Share this article

print logo

A novel for those in ‘Downton Abbey’ withdrawal


The Summer Before The War

By Helen Simonson

Random House

465 pages, $28

By Michael D. Langan

If you’re wondering “which war” in English writer Helen Simonson’s new novel’s title, it’s WWI (1914–18). That conflict continues to be referred to as “the war,” even though it began more than 100 years ago.

Five years ago, Simonson wrote an instant charmer, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.”

You may remember that “Major Pettigrew” featured a widowed, retired English officer tut-tutting around his village, Edgecombe St. Mary, in rural England.

These perambulations were modified when he met Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper who has lost her husband. (Jasmina’s husband has died. He is not misplaced or lost, if you’re thinking of that old Oscar Wilde joke from his play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” first performed in 1895.)

There’s an extension of that Simonson charm in her new novel, “The Summer Before The War.” It begins with a young Latin teacher named Beatrice Nash about to arrive at the coastal town of Rye, East Sussex, in the days before the Great War, 1914. She is the choice of Agatha Kent, an enlightened force of nature in the community at age 45. Agatha’s married to John, a senior official in the Foreign Office, who is working hard (but unnoticed) to avoid England’s involvement in an imminent war.

Agatha has two nephews: Hugh Grange, who is training to be primary assistant surgeon to the revered surgeon Sir Alex Ramsey, and “quite possibly in love with his very pretty daughter, Lucy.” Then there’s Daniel Bookham, a poet and her favorite (not mine), who has his doubts about a woman teacher coming to town.

Daniel thinks this appointment is a mistake, saying to Agatha, “I’m with the governors… It takes a man to keep a mob of schoolboys in line.”

Concerning Beatrice, the new teacher, Agatha is defensive but offers this explanation, “I may be progressive, but I would never hire a pretty teacher.” Agatha hasn’t met her, but has been assured by Lady Marbely, a friend recommending Beatrice, whose adoring father has died recently, that “she’s quite plain.”

Here’s a question for the reader: Will Beatrice not be pretty? That would be a surprise and something I’m not expecting as I read.

Hugh, whom Daniel teases is “terribly plain himself,” is sent to pick up Beatrice at the train station. So we’ll soon see what a young woman who can conjugate “amo, amas, amat” looks like, and more importantly, learn about her character.

Simonson is a consummately thoughtful writer. She may be a touch slow though, for some twits in the Twitter age, to bring things to a conclusion. But I’m not worried about how material will mesh – or not - as I go along. Her every page is a joy and surprise to read.

By the way, Hugh, who picks Beatrice up at the station and takes her to Aunt Agatha’s by car, wonders if he should have mentioned to Aunt that Beatrice “was in no way as plain as his aunt would have preferred.”

Through all this there is an ominous undercurrent of tension. One senses that change is the underlying mood in Edwardian England in “The Summer Before The War.” Change is coming. It is always coming. A dreadful war is about to erupt. It will pull down with it a black curtain of evil obscuring the twilight of innocence the English countryside has been experiencing.

It happens. The war begins. Germany invades Belgium and the small town of Rye takes in refugees. I won’t elaborate on the terrors that the war brings, and I don’t want to spoil the ending. Perhaps a quote from Beatrice after the war will entice readers to the end of the novel.

Without saying who Beatrice married, see if you are as enraptured as I with her description of early morning after the war: “Beatrice rose early this morning, as was her routine, and sat by the window of their room at the pension to try to write a few lines. But she found her attention torn between the splendor of the morning light on the fields and the splendor of her young husband, lying sprawled in a tangle of sheets. She could not have imagined how marriage would enlarge and perfect the other pleasures of her life.”

All’s well that … well, you know the rest.

Finally, may I offer a few asides that go with this period of English history and that both adumbrate England’s desire for identity and the European Union’s needs up to the present?

England’s last century experienced huge social contortions: Alteration by way of immigration continues as a major force in England into the present. Remember Ian Buruma’s recent memoir about his grandparents, a social history of a Jewish family in England that began about the same time as “Summer”? Or consider again Graham Swift’s contemporary book of stories, “England and Other Stories,” about migration and transformations of those who call themselves English.

For his entire time in office, Prime Minister Cameron has argued about the importance of the transmission of qualities that he thinks are essentially “English” to those who come to the U.K. as immigrants. The desire to cut back on immigration into England is one of England’s major requirements about remaining within the European Union. A referendum vote could come as early as June 2016.

“Downton Abbey,” created and written by Julian Fellowes, tried artfully and largely successfully over six seasons to adjust to this new world where war, class divisions and gender considerations altered life forever.

“The Summer Before The War” articulates and punctuates those concerns.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.