by Edith Cody-Rice
The Summer Before the War is the latest offering and second novel of English author Helen Simonson, whose debut novel the Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand made all the best seller lists. As in Major Pettigrew, the story is quintessentially English but this book takes place in the first month and year of World War I. The setting is the small East Sussex town of Rye and the era, of course, Edwardian. The story revolves around a new female Latin teacher, a close family of an aunt, uncle and two nephews and various other townsfolk who represent both the more liberal and the stuffier aspects of English culture. This book is a gentle and comforting summer read and a bit of a brick at 465 pages. You can wrap it around you like summer shawl and while away quite a few hours. It will appeal to those of us who love Poirot, Downton Abbey, Jane Austen and Vera Brittain.
Ms. Simonson takes her eras seriously in her attention to detail and her language itself has a positively Edwardian flavour. She takes gentle pokes at the presumption and hypocrisy of the age and of small town life in any era. Take this exchange between the diplomat uncle and the new Latin teach Beatrice Nash about England’s entry into the war after the German invasion of Belgium.
“And we were honor bound to guarantee poor Belgium’s safety, were we not?” asked Beatrice
“There is no honor in diplomacy, Miss Nash,” said Daniel. “The loud declaring of its violation is usually designed to produce some advantage.”
“Daniel!” said his aunt.
“The boy may not be wrong,” said his uncle. Though I have spent many years struggling in its cause. I believe the age of honor among civilized nations may be coming to its end.”
“So we will not defend Belgium?” asked Beatrice. She felt sadly confused and she was sure one should not be confused about the need for war.”But we have a treaty!”
“Oh, we will defend them,” said John. “If Germany were to defeat France and gain a stranglehold on the norther French ports, they would threaten our channel shipping and our dominant position over the sea-lanes”
“So we will fight them for our own benefit?” she said “Saving Belgium is just a story to tell the humble masses?”
“Quite the opposite,” said John. “The saving of innocent Belgium is a story for the benefit of Parliament and all the important people who must agree to give us the troops and money to fight. You can’t get anything in politics without telling the politicians a good bedtime story.”
The one anomaly in this very English story is the American spelling as in “honor” Edwardians would be horrified that it is not spelled “honour”
That is the flavour of the book: wry, gentle. There is no swearing; women are treated with respect provided they adhere to conventional values, patriarchy is in full flower, no explicit sex (thank heavens).There are scenes at the French front, but no excessively gory details. Sound boring? Not a bit. It is a great story from an accomplished story teller.
The threads are many in the depiction of English society – women’s struggle for independence, the treatment of unmarried pregnant women, gypsies, vain authors, the entitlement of the aristocracy, pompous generals, Belgian refugees, local back biting committees and the initial enthusiasm for war. It was very popular at the beginning and the novel makes quite clear that the English had absolutely no idea what they were getting into in the war. Elements of the story bring to mind Richard Attenborough’s famous stage play “Oh, What a Lovely War”.
And it is a lovely read. Just curl up with a cuppa, a biscuit, this novel and that summer shawl.