Saturday 22 July 2023

The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before The War by Helen Simonson

Historical novels have always been my favorite books to read not only because they give the reader an interesting story, but at the same time they teach the reader so much about a place in a particular period of time, at least that is always what I am always hoping for.  With The Summer Before The War, I was generously rewarded with both.  

      It offered a very engrossing tale about the struggles of a young woman left alone after the death of her academic father died, forcing her to make her own living by taking a teaching position in a small coastal British town of Rye in East Sussex, during the summer before World War one broke out.

Beatrice’s life would have been difficult anyway, just by moving to a town where she  knew no one, but because she was a young, unmarried female, meant that one obstacle after another was thrown in her way because of the bigoted views toward women the time.  She was hired to teach Latin, a subject most thought to be beyond the mental abilities of a woman, but fortunately she had the support of the Agatha Kent, who was on the school board, and who was the wife of a high ranking British Government advisor.  

      Agatha sought to open more opportunities up for women, despite the view of most of the others in the town.  Agatha was clever in social and political situations and often ran interference for Beatrice., Although Beatrice felt personally intimidated by the prejudicial decisions of others, she bravely refused to kowtow to the injustices that were often thrown in her way, by the men who ran everything at the time.

Agatha and her husband John, were middle-aged and childless, but were like surrogate parents for their nephews, Hugh and Daniel, who lived at their estate every summer.  Serious-minded Hugh was studying to become a doctor, while his cousin Daniel, was extraverted and a poet.   They both became close friends with Beatrice in her new life in pastoral Rye.  The rather idyllic life in early summer slowly turns into fear and dread, as the young men in Beatrice’s life are sent off to the hellish trench warfare in France, where some would lose their lives.  

While I was aware of many of the historic themes of the time, including the beginning of the end for the British class system and the white feather campaign to encourage enlistment in the military, there were other things I learned from the novel, such as the influx of refugees from Belgium that poured into the English towns to be cared for, and some of the little known discriminatory practices against women.  Two of the fathers in the book, did things that severely impacted the lives of their daughters.

The prose in the novel was witty at times as well as powerfully horrific when it was needed in the plot.  It painted a wide spectrum of both the landscapes of the countrysides and emotions of the characters.   It hit all of the emotions for me:  there were touching moments, terrifying events, maddening injustices, good resolutions, warm scenes of village life, and the hell of trench warfare.  I several times had tears in my eyes, from both sad events and the touchingly good ones.  I was very sorry when this book ended, because I had enjoyed reading it so much.

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