Helen Simonson’s new novel, “The Summer Before the Wa,r” is perfect for readers in a post-“Downton Abbey” slump, as it chronicles the fortunes of a young woman in a seaside English town right before World War I. Simonson appears March 30 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
‘The Summer Before the War’
by Helen Simonson
Random House, 496 pp., $28
When Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye, a picturesque seaside town in Sussex, she follows a path many previous heroines of English literature have traveled since the Bronte sisters put pen to paper.
At 23, Beatrice is a woman of substance, erudition and mettle. But she’s an orphan with neither husband nor fortune, and is viewed with some pity as a “spinster,” suitable enough to earn a meager living tutoring and teaching unruly village boys.
“The Summer Before the War,” Helen Simonson’s follow-up to her best-seller “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” follows a familiar Austen-Brontes-Eliot arc as it traces Beatrice’s challenges (and budding romance) in 1914, when class differences and male dominance were still pillars of British society.
The author of “The Summer Before the War” will appear in conversation with Seattle novelist Jennie Shortridge at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or thirdplacebooks.com).
However, conveyed from several perspectives, the novel assembles a distinctive and often witty portrait of a microcosmic British community about to be dramatically altered by World War I.
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The onset of those changes is viewed mainly through the eyes of Beatrice; Agatha, a wealthy matriarch who takes Beatrice under her wing; and the thoughtful young physician Hugh, one of Agatha’s two beloved nephews.
Like an entire season of “Downton Abbey” packed into a single, spacious volume, this is another vicarious submersion into a culture where upper-crust ladies vie for social power, where tea time is religiously observed, gossip is rampant, and the politics of putting on a town pageant are positively Byzantine.
But also like that TV series, the book applies modern awareness to a bygone era riven with prejudices. The intimate friendship between the dashing poet Daniel (Agatha’s other nephew) and a male aristocrat is viewed as suspect and dangerous, and is dealt with harshly.
As the working class struggles along, those it serves are often more worried by what people will think than what compassion dictates. A sexually abused Belgian refugee is treated as a pariah. The future prospects of Beatrice’s prize Latin student, a bright boy from a poor family, are dim. When push comes to shove, Agatha, for all her generosity of spirit, caves in to her haughty “betters.”
Simonson spent her adolescence in Rye, and she beautifully describes the pleasures of such a bucolic environment while also giving us the lowdown on how village life actually functions. She keeps several engaging plot lines moving at a stately pace, yet stays in tune with the deeper, unspoken concerns of Beatrice and others.
Some dialogue has an overly artificial ring in its stilted formality (“We do not want to excite alarm among the staff nor have gossip spreading”). But the gently teasing banter between two kindred spirits edging slowly into love is as delicately crafted as a bone-china teacup. And when the novel demands it, the prose can get gritty.
That occurs near the end, in chapters devoted to Hugh’s experiences as a military surgeon in France. Some of the best writing is here, about the hellishness of battle and its chaotic, bloody aftermath. One episode conjures the absurd spectacle of overly privileged British commanders throwing themselves a banquet near enemy lines, then after dessert cruelly court-martialing an underage, shellshocked soldier on the charge of caring for a stray dog.
Such scenes make “The Summer Before the War” more than a high-toned romantic reverie for Anglophiles — though it serves the latter purpose, too.