The Summer Before the War
Helen Simonson
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Buy *The Summer Before the War* by Helen Simonsononline

The Summer Before the War
Helen Simonson
Random House
496 pages
March 2016
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Set in the small town of Rye beneath the high Sussex bluffs, the dramatic heart of Simonson’s Edwardian novel is accelerated by the lives of handsome cousins Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham and by Aunt Agatha and her husband, John Kent. John works as a senior official for the Foreign Office, and Agatha is about to become a part of the war effort--a living, heroic symbol of its exhaustion, suffering and grief. Hugh is at the point of becoming primary assistant surgeon to Sir Alex Ramsey, one of England’s leading general surgeons. Daniel’s apparent bohemian “wildness” has led in him into the orbit of Viscount Craigmore. Daniel and Craigmore plan to go to Paris in the autumn to write, paint, and perhaps start up a journal that combines poetry and illustration.

The world is changing, albeit slowly; England as a country is somewhat deluding itself over the looming landscape of war. Simonson showcases its social classes, Rye’s way of life, and the realpolitik of battle. While John Kent works feverishly “to smooth things over, at least before everyone’s summer holiday,” Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye to fill the position of Latin teacher at the local grammar school with its mix of grubby-kneed farmer and merchant boys. Beatrice is shocked to find herself abandoned by her father and also blindsided by Agatha, who hastily informs her that she has had to bring the full weight of the School Board to bear on the Governors so that they would actually take the outrageous step of hiring a woman.

Agatha is a realist, only too aware of the smug, male-dominated society that is trying to ignore the march towards women’s independence. Agatha has made it quite clear that her role is one of undertaking “sober activities” such as school boards and good works, “done under the guidance of our most respected and educated gentlemen.” This teaching position will go far to demonstrate Beatrice’s “superior merit, and irreproachable respectability,” but it will also go a long way toward protecting Agatha’s somewhat hard-won reputation. It appears as though Agatha needs Beatrice, and Beatrice feels an echo of the same feeling of determination in Agatha that her father’s plans had always inspired.

In this landscape of village gossip, fussy small-town loyalties, and willful town-hall meetings, Simonson segues between Beatrice, Agatha, and Hugh, who becomes evermore enamored with Beatrice, this charming woman who hides her humiliations behind a claim of independence. Part of Beatrice’s appeal is that she has chosen to put the romantic notions of the schoolgirl behind her, choosing instead to submerge herself in “the grim world of salaried work.” Beatrice is also attracted to Hugh, having decided it would be prudent to keep her eyes firmly in his direction. Her biggest challenge is to ignore the genteel discrimination from the school authorities and the staff and children who daily surround her.

While Agatha is viewed as the living personification of Rye’s respected bourgeois, Beatrice finds herself the embodiment of its resigned, desperate working class. When Daniel and Hugh join forces to help Beatrice secure her position in the face of smug Bettina Fothergill’s opposition, Aunt Agatha finally comes to admire and despair in equal measure the loyalties of both Beatrice and her nephews. Ironically, the war ends up bringing the community together, and Simonson is at her best at portraying how Rye’s quaint and gentle townsfolk embark on a patriotic celebration to encourage and support all of their handsome, laughing young men who fall all over themselves to get in on the action, with no idea how fragile their world is and that they are about to become a lost generation.

Having spent her teenage years growing up in rural East Sussex, Simonson brings great authenticity and humor to her tale of neurotic aunts, meddling neighbors, and war-torn Belgian refugees, as well as visiting writers such as Mr. Tillingham who easily seduce the villagers with his fame and reputation. When Beatrice discovers that Tillingham is editing her father’s book, this clash over her father’s treasured legacy unwittingly places Beatrice in danger of losing her inheritance. Never before has Beatrice understood so clearly what her independence might cost. Also in danger is lovable local boy Snout, whose plans to escape Rye and finally make something of himself take on a whole new urgency. My favorite character is Agatha, who refuses to play the weak and weeping female. When Agatha recalls Daniel, her favorite nephew, waving from the window of his troop train, she feels a lifetime of strength and resilience evaporate, “leaving her as hollow as a dry straw.”

Simonson converges her themes in the final sections of the novel: the fledgling feminist movement, Beatrice’s fight for independence, the blood-soaked Western Front where Daniel and Hugh fight for their lives, and the love story, a romance that has lessons for our time as much as it has for this handsome young couple drawn to each other despite all the horror and loss. The bucolic landscapes--the stacked red roofs of Rye and “the sea that forms a broad, glittering swath”--heighten the delicate interplay between Rye’s social, moral, and interpersonal politics. Although the plot may be bit too formulaic in its depiction of war’s terror and how two lovers come to stand against death through love and passion, what matters most is the author’s ability to depict the broad spectrum of Edwardian life as seen through the eyes of Rye’s brave souls, these extraordinary men and women whose fortitude and resilience reflects the agony of sacrifice.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016

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