The Summer Before the War

The Summer Before the War

by Helen Simonson

Overview:East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.

When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.

Elaine Marlin (11/01/17): I am very pleased to have read Helen Simonson's 2016 novel, The Summer Before the War. The story takes place before WW I in the small English town of Rye, in 1914. The main characters are Agatha Kent and her two adult nephews (they are not brothers). These young men are very different in many ways, and have a very close and good relationship with their Aunt Agatha. She is a very solid, kind lady. She adores both of her nephews. The cousins, as mentioned, are different.

Hugh Grange is serious, stiff and reserved. He is becoming a surgeon, and is mentored by a Sir Alex Ramsey, who resides with his pretty daughter, Lucy, in London. Sir Alex has aspirations for Hugh to specialize in brain disorders. Hugh is on a path to get together with Lucy, and one day take over Sir Alex's surgery practice.

Cousin Daniel is very relaxed, has a good sense of humor, never serious. His true love is writing poetry. A good friend named Craigmore, figures in the story (with undertones of strong male bonding).

A very bright and motivated young lady named Beatrice Nash, arrives in town to take over a position teaching Latin to the young school children. She is an "outsider" and so has to pass inspection by many of the townspeople, who are very set in their ways: " A woman teaching Latin?!" She is intelligent, modest, humble, but has ideas which are not in vogue yet. She is determined to earn her own way in the world. She becomes friends with Agatha, who guides her through the ins and outs of small town life. Most of the townspeople are close-minded and resistant to change (but it is coming!!!) There is a group of Romanis (Gypsies) who live in the fringes of town, who are mostly rebuffed by the townspeople. There is a very old Romani, Mrs. Stokes, who is a medicine woman, of sorts. Then the war starts! Rye citizens do their part, raise money, take in Belgian refugees, try to do the right thing.

One of the wonderful and subtle parts of the novel is the slow starting, but sort of obvious attraction between Beatrice and Hugh. It does not seem plausible that they will connect in any way but as friends. Then the war heats up! Hugh is a surgeon working near the front. Daniel, for reasons that will become apparent, joins in the war. This author's descriptions of people, place and their interactions, are wonderful to read (some may say boring, but not to me!) She writes beautifully, and I felt as if I were in the town with all of the people. The story gets progressively more serious, and quite sad. The author did some deep research and I am sure many of the characters were based on writings by those living at the time (more than 100 years ago!!). She makes their lives, and the War, relevant and brutal. I loved her first novel: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and I love this book.
Rating: *****

Faith Bowers (10/26/16): This was Simonson’s first in historical fiction. The book was well written as an Edwardian novel. The mores and values were well documented within the characters. Beatrice, although a helpmate to her father through to his dying day, felt totally betrayed by him when he put their small inheritance in trust. All women’s issues were greatly discussed. Gay and lesbian issues were touched upon and rather than the upper class of Downton Abbey, we see mostly the middle class values of countryside England pre WWI. I enjoyed it but it was not as good as her prior novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.
Rating: ***


 
 
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