I enjoyed this book immensely. The prose alone was worth the read. The story will tug at your heart strings as it takes you down memory lane into the world of England with its proper manners, pomp and circumstance in the early 20th century. It is told in four parts, by a wonderfully gifted author whose last book "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" charmed me as well. It begins just before WWI and immerses the reader into the very proper and quiet life of Rye, a community very much aware of class distinction and a woman's place in the world. Using vocabulary that is descriptive, civilized and literary, the reader will not be subjected to any over-the-top, possibly inappropriate descriptions of sex or of foul language so common in many popular books of today. For that reason alone, I found the book quite refreshing. Readers might be pleasantly reminded of Downton Abbey and even find similarities in some of their character traits. I was reminded of Lord Grantham and Countess Cora Grantham, Lady Mary and Lady Edith, and the maid Daisy, just to name a few. John Kent holds a high position in the foreign office, and as such was privy to information not yet available to the general public concerning the coming war. His wife, Agatha, quietly promoted women's rights without offending the powers that be. She worked through proper channels, gently manipulating others to get her way. She had been able to secure a Latin teaching position for Beatrice Nash who had suddenly found herself in need of employment after the death of her father, a man of some minor fame as an author. Daniel Bookham, a poet, and Hugh Grange, training to be a surgeon, were nephews of the Kents. Beatrice's job and future were on the line and they all became the greatest supporters of her endeavors. When Beatrice had first arrived in the town of Rye, she was expected to be unattractive and spinsterish. Her finer appearance both concerned and surprised many. Unmarried women were frowned upon and dependent on the kindness of other, especially if they had no visible means of support. Beatrice's had been her father's assistant and was brought up to be independent. Suddenly, with his death, she had been thrust into a world in which others would oversee her finances and lifestyle. She would no longer be able to manage her own affairs and would not fully inherit until she married. This was, a state to which she did not aspire, and she was surprised by her father's actions. To complicate life in Rye, there was the murder of the heir-apparent to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Franz Joseph and his wife, in Sarajevo. This caused great turmoil as WWI loomed on the horizon. Enormous changes were coming. Rationing was expected as well as a demand for soldiers to defend England. Hoarding was frowned upon. The town of Rye and its surrounding residents were thrown into a frenzy trying to figure out appropriate ways to help in the service of their country. Some enlisted, some knitted socks, some passed out white feathers to those who shirked their duty, and some housed soldiers and refugees from Belgium after it was invaded by Germany. The inappropriate behavior and expectations of some citizens demonstrated that they had lost themselves in the nitty-gritty of position and class and tended to forget the cost of war for its victims. They tended to forget compassion in their need to stand on ceremony. The story will sometimes make you smile and sometimes bring a tear to your eye, but it will always be a good read. The pages will fly by as you are immersed in the countryside, on the battlefield and in the life of the upper class and working class of England at a time when class and birth were still of the utmost importance, when change was resisted first and foremost and protocols had to be followed. There are some contrived moments with problems serendipitously solving themselves, but they work well for the tale. The prose is sharp and the dialog between the characters is refined even when words are used to cut like ice picks. The historic background, including the need for strict adherence to rules regardless of the circumstances, illustrated how those in charge subjected those beneath them to cruelties and exposed the fragility of life and the stupidity of war which is often conducted by ill prepared or improperly trained men and women.. The book uses a subtle wit, genuine romance and the terror of war in the telling of the story as it exposed the differences in the lives of those living in poverty and those living with wealth. Both the gentry and the working class in their expectations and approach to their futures is well defined and obvious. The unfairness of the system may rankle some readers as they observe that the design of the class system actually prevented the advancement of the working class even when qualified and intellectually able to move ahead. There are characters whose snobbish behavior will offend, like Mrs. Fothergill, Professor Fontaine, and Mrs. Turber, as well as characters whose innocence and charm will endear them like, Hugh, Snout and Celeste! War affects those with or without the refinement imposed by birth and background. All equally suffer. However, the humor that infused the tale, as the idiosyncrasies and snooty reactions of the characters were highlighted in all avenues of life, worked to make the tale even more enjoyable.
About This Item
Random House Publishing Group
|Number of Pages|
SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR: ANOVEL, THE
|Assembled Product Dimensions (L x W x H)|
9.30 x 5.90 x 1.80 Inches
I enjoyed this book im...
Downton Abbey Fans rej...
Downton Abbey Fans rejoice -- a historic novel, set in the small coastal town of Rye, the summer of 1914. And just like Downton Abbey, there is plenty going on for the upstairs gentry class as well as the downstairs working class. It's a beautiful summer and the whole town loves watching and gossiping about the tea parties and picnics of the upper crust. But class division becomes much more serious than who gets to eat their scone with Lady Emily with the onset of the Great War. Simonson addresses some very sticky social issues beyond the obvious division of class, including homosexuality, the role of women, and the ostracism of the nomadic Romani. Whether you're looking for a light charming summer read or a more in depth look at inequality in British Edwardian society, you'll love this book.
It is the unexpected ...
"It is the unexpected note that makes the poem." - Helen Simonson, "The Summer Before the War" A major war impacts everyone in a country at war, and one thing Helen Simonson's fine second novel "The Summer Before the War" (following the popular "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand") accomplishes is to show this impact at every level of society in England in 1914, from the upper classes to the outcast Gypsies. It seems a perfect summer when Beatrice Nash, Simonson's central character, comes to Rye in Sussex to become the new Latin teacher. Agatha Kent, wife of a British diplomat, has stuck her neck out advocating for Beatrice, when others favor a male teacher. And Beatrice is prettier than the ideal female teacher, for women are tolerated as teachers at that time only if they are spinsters. Beatrice promises to remain unmarried, a promise she regrets after she falls in love with Hugh, one of Agatha's nephews who is training to become a surgeon. Another nephew, more favored by Agatha than his cousin, is Daniel, a promising poet with a reputation for getting into trouble and, with Hugh's help and his own charm, getting out of it. Of course, we readers know before they do that these bright young men will soon be going to war, as will others of Simonson's characters. Despite what the title suggests, war comes before the midway point of the novel. Rye was something of literary hotbed at the time this story takes place, the area being home to Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf, E.F. Benson and others. Simonson's Henry James stand-in is Mr. Tillingham, an aging American writer who has been living in England for many years. Tillingham outlives James, who died in 1916, but otherwise seems closely modeled after the great writer. Beatrice herself is an aspiring writer, so along with the poet Daniel, Simonson's characters capture something of the flavor of that time and place. Simonson gives her readers one major surprise and a few minor ones. Yet on the whole her novel, as enjoyable as it is to read, seems predictable. The "unexpected note that makes the poem" may be the only thing lacking.
Beatrice Nash, a young...
Beatrice Nash, a young woman of breeding but no money, comes to small town Rye, England, to earn her way as a teacher in a man's world. It's Edwardian England in 1914 and a woman's place is still in the home. Interesting exploration of the time and place, very different from today.
This lovely story capt...
This lovely story captivated me right away. It is set in the summer of 1914 in a small British town, where 23-year-old Beatrice Nash, having recently lost her father, is coming to take a job teaching Latin in the local grammar school. Beatrice is not looking to get married; she is determined to maintain her independence, and even aspires to be a writer, another occupation frowned upon for women. Nevertheless, she is being promoted as a teacher by Agatha Kent, a kind and eccentric woman in favor of women's subtle advancement, at least, as long as the woman isn't too attractive. Agatha has two appealing nephews, Daniel Bookham and Hugh Grange. Daniel is quite handsome, but arty and affected; he wants to write poetry and perhaps even start a poetry journal. Hugh, who is studying to become a surgeon, is more responsible, considerate, and sober in mien. Beatrice soon discovers that the small and conservative town of Rye is full of persons even more unconventional (for the time) than Agatha, all of whom struggle with the deception necessary to remain in the town, some more successfully than others. Beatrice herself is not immune to some of these provincial prejudices, although she is open to enlightenment. A small clan of Romanies also lives in a camp outside Rye. As Agatha observes, "The farmers could not do without their help, but most of the town treats them like thieves and vagabonds." Indeed, Beatrice's best Latin student is one of the Romany children, but Beatrice discovers that merit is no match for narrow-mindedness. As the summer progresses, Europe slides into war following the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo and the invasion of Belgium by Germany. Two immediate results affect the residents of Sussex, who are of course just across the English Channel from Belgium. One is that the young men in the area are eager to go to war, as young men often are, thinking war to be exciting and unaware of its real nature. The other is that the town agrees to sponsor some Belgium refugees, one of whom ends up staying with Beatrice. To Agatha's great dismay, her two nephews, who are like sons to her, join up, and all of the characters come to be acquainted with the horrors and sufferings of war. In a splendid bit of writing, one of the characters muses: "Under her happiness ran a thin vein of sorrow that millions like her would feel down the years. It did not stop their feet from walking, or prevent the quotidian routines of life; but it ran in the population like the copper wires of the telephone system, connecting them all to each other and to the tragedy that had ripped at their hearts just as it had ripped at the fields outside her window." Evaluation: I thoroughly enjoyed this story. As with Simonson's previous book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the author takes on bigotry, classism, and prejudice against women and gender differences, in a nuanced way well-integrated with the plot. And of course, also like her other book, the romance - indeed, all the romances - are astutely depicted, and bound to gratify readers.
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