THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR, by Helen Simonson. Random House, 479 pp., $28.
In her new novel, “The Summer Before the War,” Helen Simonson repeats certain elements from her wonderful 2010 debut, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”: a reticent approach to romance; characters with a high regard for decorum and tradition; and a quaint English village as her setting. Once again Simonson proves that beneath the easygoing surface of her fiction are layers of dark humor and tragedy.
In the summer of 1914, a young woman, Beatrice Nash, arrives in Rye, an idyllic English seaside town. Recovering from the death of her professor father, Beatrice has accepted a job as a Latin teacher at a local grammar school. The position was arranged through her aunt’s connection to the formidable Agatha Kent (a school board member), whose husband, John, is a senior official in the Foreign Office.
Agatha’s household includes her beloved nephews, whom she regards as sons: the Oxford-educated Hugh, training to become a surgeon; and his cousin, Daniel, a scathingly witty poet whose intense male friendships make him the target of scurrilous rumors.
That summer, just before England will enter World War I and Germany has yet to invade Belgium, the mood in Rye is wary but relatively carefree. The town’s eccentric residents are still immersed in local politics and gossip — not yet threatened by the drastic change that will come as they serve the war effort, take in Belgian refugees and lose some of their sons. That summer, Beatrice’s arrival is among the controversial issues being debated. As Agatha explains, the town supports female teachers for “appropriate” subjects, but Latin is not one of them.
“I must temper my impatience for reform and choose my battles with care,” Agatha says, informing Beatrice sternly that she expects her to display “superior merit and irreproachable respectability” to avoid jeopardizing the job offer (though Beatrice ends up having to fight for it, anyway).
Although Agatha becomes a mentor to Beatrice, they have different ideas about advocating for women’s rights: Agatha favors a more discreet effort, insisting that “women like us need to demonstrate our worth, rather than demonstrating in the streets,” while Beatrice does not wish to suppress her ambitions and “rather thought she might like to vote and to have been admitted to a university degree at Oxford.”
She dreams of becoming a writer, a goal Agatha comically frowns upon: “It would be an absolute disaster for a lady in your position to earn a reputation as a bohemian.” Beatrice’s unconventional, independent nature causes Agatha to fret over her marriageability.
The tension between desire and duty recurs throughout the novel. Beatrice battles her vindictive aunt for control over her meager trust fund and the right to publish a volume of her father’s letters. She tries to do right by Agatha, “a compass by which Beatrice had set her course,” while finding her place in Rye’s social scene — and struggling with complicated feelings for Hugh.
“The Summer Before the War” reveals its pleasures slowly. Beatrice does not even enter the classroom until nearly 300 pages in, and romance is more often hinted at than acted upon. The author develops her characters (even the minor ones) with rich detail and explores the more amusing aspects of provincial life, with its petty conflicts and snobbery.
The novel’s gentle pacing makes the outbreak of war all the more harrowing. “Such is the slow accumulation of sorrows in a long war,” writes Simonson, “that the requests for memorial services begin to outweigh the marriages and the parishioners begin to keep their black coats brushed and hung at the front of their wardrobes.”
In the beautifully written final section, the narrative turns somber and grim. An epilogue set in the summer of 1920 finds Beatrice fulfilled in unexpected ways, yet, Simonson writes, “Under her happiness ran a thin vein of sorrow that millions like her would feel down the years.”