A Welcome Escape to England on the Brink

  • imgres-4The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (Random House, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: A young schoolteacher arrives in Rye as the townspeople reconcile to the inevitability of WWI. Simonson paints an engaging portrait of Sussex society and the class and gender stereotypes against which the characters rail.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: England, France
  • Time: 1914-15
  • Read this to travel back in time. Simonson’s attention to detail in setting, character, and story make this a terrific novel to read and share.

Beatrice Nash traveled the world with her father, a writer and educator, learning from him and running their household.  After his death, Beatrice is placed in the guardianship of distant relatives. When she spurns the offer of marriage encouraged by her relatives, she must set out on her own and secures a position as the Latin instructor in the Sussex village of Rye.

Even before alighting from the train, Beatrice is introduced fellow resident of Rye. One by one, the reader meets the local residents – from the gentry to the Roma travelers that work the annual harvest. the gentry to the Roma travelers that work the annual harvest. Agatha Kent is her champion and sounding board, ensuring the stability of her position and introducing her throughout the community.

Married but childless, Agatha and her husband have parented their two nephews, Daniel a poet, and Hugh on the verge of completing his surgical studies. As World War I threatens, each prepares for the future. After the invasion of Belguim, the village bands together to resettle refugees. Beatrice does her part and then some, despite her limited means. Simonson’s array of village residents play a part in all the community locales from the fields to the school to the vicarage, providing a wonderful sense of place.

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The latter section of the book takes a number of Rye’s men to the front in France. The descriptions are suitably grim and homefront conflicts resurface, disproving that all men are equal in the trenches.

World War I in many ways delineates the end of the European aristocracy. Helen Simonson rich descriptions and deft hand with character development turn the written page into theater. Simonson captured the changing roles of women, particularly as the men leave for war.  Beatrice, Daniel, and Hugh each wrestle with personal relationships that are key to their characters and to the progression of the plot. The Summer Before the War is a rich and fulfilling novel. With it and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson has established herself as an author to add to your personal watch list.