The Summer Before the War | Helen Simonson

Kernel Deborah Day again reviews with intellectual prowess and puts my book analysis to shame. Her review of THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR made me smarter – how so you may ask? I learned two words that I had to look up and in true CLUELESS fashion plan on using them both in a sentence today. Words I learned: 1) antecedents: a person’s ancestors or family and social background (fancy word for snobby ancestors maybe?) and 2) vainglorious: it is like uber vain in modern speak. THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR from MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND author, Helen Simonson, is out now from the folks at Allen and Unwin book publishers. It released way back in March but all good books are timeless so track it down. It should be available in all good bookstores or you can obtain it HERE. Enjoy Deb’s lovely review – and take note – Dev NEVER awards a perfect score – this speaks volumes. All the best…………..JK.


Let me declare that I really enjoyed MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND, so it was with trepidation that I approached THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR. It is notoriously difficult to live up to an unexpectedly successful debut novel, but Simonson has surprisingly done so. With her detailed and nuanced characters she has created a poignant and affecting tale that adroitly unmasks the sexism and class snobbery inherent in pre-World War 1 England but bookended it within a historical romance. Her sharp observations and droll lyrical prose are a pleasure to read and would do Jane Austen or Louisa May Alcott proud.

Simonson began to write fiction when she was marooned at home with small children. Whilst she has lived in Brooklyn, New York for three decades now, she grew up in England, and as a teenager lived in East Sussex, near Rye. The countryside around Rye is literary country with Henry James (PORTRAIT OF A LADY), Rudyard Kipling (THE JUNGLE BOOK), EF Benson (DODO), and Virginia Wolf (A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN) living in the vicinity in years gone by. These literary influences infuse THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR.

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR is set in an era when paternalism was the norm, the suffragettes were frowned upon, most women in pursuit of a husband had an interest in appearing less educated than they really were, and fortune and social class determined prospects. This was the era in which by face, by name, by accent, everyone knew everyone else and their antecedents.


The Summer Before The War Author Image


Into this milieu Simonson drops her central protagonist Beatrice Nash. Recently orphaned after the death of her academic father, Beatrice longs to be a writer but finds her gender a distinct disadvantage with publishers. Allowed to believe in her independence when her father was alive, she is shocked to learn that prior to his death he has put her inheritance into a trust which can only be released when she marries. Forced to find paid employment, Beatrice thus arrives in Rye to teach Latin at the local grammar school, under the patronage of Lady Agatha Kent.

Agatha is a proponent of education for all children whatever their background. Pragmatically aware of the limitations of being a woman, she diplomatically prefers to work through suitable men to get things done. Kind and compassionate she is contrasted with the Mayor’s wife Bettina Fothergill and her coterie of bustling overly busy auxiliary ladies who are predominantly interested in pushing their own work; being seen to do the right thing, and calling others to account for their social faux pas.

Beatrice believes that the arts are the highest form of human endeavour, a distillation beyond mere education and erudition. She is drawn towards the suffragettes, photographer Alice Finch and writer Amberleigh De Witt who openly flaunt convention and live independent lives claiming a space for themselves where women can rest, discuss and create without the strictures of fashion and society. Unfortunately Beatrice’s financial situation dictates that free association with these women is unwise, as to do so she risks the loss of her reputation, employment and meagre prospects.


The Summer Before The War Book Cover Image


The men in the novel include serious medical student Hugh Grange, sensitive poetry writing Daniel Bookham, Snout the Latin loving half gypsy son of a farrier, vainglorious author Mr Tillingham and the unctuous Mr Poot. Simonson is careful to show that her male characters, like the women around them, are also constrained by class, power and gender expectations. Simonson emphasises the deep suspicion attached to artists and intellectuals of this era where homosexuals were openly prosecuted. Her men are thus also beholden to social convention and take care with their reputations, even as they play their roles in this story.

Simonson uses Rye and its inhabitants as a microcosm for the wider English society of the era, an era in which fortune and familial connections trump education and competence. She is an acute observer of people and the way they interact, so the multiple relationships in the novel are multilayered and complex. Leavened by Simonson’s detailed and comic prose each characters foibles are gradually dissected and exposed.

As THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR progresses, the villagers get the urge to do important things, naively caught up in the excitement of the coming conflict. Men enlist: some for glory, others to advance careers, or to avoid the dreaded white feather. Belgian refugees are taken in; war crimes are revealed; and the bloody carnage, maggots, lice, suppurating sores and brutality of the Flemish trenches is exposed. It is a hard road. Not everyone survives and the losses, when they come, are genuinely affecting. Better still, the war disrupts the old social order, wiping away some of the formalities of pre-war life.

What makes THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR a pleasure to read is that Simonson champions honesty, decency and civility. To this end she allows her favourite characters to struggle, but then eventually attain a life true to their principles, instead of the pale imitation of a life borne out of compromise. Importantly Simonson understands the value of happy endings so resourcefulness, compassion and intelligence triumph over paternalism and small mindedness.


5 Pops



Deborah is a lifelong lover of books, food, TV and film with a penchant for schlock horror, superheroes, science , black comedy and Asian martial arts stars. She would prefer to skydive than couch surf and is a fan of zombie walks. She can be found plugged into podcasts on long walks with her dog.

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the distributor/publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.