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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Today's New Release: THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR by Helen Simonson

4 Stars
Simonson’s second novel, after her debut Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, is set in 1914 in the seaside town of Rye. Championed by Agatha Kent, 23-year-old Beatrice Nash has been hired to be the Latin teacher at the local school.  Beatrice arrives, more free thinking and attractive than expected, and becomes involved in the social life of the town.  She encounters many colourful characters but becomes especially close with Agatha and her two nephews:  Hugh Grange, a medical student, and Daniel Bookman, a bohemian poet. 

This is a comedy of manners; à la Jane Austen, it is full of dry wit and sparkling dialogue.  Beatrice, left penniless after her father’s death, decides she will live like a spinster earning her financial independence by pursuing teaching and writing.  Of course, the possibility of romance is introduced early on though there are complicating factors.  There is one potential suitor, the odious Mr. Poot, who is very similar to Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

The novel certainly has its light moments.  Class snobbery and small-town intrigue are often rendered with a comic touch; the scenes involving various women manipulating for power are wonderful.  Agatha in particular is very eloquent when verbally fencing with others, especially Mrs. Fothergill who is the model of a small-minded, small-town gossip who yearns for status and power. 

But the book also examines serious issues. It focuses on gender, class and social mores.  We see society’s reaction to ethnic background, divorce, pregnancy outside marriage, the feminist movement, and homosexuality.  Most strongly, we see how social constructs limit people.  Beatrice, like other women of the time period, has difficulty getting a job and maintaining her independence; the slightest rumour of the scantest association with scandal risks her job security.  Another example of society constraining potential is evidenced in Snout, an exceptionally intelligent boy whose future is limited because of his Gypsy blood.

As the title suggests, the setting is England at the cusp of World War I.  What is disturbing is that the townspeople idealize war as an adventure.  Of course the reader knows what horrors await the men who enlist; I often found myself cringing at phrases like “civilized warfare” and shaking my head at the naivety of both civilians and the military.  Hugh’s mentor envisions a specialist hospital as close to the front lines as possible, offering “the opportunity to catalog every possible type and severity of brain injury”!  A brigadier insists on holding a drill and parade “only a couple of miles from the German lines,” not thinking that the enemy could use the sound of the full brass band to recalibrate “the range and direction of their artillery”!

It is the female characters who steal the show.  Agatha, Beatrice’s patron, stands out as an intelligent, diplomatic woman who loves life and enjoys verbal jousts with the pretentious.  She is not perfect, however, and, though more progressive than most, is, as she admits herself, “as small-minded as the next woman.”  Beatrice finds a soul-mate in Agatha; she is intelligent and determined and feisty, so she has “to work harder to cultivate an appropriate attitude of grateful subordination.”  Beatrice is also a dynamic character who learns “what it meant to be of limited income” and re-examines her relationship with her beloved father.

Though the novel is set one hundred years in the past, its discussion of refugees seems timely.  The town decides to shelter some Belgian refugees and the attitudes of the various residents remind me of comments I have heard and read with regard to the refugee crisis in Europe and whether Syrians should be welcomed so openly to Canada.

This is quite a lengthy novel and at times is very slow-paced but, nonetheless, I enjoyed it.  It needs to be approached leisurely.  It will undoubtedly be described as a gentle, quiet read but its charm is not a disguise for fluff.  The book has its comic moments, but it also accurately recreates a time of innocence before a major cataclysm which ushered in the age of experience.

Note:  I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.