Helen Simonson’s THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR begins gently, the way good stories and good music do. Its opening paragraph situates young doctor Hugh Grange, one of its main characters, in the lovely English landscape, “The town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramids of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slanting evening light.” Such an introduction is at odds with rules designed to confine contemporary fiction to a straight jacket dreamt up by academics with too much leisure and not much imagination. According to these rules, contemporary readers must be hit between the eyes with an opening sentence that dazzles them to the point of disorientation. Place and time are vague. Readers must work for entertainment. Sentences must be short, adjectives and adverbs must vanish and nouns that have the vaguest etymological association with Latin are forbidden. Passive voice is taboo and so the gerund. Hemingway’s clipped journalistic style trumps Dickens and Trollope’s.
Fortunately, Simonson rises above such silly directives. She renders the town of Rye and people as timeless and universal. There is a special alchemy in that. There is magic firmly rooted in British literary tradition. Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, had the gift to tell stories that transcend time and place. So does Simonson. Her characters range from those burdened with the prejudices of their place to those ho can break free from parochial morality and outdated conventions. Well-traveled, well educated, forward thinking Beatrice Nash, is one of the latter. Eager to escape the humiliating confines of the aristocratic household of a domineering relative, she accepts a teaching job at Rye. There she meets Hugh Grange, who has been tutoring underprivileged boys while he spends his summer vacation at the home of his aunt Agatha Kent. She also meets Hugh’s cousin, poet Daniel Bookham, an effete poet who is the perfect foil for the level headed young doctor. The three become Beatrice’s friends and supporters.
Beatrice moves into Mrs. Turber’s house, a woman of Dickensian narrow mindedness. In time, she meets the local social leaders, the wannabe social leaders, and the local outcasts, personified by a Roma family. Add to that mix Belgian war refugees and the sweet Sussex summer acquires an entirely different flavor. This is a change that Simonson handles with exquisite deftness. What seems, at first, no more than a good read in the style of Barbara Pym, deepens into a study of social conditions and their effect on the life of minorities—the Roma—and the powerless—women. But this is done without preachy condescension. As the story moves from tense peacetime to war, Simonson’s theme darkens. Effete Daniel’s sexuality comes into question, solicitor Poot, another Dickensian character, reveals his ambitions, a newly arrived couple of writers hits Rye’s brick wall of prudery, Agatha Kent discovers the limits of her tolerance. The Roma boy for whom Beatrice has such hopes learns that the scholarly life to which he aspires is barred to him. A Belgian refugee whose beauty initially gains her the approval of townspeople soon confronts a crisis that nearly turns her into an outcast.
ut these are nothing but the bones of the story. The real thing is richer and far more enjoyable. It is well constructed and enlightening though it never attempts to bludgeon the reader. Rather, it relies on unaffected simplicity. This is superior writing by a gifted author. It is a work I want to keep close as I keep those of Dickens and Trollope. It is work to which I will return after I recover from having my heart wrung by sadness of the awful war that sundered Hugh, his cousin, and so many Sussex boys from their golden landscape where, in summer, “…the 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 slate silk dress.”