Many readers will remember Helen Simonson’s popular debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It’s a contemporary story about a man recently widowed who rescues a golf-course from developers and has a second chance at love. The Summer Before the War is similarly set in rural England, but the war of the title is World War 1. Protagonist Beatrice Nash has recently lost her father but through a well-connected but disapproving aunt secures a position to teach Latin at a grammar school in Rye.
Beatrice aims to be self-supporting, to earn a living through teaching and writing, and to never marry. She’s a striking and interesting character, in a book full of interesting characters, including Agatha Kent, who takes Beatrice under her wing and helps her settle in. She sends her nephew, Hugh Grange, to collect Beatrice from the station and the two strike a slightly awkward friendship.
Hugh is in his last year of training as surgeon under the brilliant Sir Alex Ramsey, who has a lovely young daughter, Lucy. She has many admirers among Ramsey’s students, but Hugh rather hopes he could be the frontrunner in the race for her affections. He has a dream of taking over Ramsey’s busy London practice and Lucy would be the perfect wife.
But then war is declared and everyone’s future is suddenly up in the air. This includes Daniel, Hugh’s poet cousin who had plans to start a literary journal with his close friend Craigmore. Lucy refuses to countenance the attentions of any suitor not in uniform – she and her friends hand out white feathers without qualm. The village of Rye becomes home to a number of Belgian refugees, among them, pretty young Celeste who boards with Beatrice and who has a disturbing secret.
While the main players in the book are full of the idiosyncrasies that make them quirky and real, there’s a whole village of interesting minor characters too, all with motives and axes to grind. There’s a little of Jane Austen in the comedy of manners Simonson has created, but this is thrown into relief against some rather more gritty scenes set in the trenches. Well, there’s a war on after all.
I loved this novel, which sweeps you along and has you hoping for better things for Beatrice, Hugh and Daniel. Simonson balances humour with an eye for social issues and the harrowing effects of war on young lives. It’s been a long wait for Simonson’s second novel, and I hope she’s got another one in the pipeline. This one was well worth the wait. Four out of five from me.