When Helen Simonson’s novel The Summer Before the War opens, it’s just another drowsy summer in 1914 in the coastal town of Rye in Sussex, England. Snout, an unlikely but bright Latin student, is busy poaching rabbits and doing odd jobs to add to his growing pile of coins. Agatha Kent, one of the pillars of the community, is enjoying the company of her two nephews, practical Hugh Grange, who is studying to be a doctor, and snobbish Daniel Bookham, a poet. There are parties and teas to attend.
Except it’s not just another quiet summer in Rye. Agatha Kent has done something most unusual. She has persuaded the school board to hire a woman to be the new Latin teacher in the town’s school. Apparently, in England in 1914, men taught Latin, and The Summer Before the War begins with the arrival of Beatrice Nash to assume the position of Latin teacher.
Beatrice Nash is young, attractive, bright, an aspiring writer, progressive, and poor. In short, she is everything a heroine should be, and I was rooting for her right from the start. While Agatha Kent might be Beatrice’s champion, the mayor’s wife, Mrs. Fothergill, is Beatrice’s enemy and, of course, Agatha’s as well. During the course of the summer, Agatha and Mrs. Fothergill will work very hard to outmaneuver each other, with Beatrice often caught between the two women.
Much of the novel deals with Beatrice trying to make her way on her own—her father has recently died—in a town where her status is far from assured. With Agatha as Beatrice’s champion, the way is easier but certainly not easy for this bright, genteel but poor young woman who has never taught before and has much to learn.
For many novels, this would have been enough. As the story progresses, it is clear that Hugh and Beatrice are attracted to each other. Do we want them to get together? Of course we do. But there are complications. Hugh is committed to another woman, not quite engaged but heading in that direction. In the meantime, the repulsive Mr. Poot, the Mayor’s nephew, is angling for Beatrice.
But as the title suggests, this is the summer before the war, the Great War, as it is known, where so many young men lost their lives. Suddenly, the book’s tone takes a turn from pointed yet amusing to very serious. Many of the young men we have come to know in the book go off to war, and Helen Simonson has such a knack for vivid characters that I had a lump in my throat as they left Rye for the killing fields of France.
Readers, I must confess that one night I stayed up until 2 a.m. reading this book. Simonson, a terrific writer, skilfully weaves in many issues in this book that begins as a comedy of manners. Class, gender, poverty, sexuality, ambition, and literature are subjects that are explored in The Summer Before the War. Then, of course, there is war and its terrible toil.
Finally, as is the case with so many British writers, Simonson has a wonderful feel for the natural world, and there are many beautiful descriptions of Rye and the seaside. Indeed, the book opens with “The town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramid of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slanting evening light. The high Sussex bluffs were a massive, unbroken line of shadow, from east to west, the fields breathed out the heat of the day, and the sea was a sheet of hammered pewter.”
This fine book will go on my wish list so that I can have it in my home library.