I loved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, so leapt on to The Summer Before the War when I saw this author had written a second novel. The gorgeous cover swayed me too. The simple colour scheme and the woman’s glamorously red lips and hat nearly make me want to go off bicycling somewhere myself, although the reality is, in Australia, bike riders are required to wear helmets and I don’t have the right kind of hair for a helmet. (Call me vain, I don’t care. I look horrible with flattened hair).
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a contemporary story of two lonely widowers, Major Pettigrew, a pillar of his English community and Mrs Ali, a charming Pakistani shop-keeper, who have in common a love of literature. The story is a romance, and I enjoyed the characters and the dry wit enormously. I can highly recommend this book so had high hopes of enjoying The Summer Before the War.
The Summer Before the War begins in 1914 with the recently orphaned Miss Beatrice Nash arriving in Rye to teach the town’s children Latin. The appointment of a female teacher to a traditionally male position has been championed by Rye’s Agatha Kent, whose husband John does something important at the Foreign Office.
Agatha is an important person in her community, which at her level of society, is a political minefield. Agatha is constantly working behind the scenes to prevent the mayor’s wife and other fools from having their way on matters which will affect the community adversely, although she is cautious about her reputation to a degree which I found strange, (although all will be revealed by the end of the story). She and Beatrice take to each other from the very beginning and Beatrice becomes a regular visitor to her household.
Beatrice also became firm friends with Agatha’s nephews, Hugh and Daniel. When they meet, Hugh is studying to become a doctor, while Daniel, who is a poet, plans to move to Paris to start a literary journal with his dear friend Craigmore.
Beatrice is a clever and resourceful woman, and much like the characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, her dry wit is gorgeous. Before her father died they lived all over the world, with Beatrice acting as her father’s secretary and running their household, wherever they were. This made it difficult to believe that on his death, his estate was left in trust for Beatrice until she married, leaving her virtually penniless and dependant on family.
If Beatrice’s father had left her his estate unreservedly though, there wouldn’t have been a story, as living with her father’s relations proved to be difficult for an independent-minded woman, and as Beatrice had no intention of marrying, the job in Rye was her only chance to live freely.
Beatrice’s move to Rye and her inclusion into Agatha’s household and society showcases a golden age. Those with money and position seemingly lived an idyllic life, which changed when the Germans invaded Belgium. Beatrice had barely settled into life in Rye when a number of refugees arrived and were billeted around the town, including a young woman who Beatrice takes in.
Very soon after this, the men of Rye, including Hugh, Daniel, one of Beatrice’s Latin students and various friends and neighbours, head off to the war.
There is a lot going on in this story, with possibly too many characters to keep track of. The class system is interesting and so are the community politics, with women constantly jockeying to keep or improve their social positions. The story also highlights women’s role in society, their importance of their reputations, their lack of power over their own finances and other inequalities during this time.
At first the characters in The Summer Before the War felt stiff and awkward, but by the end of the book I was sniffling and weeping over the characters. Like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, The Summer Before the War is a gentle romance, set in an interesting time and location, with characters who became dear to my heart.