Helen Simonson’s bestselling 2016 novel The Summer Before the War
tells the story of a quaint English town during the summer of 1914, just before England is plunged into WWI. Although Simonson’s work starts as a comedy of manners, gently poking fun at the political machinations of small-town society in the manner of the TV show “Downton Abbey,” The Summer Before the War
goes past the timeframe of its title and plunges readers into the horrific trench warfare that characterized the fighting in Europe. As the ramifications of the war literally and figuratively invade the town, we watch as its insular preoccupations and local concerns give way to a more global viewpoint.
The novel is set is the real East Sussex town of Rye, the place where the American author Henry James spent his expatriate years. As the novel opens, Archduke Ferdinand has just been assassinated – the historical event that would precipitate the domino-effect of countries falling into the First World War – but the assassination is still being dismissed as a tricky diplomatic snafu at worst.
One of Rye’s most important women is the 45-year-old Agatha Kent, who has modern ideas that women should be able to have careers and that every child deserves to have an education – even the children of the Romany who live on the outskirts of town. At the same time, she is against women’s suffrage and worries that full democracy will make servants obsolete. Agatha has just spent much of her social capital on installing a female Latin teacher in the neighborhood school. The move is mildly scandalous – Latin should be the province of men, according to local opinion. With the help of the two nephews who summer at her house every year, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, Agatha manages to outmaneuver the supporters of the male teacher candidate and set up the appointment of the novel’s main character: the 23-year-old Beatrice Nash.
Beatrice wants to be a writer, but is forced to become a teacher to earn a living. One of the attractions of the position in Rye is that the famous American author Mr. Tillingham (clearly modeled on Henry James) lives there and could potentially give her writing advice. (Eventually, she will find that Mr. Tillingham is as selfish and overbearing as the other people in her life who have prevented her from following her dreams.) Arriving as the result of the Latin-teacher fracas, and too pretty and young to fit the traditional spinster model of female school marms, Beatrice finds herself having to deflect a lot of negative commentary. Still, Agatha takes her under her wing, and Beatrice becomes friends with Hugh and Daniel.
Hugh is an aspiring surgeon who is hoping to become an assistant to a famous doctor, while Daniel, who is Agatha’s favorite, is a promising poet whose dream is to start a literary magazine, although he is supposed to join the Foreign Service alongside his uncle, Agatha’s husband, instead. Although Hugh is ostensibly involved with the daughter of the famous doctor, he and Beatrice fall in love. It is clear that Daniel is gay, something which both Hugh and Beatrice find deeply objectionable.
When war is declared, the men of the town eagerly enlist in the army. Patriotism is praised and anyone who doesn’t enlist is shunned and mocked. The women go overboard trying to stage fundraising parties to support the troops. During this time, a group of Belgian refugees fleeing from the fighting make their way to Rye. The townspeople are sympathetic and helpful, but also have reservations about taking “peasants” into their homes. The most upper class of the refugees are Professor Fontaine and his daughter Celeste, who are at first warmly welcomed by Rye residents. However, it soon turns out that Celeste is pregnant as a result of being raped by a German soldier. Instead of pity, she faces shame and rejection, and she is spurned as “damaged” until Beatrice is able to intervene.
Midway through the summer, England enters the fighting on the continent and Rye’s young men start leaving. Instead of announcements about society functions, the town newspaper publishes killed-in-action notices. The doctor who has been Hugh’s mentor now wants him to become a surgeon on the front lines, so Hugh goes off to France to fight alongside Daniel and Snout, a young Romany teenager who had been the beneficiary of Agatha’s school intervention. The novel doesn’t shy away from showing readers the gory and inhuman details of what trench warfare was really like. Snout suffers shellshock (the condition that we today call PTSD) and there is much tragic suffering on the part of many of the soldiers. Daniel is killed in the fighting.
At the end of the novel, Beatrice and Hugh are reunited, and their love and eventual marriage temper some of the sorrow. As Agatha mourns Daniel, there is some implication that the reason he was always her favorite is that she is actually his mother, and was forced to pretend to be his aunt because he was born outside of wedlock.
The necessarily disjointed nature of The Summer Before the War
has come in for some criticism, with reviewers complaining that there is too abrupt a jump between the slow comedy-of-manners style of the novel’s first half and the suddenly heavy war novel feel of the second half. Arguably, however, this stylistic choice is actually meant to convey what the unforeseen descent from turn-of-the-century Edwardian idyll to unimaginable slaughter actually felt like to the people living through it.