Readers who are feeling withdrawal from Downton Abbey will find some solace in Helen Simonson’s new book, The Summer Before the War, set in a small English town in 1914 that is emerging from the Edwardian era and about to run smack into the modern world. Simonson’s last book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, was a huge success; early reads on The Summer suggest the same.
The British-born Simonson spent some time in Washington and has a raft of writer friends here (and they all wish she were still here!). She will be reading from The Summer at Politics and Prose on Friday, April 8, at 7pm.
“It was in the first place, after the strangest fashion, a sense of the extraordinary way in which the most benign conditions of light and air, of sky and sea, the most beautiful English summer conceivable, mixed themselves with all the violence of action and passion. . . . Never were desperate doings so blandly lighted up as by the two unforgettable months that I was to spend so much of in looking over from the old rampart of a little high-perched Sussex town at the bright blue streak of the Channel.”
—Henry James, “Within the Rim”
THE TOWN OF RYE rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramid of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slanting evening light. The high Sussex bluffs were a massive, unbroken line of shadow from east to west, the fields breathed out the heat of the day, and the sea was a sheet of hammered pewter. Standing at the tall French windows, Hugh Grange held his breath in a vain attempt to suspend the moment in time as he used to do when he was a little boy, in this same, slightly shabby drawing room, and the lighting of the lamps had been the signal for his aunt to send him to bed. He smiled now to think of how long and late those summer evenings had run and how he had always complained bitterly until he was allowed to stay up well beyond bedtime. Small boys, he now knew, were inveterate fraudsters and begged, pleaded, and cajoled for added rights and treats with innocent eyes and black hearts.
The three boys his aunt had asked him to tutor this summer had relieved him of half a sovereign and most of his books before he realized that they neither were as hungry as their sighs proposed nor had any interest in Ivanhoe except for what it might bring when flogged to the man with the secondhand bookstall in the town market. He held no grudge. Instead he admired their ferret wits and held some small dream that his brief teaching and example might turn sharpness into some intellectual curiosity by the time the grammar school began again.
The door to the drawing room was opened with a robust hand, and Hugh’s cousin, Daniel, stood back with a mock bow to allow their Aunt Agatha to pass into the room. “Aunt Agatha says there isn’t going to be a war,” said Daniel, coming in behind her, laughing. “And so of course there won’t be. They would never dream of defying her.” Aunt Agatha tried to look severe but only managed to cross her eyes and almost stumbled into a side table due to the sudden blurring of her vision.
“That isn’t what I said at all,” she said, trying to secure her long embroidered scarf, an effort as futile as resting a flat kite on a round boulder, thought Hugh, as the scarf immediately began to slide side- ways again. Aunt Agatha was still a handsome woman at forty-five, but she was inclined to stoutness and had very few sharp planes on which to drape her clothing. Tonight’s dinner dress, in slippery chiffon, possessed a deep, sloppy neckline and long Oriental sleeves. Hugh hoped it would maintain its dignity through dinner, for his aunt liked to embellish her conversation with expansive gestures.
“What does Uncle John say?” asked Hugh, stepping to a tray of decanters to pour his aunt her usual glass of Madeira. “No chance he’s coming down tomorrow?” He had hoped to ask his uncle’s opinion on a smaller but no less important subject. After years de- voted to his medical studies, Hugh found himself not only on the point of becoming primary assistant surgeon to Sir Alex Ramsey, one of England’s leading general surgeons, but also quite possibly in love with his surgeon’s very pretty daughter, Lucy. He had held rather aloof from Lucy the past year, perhaps to prove to himself, and others, that his affection for her was not connected to any hopes of advancement. This had only made him a favorite of hers among the various students and younger doctors who flocked around her father, but it was not until this summer, when she and her father left for an extended lecture tour in the Italian Lakes, that he had felt a pleasurable misery in her absence. He found he missed her dancing eyes, the toss of her pale hair as she laughed at some dry comment he made; he even missed the little spectacles she wore to copy her father’s case files or reply to his voluminous correspondence. She was fresh from the schoolroom and sometimes distracted by all the pleasures Lon- don offered bright young people, but she was devoted to her father and would make, thought Hugh, an exceptional wife for a rising young surgeon. He wished to discuss, with some urgency, whether he might be in a position to contemplate matrimony.
Uncle John was a sensible man and through the years had always seemed swiftly to understand whatever difficulty Hugh stammered out and would help talk the matter over until Hugh was convinced he had resolved some intractable problem all on his own. Hugh was no longer a small boy and now understood some of his uncle’s wisdom to be the result of diplomatic training, but he knew his uncle’s affection to be genuine. His own parents’ parting words, as they left for a long-awaited year of travel, had been to apply to Uncle John in any case of need.
“Your uncle says they are all working feverishly to smooth things over, before everyone’s summer holiday,” said his aunt. “He tells me nothing, of course, but the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary spent much of the day closeted with the King.” Uncle John was a senior official in the Foreign Office, and the usually sleepy summer precincts of Whitehall had been crammed with busy civil servants, politicians, and generals since the Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo. “Anyway he telephoned to say he met the schoolteacher and transferred her to Charing Cross to catch the last train, so she’ll be getting in after dinner. We’ll give her a late supper.”
“At such a late hour, wouldn’t it be kinder to deliver her to her rooms in town and maybe have Cook send down something cold?” said Daniel, ignoring Hugh’s proffered dry sherry and pouring a glass of Uncle John’s best whisky. “I’m sure she’ll be horribly fagged and not up to a room full of people in evening dress.” He tried to keep a neutral face, but Hugh detected a slight moue of distaste at the thought of entertaining the new schoolteacher his aunt had found. Since graduating from Balliol in June, Daniel had spent the first few weeks of the summer in Italy as the guest of an aristocratic college chum, and had developed a sense of social superiority that Hugh was dying to see Aunt Agatha knock out of his silly head. In- stead Agatha had been patient, saying, “Oh, let him have his taste of the high life. Don’t you think his heart will be broken soon enough? When Daniel goes into the Foreign Office this autumn, as your Uncle John has taken such pains to arrange, I’m sure his friend will drop him in an instant. Let him have his hour of glamour.”
Hugh was of the opinion that Daniel should be made to under- stand his place, but he loved his Aunt Agatha and he thought any continued argument might lead her to think he resented Daniel being her favorite. Daniel’s mother, Agatha’s sister, had died when Daniel was only five, and his father was a strange, distant sort of man. Daniel had been sent to boarding school a month after his mother’s death, and Agatha had been his refuge in the Christmas and summer holidays. Hugh had always been torn about Christmas. He spent it at home in London with his parents, who loved him and made a great fuss of him. He would have preferred if they could have all gone down to Sussex to Agatha’s house together, but his mother, who was Uncle John’s sister, liked to be among her friends in town, and his father did not like to be away from the bank too long at Christmas. Hugh had been happy in the midst of piles of striped wrapping paper, huge mysterious boxes, and the dishes of sweets and fruits set all around their Kensington villa. But sometimes, when he was sent to bed and the music from his parents’ guests drifted up to his room, he would lie in bed and peer out the window over the dark rooftops and try to see all the way to Sussex, where no doubt Aunt Agatha was tucking Daniel in with one of her wild stories of giants and elves who lived in caves under the Sussex Downs and whose par- ties could be mistaken sometimes as thunder.
“Don’t be silly, Daniel. Miss Nash will stay here this evening,” said Aunt Agatha, bending to switch on the electric lamp by the flowered couch. She sat down and stretched out her feet, which were encased in Oriental slippers embroidered, rather strangely, with lobsters. “I had to fight to bring the full weight of the School Board to bear on the governors to hire a woman. I mean to get a good look at her and make sure she understands what’s to be done.”
The local grammar school was one of his aunt’s many social causes. She believed in education for all and seemed to expect great leaders of men to emerge from the grubby-kneed group of farmers’ and merchants’ boys who crowded the new red-brick school building out beyond the railway tracks.
“You mean you want her to get a good look at you,” said Hugh. “I’m sure she’ll be suitably cowed.”
“I’m with the governors,” said Daniel. “It takes a man to keep a mob of schoolboys in line.”
“Nonsense,” said Agatha. “Besides, you can’t just drum up teachers these days. Our last Latin master, Mr. Puddlecombe, was only here a year and then he had the nerve to tell us he was off to try his luck with a cousin in Canada.”
“Well, school had almost broken up for the summer, Auntie,” said Hugh.
“Which made it all the more impossible,” said Agatha. “We were fortunate that your Uncle John spoke to Lord Marbely and that Lady Marbely had been looking for a position for this young woman. She is a niece apparently, and the Marbelys highly recommended her; though I did get a hint that maybe they had an ulterior motive for getting her out of Gloucestershire.”
“Do they have a son?” asked Daniel. “That’s usually the story.”
“Oh no, Lady Marbely took pains to assure me she’s quite plain,” said Aunt Agatha. “I may be progressive, but I would never hire a pretty teacher.”
“We’d better eat dinner soon,” said Hugh, consulting the battered pocket watch that had been his grandfather’s and that his parents were always begging to replace with something more modern. The dinner gong rang just as he spoke.
“Yes, I’d like to digest properly before this paragon descends upon us,” said Daniel, downing the rest of his glass in a swallow. “I assume I have to be introduced and can’t just hide in my room?”
“Would you go with Smith to pick her up, Hugh?” said Agatha.
“Two of you would probably overwhelm the poor girl, and obviously I can’t trust Daniel not to sneer at her.”
“What if Hugh falls in love with her?” asked Daniel. Hugh was tempted to retort that his affections were already engaged, but his matrimonial intentions were too important to be subjected to Daniel’s disrespectful teasing, and so he merely gave his cousin a look of scorn. “After all,” added Daniel, “Hugh is so terribly plain himself.”
An excerpt from THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR: A Novel by Helen Simonson. Copyright © 2016 by Helen Simonson. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.