The Summer Before the War
Many, many novels have claimed to be “for fans of Downton Abbey.” Most of those tales do not live up to the hype but Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War, while making no such claim, actually delivers on that promise. Beginning, quite literally, in the summer of 1914, before war is declared, this is a gently critical novel of Edwardian sensibilities and their prejudices regarding sex, gender, class and charity.
Beatrice Nash has spent most of her life abroad, traveling with her famous scholarly father. When she finds herself orphaned at the age of 23 she realizes that her days of a rather bohemian style of life are at an end; she must make a living and there are relatively few opportunities for a woman to do so in 1914. She is therefore extremely gratified when she is chosen as the Latin mistress at a local grammar school in East Sussex. She is a bit less gratified once she gets there.
It seems her patroness, one Agatha Kent, was expecting someone older and a bit more conventional. Beatrice’s youth and beauty aren’t really a problem for Agatha, but she is concerned that the school’s board of governors will balk when they see their new teacher isn’t quite the elderly, matronly woman they were expecting. As predicted, problems do arise, and the mayor’s wife sees this as an opportunity to advance her own nephew for the job. Beatrice and Agatha manage to prevail with some help from Agatha’s nephews Hugh and Daniel. The two men, favorites of their aunt, managed to get the competition for the job thoroughly drunk that Beatrice shone in comparison.
Beatrice settles down into the dull life of a small English village after this, but her tranquility is short lived. The government soon announces it is fulfilling its treaty with Belgium by declaring war on Germany and the whole sleepy countryside finds itself caught up in a patriotic fervor. Beatrice finds herself doing her part by taking in a lovely Belgian refugee, working in parades and being a general dogsbody for Agatha. And so passes the summer of 1914, where England gears up for war but the true horrors are still ahead of them.
On the surface this tale is a saccharine-coated look at life in an idyllic English country town but slid into all that sweetness is a gentle look at the small injustices of life and how they can be quite large to the people they are affecting. One such subject explored is women’s rights. Beatrice nearly loses a much needed job to nepotism primarily because she is a young, attractive woman. Her small inheritance is not her own – she finds that a lawyer must oversee all her expenses and anything she purchases – from her undergarments to her books – must be at his discretion. Her attempt to publish a volume of her father’s letters is taken over by his publisher and the job of the forward and expository on the subject given to a man who has no real knowledge of their family. Whom she befriends, what she wears, who speaks to her on the street – any misstep can result in the loss of her position. There is no great fanfare made of each event but gradually Beatrice realizes how many simple rights are lost to women under the guise of “protection”. I loved the examples the author used and the subtle way she showed how little things can grow to big problems over time. I also loved that the men involved in the “protecting” were rarely villains, but their attitudes had a profound effect on the people they were supposedly helping nonetheless.
Also under scrutiny is the life of the working class and how it is difficult for them to ever rise above that station. Agatha and Beatrice’s work on behalf of a poor but clever young man is often thwarted by those who feel he simply can’t be more than his background and that any effort to help him move beyond it is destined to destroy both society and the boy.
The characters are what make this type of story a treat to read and this book has some terrific ones. Hugh is the plain, hardworking man of science. Throughout the tale he is a man of honor and only becomes a better person as the story goes on. I absolutely loved him. Daniel is the poet; handsome and cavalier he gains maturity and depth as the book progresses. I also loved his friend Harry who had just the right mix of entitled jerk and charming man about town to make an interesting character by the end of the tale.
As far as the ladies, Beatrice has wit and wisdom as well as compassion and charity. It was difficult at times watching her be treated as an old maid at the age of 23, but all comes right in the end and the HEA is all the more satisfactory for taking some time to arrive. Agatha is clever and kind, the matronly figure you often see in these kinds of novels who combines the best of forward thinking with strong ties to tradition and genteel manners. You cheer for her as she repeatedly manages the bucolic village to her own satisfaction.
The cast of secondary characters is expertly done as well. Young Snout, the maid Abigail and the stoic, diplomatic John all captured my heart. This is a quiet tale so the characters never wow us so much as they seep slowly into our affections. That slow developing of the reader-character relationship means that there is a strong emotional impact when their pivotal moment comes.
The above said, the author chooses to humanize her characters at about the 70% mark with a strange series of decisions which paint Agatha and several others in a bad light. It made sense that all of them come off the pedestal and receive a bit of tarnish on their halos but I think the nature of that particular choice might make some readers rather angry. I thought it represented actions true to the times and showed that people’s principles and sense of self-preservation can sometimes clash, revealing unfortunate stains on their character.
The Summer Before the War won’t be a good fit for every reader. It’s long and there is little action outside of the occasional parade and dinner party. The romance is sparse. However, I think fans who enjoy “comedy of manners” style books will be completely delighted by this novel. I am happy to recommend it to them.