“Downton Abbey” fans, it’s time to put away the mourning and pick up a book. If Helen Simonson’s new novel, The Summer Before the War, had any more Edwardian charm, Carson would bring it to your library personally on a silver salver.
Beatrice Nash, a bicycle-riding bluestocking, arrives in East Sussex to take on the job of Latin teacher, sponsored by neighborhood grande dame Agatha Kent, who is looking to bring a little bit of the 20th century to the red roofs of Rye. Not too much, mind: “Lady Marbely took pains to assure me she’s quite plain,” Agatha tells her nephews Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham. “I may be progressive, but I would never hire a pretty teacher.”
Unfortunately, when Beatrice arrives, she is about 30 years younger than Agatha had expected.
“I assure you I’ve put away the fripperies of girlhood some years ago,” she tells her benefactress. “I do not have the luxury of waiting around to mature like a cheese.”
Beatrice is desperately in need of a job after the death of her scholar father. She’s still adjusting to her loss of status and the loneliness of being unable to trust her living relatives.
“I’ve been told I need to work harder to cultivate an appropriate attitude of grateful subordination,” she tells Hugh, the nicer and plainer nephew, who is studying to be a surgeon. Daniel, a good-looking poet, masterminds the Wodehousian scheme to remove a late-breaking obstacle from Beatrice’s path to the schoolroom.
Simonson’s first novel, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” – about the unexpected love between a strait-laced, retired major and the dignified Pakistani widow who runs the village shop – remains one of the most endearing debuts I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. One of the joys of that novel was the way Simonson dryly satirized village life. Here, she recreates an earlier era, one about to be obliterated by the twin agents of technology and world war.
“The high street seemed to be a pleasingly crooked collection of Tudor and Georgian shopfronts with bright awnings. Plenty of customers, many overdressed for the day in the cautionary way of rural burghers everywhere, were puffing and fanning themselves in and out of doors,” Simonson writes. “A cart went by sprinkling cool water onto the hot, cobbled street. A large car nosed impatiently along behind it, coughing out the sharp odor of mechanical fumes to mingle with the humid scents of horses, flowering baskets, and meat pies cooling in an open shop window.”
In addition to her village comedy of manners, Simonson works in weightier issues such as prejudice toward the Romany and the treatment of refugees – Belgian in that era, rather than Syrian. “Ironic that families who cleaved together through German brutality may be forced asunder by English charity,” Hugh comments, when the ladies of the village balk at refugee families’ peculiar desire to live together.
World War I is well-trodden literary and historical territory, and several plot twists will be easily guessable by readers. But Simonson has lost none of her dry wit, whether she’s lauding the “ferret wits” of the local boys, or skewering the literary tastes of the local gentry.
“It is far more polite to admit that one doesn’t read,” Lady Emily says at a dinner with Rye’s man of letters, Mr. Tillingham, a Henry James stand-in who has a “fondness for lengthy sentences, and multiple ellipses.” “Who has the time? Of course we have all of Mr. Tillingham’s works in our library. I always give your latest volume pride of place next to my drawing room chair, Mr. Tillingham. I have a special gold bookmark with a Fortuny silk tassel.”
Admirers of Henry James, who made Rye his home in his final years, are unlikely to recognize the “Portrait of the Lady” author – although he mellows as the book goes on. This Mr. Tillingham’s genius appears to be mainly in cadging free dinners and swiping painful incidents from other people’s lives for his fiction. He only has time for the work of beautiful young men and scoffs at the modern idea of “encouraging young women, especially American women, to think they can write” – a particularly painful development for Beatrice, whose dream is to author a book. (Agatha advises her to keep her literary aspirations under wraps, since there’s no way the school board will condone a bohemian in their midst.)
Beatrice is an appealing heroine, whether she is stalwartly declaring that “a country living room holds no terrors for me,” or working to help her pupils or the refugee girl she takes in.
The book’s real heft comes from the war looming over that last, bright summer. When Beatrice teaches Virgil’s “Aeneid” to her pupils, the lines have an extra poignancy. “One day you will look back on your problems as if they are nothing,” her teenage pupil quotes the Trojan War survivor and founder of Rome.
The triumph of routing local busybody Bettina Fothergill, always the prime directive of Agatha and Lady Emily, attains an extra note of melancholy for the reader who knows the characters are likely to look back wistfully on village gossip and petty scheming as harmless memories from a more innocent age. It’s so innocent, in fact, that when the residents of Rye have a village fête to raise money for the war effort, they offer a tour of a "model trench" – equipped with willowware china.
“In the future, you may be helped by remembering the past,” Beatrice reads from “The Aeneid.”
With its scents of the sea and tomato plants growing in the sun, “The Summer Before the War” offers a wry, melancholy landscape of a summer of tea parties and village fetes, before the mud and the bullets.