Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Summer Before the War

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I absolutely love it when I can report that a second novel by a writer who delighted me once has been able to do so again. Helen Simonson came on the scene with "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," and, if I'm remembering this correctly, my dear friend Andrea and I were reading and loving it at the same time. Can it be that this was in 2010?
With "The Summer Before the War," Ms. Simonson ( has written a comedy of manners that mimics the witty observations of Jane Austen, then marries it to a 21st century social conscience. The war referred to in the title is the so-called "Great War" of 1914 through 1918, an astoundingly tone-deaf moniker for the first of the twentieth century's heartbreaking legacy of wars around the world.
The action takes place in the picturesque village of Rye in Sussex, a town similar to the one Simonson in which Simonson herself was raised. As you'll be aware, if you're familiar with Downton Abbey, the classes were highly segregated at that time in history and women were non-entities with no rights to money or property except through marriage. So what's an independent, educated - gasp -  twenty-four-year-old woman to do, when her father dies and leaves her worldly goods in the hands of trustees who do not have her best interests at heart?
Enter the admirable, pithy Beatrice Nash, a Latin teacher (unheard of for a woman), who rides around the town on her bicycle (very risqué.) She is the Elizabeth Bennett-type focal point of the novel and yes, it is a romance, but it is so much more. Beatrice supports herself by teaching, lives frugally, and harbors a desire to write. Through Beatrice and her students, Simonson introduces readers to the plight of the Romani gypsies, a group that's been fighting prejudice in Europe for centuries, and still do to this day.
We meet young "Snout" whose passion for Virgil and facility with the Latin language endears him to Beatrice. When she discovers that he will not be able to sit for the Latin prize because of his non-aristocratic background, she is outraged and immobilized. Immobilized because her job is constantly on the line, one wrong step, one misplaced allegiance, and the committee who hired her will revoke her position. Fortunately, Beatrice has the well regarded Kent family in her corner, especially Agatha Kent, another tough woman who's learned to accomplish much by playing her cards close to the vest.
The childless Kents have two nephews whom they adore as their if they were their own sons. Hugh is the more aloof, on the fast track to becoming a surgeon and the mentee of a wealthy London doctor whose daughter is of marriageable age. Then there's Daniel, a less focused but no less ambitious young man who writes poetry and dreams of publishing a literary magazine with his soul mate and fellow artist, Craigmore.
But the people of Rye and the idyllic life of Sussex will be forever changed by the advent of war. As the Germans invade Belgium and refugees begin to travel to the UK, pressure is on for young men of good standing to sign up. As always, war is glorified by those who won't have to serve, feared by wives and mothers, acknowledged as a way up and out by the lower classes, and seen in all its ugly iterations by Hugh, who is tasked with setting up a field hospital close to the front lines.
Helen Simonson has the knack of making forceful moral points with a delicate touch. One never feels lectured to but simply delights in picking up on the hypocrisies, the small victories, and the injustices corrected. I'm reminded of the gentle lessons of an Alexander McCall Smith novel. I adored this book and all of the characters in it. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that as I was finishing it this morning and chatting about it with Don, we happened to catch Diane's Rehm's second hour interview with Julian Fellowes as he discussed his new book "Belgravia." By one o'clock it was downloaded on my Kindle.

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