel at the political maneuvering that goes on in order to gain an upper hand in these distinctly feminine circles. The author has captured this great aspect of small town living beautifully in her portrayal of these women. So, while one feels the inevitable frustration of Beatrice in having to bow down to the bullying tactics of the Mrs. Fothergill’s of the world, one can also take heart that there may be someone like Agatha Kent to stand up for one. Although, there are times when even Agatha must bow down to convention and custom, however wrong she may find them to be in order to herself survive.
When war first breaks out, it brings out the patriotic fervor of the people and the general optimism that a strong nation feels about it capabilities and about the lack of it in others. It is only as the casulaty lists begin to come in that the actual reality of it sets in. The fear and anxiety of those left behind, of those forced into battlefields when still too young to assimilate the horrors of war and of those displaced from their homes is portrayed with subtle strokes.
The love stories in the novel are incredibly poignant – the love of a man for a woman, the love of a child for learning, the love of a woman for a son and even the love of a man for material possession over his own flesh and blood. There are many times in the book when one must pause and reflect what one’s own actions might have been in a similar situation. Taking a stand is not always easy or even possible in many situations that actually demand it.
In all a simple story, but so prettily put together. A piece of historical fiction that I have thoroughly enjoyed after many many days.