Missing Downton Abbey? Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War can fill the void. Like the PBS series, the story begins in rural England before the start of World War I. In the small town of Rye, Beatrice Nash arrives as the new Latin teacher. The cosmopolitan, independent Beatrice struggles to fit in among the usual mix of landed gentry, striving bourgeois and good-hearted, working-class folk.
Beatrice is an avowed spinster (yes, this is the type of novel in which young women avow their spinsterhood), but the opening pages make clear that this situation won’t last. In fact, so much becomes obvious so early on that the reader starts to lose patience. Beyond a certain point, love that’s blind begins to appear a bit brainless as well.
For example, how does it take more than 300 pages for an otherwise intelligent and self-aware young woman to realize “with some surprise” that “a small flame of jealousy burned” when her scholarly soulmate reveals his engagement? And would a curmudgeonly-though-lovable matron who outwits every village nemesis have “no clear picture” of what “moral failings” her artistic bachelor nephew might be accused of? (Dame Maggie Smith, call your agent — but demand a rewrite.)
On the other hand, surgeon’s daughter Lucy Ramsey realizes what’s what from the moment she first sets eyes on Beatrice, but they don’t encounter each other enough for sparks to fly from their romantic rivalry. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, a Gypsy matriarch and her extended family share Lucy’s astuteness, though their concerns are different. Mrs. Stokes and her descendants are clairvoyant in the literal sense; they can be counted on to see clearly what the rest of Rye chooses to remain blind to.
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If The Summer Before the War were translated to the small screen, large segments would be filmed in that gauzy haze that obscures certain details. What used to be called “bohemian” sexual behavior takes place off the page, in the privacy of wooded gardens or — even more suitably — on artistic pilgrimages to Italy. (As Rye’s mayor states about the hazards of foreign influence: “Unfortunate to expose one’s wife to so many years abroad, where the minor laxities of character might be encouraged.”)
But as Rye prepares to send its young men off to war (and some older ones), the war comes to Rye in the form of Belgian refugees. When the mayor urges the townspeople to “bring relief and succor to tens of thousands of our poor, innocent Belgian brethren,” the discussion ends with a plan to “fetch perhaps ten or twelve suitable refugees to begin with.”
The refugees fare better than some local dachshunds, who have stones thrown at them because of their German origins and are eventually renamed “Freedom Hounds.”
In bucolic England, these prejudices and cruelties can often be overcome by strong tea and a few sympathetic allies. When the scene shifts to the trenches of France, the contrast with the novel’s earlier mood proves powerful. Social distinctions that seemed part of village life prove deadly, and the idea of “class warfare” takes on new meaning.
Simonson’s debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, was often referred to as a romantic comedy, though it also tackled some less idyllic aspects of picturesque English village life. The Summer Before the War is a more sober undertaking. Its last page finds Beatrice reflecting on “a scene she knew no writer would ever capture well enough that men might cease to war … the milk white of the gravestones, and the pink roses vivid against the new-cropped grass.”
The Summer Before the War would be easy to categorize as a charming English village novel — as it mostly is. But its ending makes it more than just a cozy read.. Simonson begins each of the book’s sections with an epigraph. For the epilogue, she could have chosen a line from Beatrice’s beloved Aeneid: “It may be that in the future you will be helped by remembering the past.”
Gigi Lehman is a freelance writer and editor in San Antonio.