Reviewed by Ruth Latta
The Summer Before the War
by Helen Simonson
Doubleday, 2016, ISBN 978-0-385-67706-6
Readers who enjoyed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand will be happy that Helen Simonson has written a second novel, The Summer Before the War. Both novels seem, on the surface, to be comedies of manners set in rural and small town England. In fact, both have serious themes which elevate them above and beyond pleasant summer reading. In Major Pettigrew, the real story was about overcoming racism. The Summer Before the War is about the way England sleepwalked into war with Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany in the summer of 1914. True, the triggering factor was the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Serbia, but the root cause was the imperialist rivalry between Britain and Germany.
Simonson’s characters, like most people of the era, were vaguely aware of tensions in the Balkans but not of their worst-case consequences. Certainly Mrs. Agatha Kent of Rye, a quietly progressive woman involved in many local projects, is certain that her husband, John, and his colleagues in the Foreign Office will be able to smooth matters over. Her main concern in the summer of 1914 is to get the grammar school’s board of governors to approve Miss Beatrice Nash as the Latin teacher for the fall. To hire a woman for this position is a radical departure from tradition. Mrs. Kent invites Beatrice to stay at her home while awaiting her interview.
Also visiting the Kents that summer are their nephews, Hugh, a medical student, and Daniel, a poet. They are not brothers; Hugh is a nephew on John’s side of the family and Daniel is identified as Agatha’s deceased sister’s son. The general preoccupation with class distinctions manifests itself at several public events.
Enthusiasm for the war, at first, is widespread and silly. As Beatrice says, “If the war could be won by the wearing of red, white and blue ribbons on one’s hat, perhaps it would already be over.” Young upper class women hand white feathers (implying cowardice) to men of military service age who aren’t in uniform, and refuse to interact socially with young men of their class who haven’t yet signed up. Floats and parades abound. When convalescent hospitals are set up in England early in the war, the administrators complain about the many ladies who want to play the piano for the entertainment of the patients, often in the hope of finding a wounded officer for a husband.
War brought out opportunism in many, including the surgeon Sir Alex Ramsey, who sees it as an opportunity for his student, Hugh, to learn rapidly a great deal about head wounds. “The war is the opportunity of a lifetime to advance our field at a rate unheard of in peacetime,” he declares. In France there will be an “unlimited supply of the wounded, offering the opportunity to catalog every possible type and severity of brain injury.” Sir Alex takes a personal interest in Hugh as a possible suitor for his daughter, and Hugh acquiesces until his feelings are complicated by his attraction to Beatrice Nash.
Simonson shows men enlisting on impulse because of personal problems, with no real idea of what they are getting into. Daniel enlists out of grief after his close friend, Craigmore, son of Lord North, has been killed. Sidley, who excels in Beatrice’s Latin classes, enlists because the headmaster refuses to let him sit for a scholarship on the grounds that he is too working class to succeed in higher education.
In the 1920s, young writers like Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan, to name just two examples, blamed the older generation for using the rhetoric of patriotism to lead young men to their deaths. Simonson creates a number of bad fathers, who, taken together, represent the bellicose, aggressive older generation. Among the disappointing fathers who are part of this metaphor are a Belgian refugee father who pimped his daughter to an invading German officer to secure their survival. Beatrice Nash’s father, a scholar, uprooted her from a satisfying academic community in California to return to England to his upper class family. After his death, they keep a tight grip on her inheritance, restricting her to an inadequate allowance. Another father engages in a vengeful, self-defeating persecution of someone whom he believes led his son astray. A fourth paternal figure is the “man of letters”, Mr. Tillingham, who, instead of encouraging two young writers in their projects, thinks first and foremost of his own reputation and legacy. (Tillingham is a caricature of Henry James.)
The “full regimental dinner” section of the novel is the darkest satire. Class consciousness combines with the brutality unleashed by the war and the results are horrific.
Simonson also touches on related injustices, like the official public condemnation of homosexuality and the social ostracism of single women who got pregnant. In her acknowledgements, she cites the Bryce Report, a government report of 1915, which found that rape, “though widely reported, was probably not officially forbidden at the highest levels and therefore not to be classified as an official war crime.”
In the end, one of the main characters enjoys a sober happiness, but under it “ran a thin vein of sorrow what millions like her would feel down the years.” To educate readers while entertaining them is no small achievement. Simonson deserves critical as well as popular acclaim for pulling it off in a subtle way.
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