09 May 2011

Book Review: The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff

  

I know it has been said before here and elsewhere, but where in the world would we be without Persephone? After finishing The Thin Man, I felt a real reading funk coming on. Worse then nothing jumping out at me, I began to think about playing solitaire on the computer. I knew I needed to find something that was sure to please. And what pleases me more reliably than Persephone? I almost picked a Whipple, the ultimate sure thing, but then I spotted this Sherriff sitting on the shelf. I thoroughly enjoyed his apocalyptic novel The Hopkins Manuscript so I was curious to see what Sherriff would have to say about a family taking their holiday by the seaside.

I have read other blogger reviews of The Fortnight in September here and there over the past year or so, and the one theme in those reviews that sticks in my mind is that nothing much happens in the novel. It is true that The Fortnight in September is not plot driven, but the chronicle of the Stevens family's two-week holiday is wonderfully wrought, with lots of humor and poignancy.

Written in 1931, it is a bit of a snapshot social history of a suburban London family barely over the cusp of the middle class. In addition to Mr. and Mrs. Stevens there is 20-year old Mary, 17-year old Dick and little Ernie who is maybe a good seven years younger than Dick. (I don't recall if his age is mentioned.) The family has been going on their holiday to the same house in Bognor for 20 years and are first encountered as they prepare for their annual trip.

It is in these opening chapters that I felt a kindred spirit in Mr. Stevens. He is nothing if not organized and detail oriented. These can be good qualities but they can also go too far. It shouldn't be surprising to my regular readers that my own mild OCD can be both bane and boon. Sometimes wanting everything in its place means missed opportunities and unnecessary stress. Thankfully for me, I have taken great steps in learning how to weed out what I should be worried about and what I shouldn't worry about. (Thankfully for Mr. Stevens and the social and gender mores of his time, his family never question or challenge his need to have everything in its place.) Like Mr. Stevens, my mind will go into overdrive thinking of all the things that could go wrong and all the things that need to happen to ensure that nothing does. That fact that I can find humor in these passages rather than stressing out is testament to what a little therapy can do.

I tend to get a little nervous on travel days. I have no fears of flying or anything like that, but I do worry about all the little things--most completely out of my control--that could wreak havoc on my travel plans. I also share Mr. Stevens inability to trust information given by just about anyone. When facing down the challenge of getting from one platform to another at Clapham Junction:
Mr. Stevens did not like relying upon the word of one ticket collector and always preferred to take a consensus opinion from as many officials as possible.
And in another passage that could have been lifted right out of my brain, Mr. Stevens contemplates the crowd on the platform:
The crowd was certainly a big one: much bigger than last year, and Mr. Stevens could not help feeling a little worried...With a smile to his wife he added "some are bound to be for another train,"--but in his heart of hearts he was afraid they were all for theirs.
Although this kind of worry has happened many times in my life, I remember very clearly a time in 1989 when I was headed to the Tate Gallery. When I got off the Tube (at Pimlico?) I was convinced that everyone getting off the train was also headed to the Tate and that I needed to hurry to beat the crowd. Of course what really happened is that no one who got off that train headed to the Tate. Not to mention that the Tate is a big place and could have handled a whole train load of visitors without much impact on my experience.
On a less worrisome, but no less obsessive note, I also share a trait with Ernie, the youngest of the Stevens children. His way to puzzle out a situation rarely includes asking someone who may know the answer. Rather he lets his imagination fill in the blanks. While his father spends his time worrying about the potential for things to go wrong, Ernie wonders about the ticket agent at the station:
For years he had wondered how they got the man through that tiny opening from which he served the tickets. Was he pushed in as a baby--or built in at a later period of his life?


He had received a shock of disappointment when the romance he had built round this wistful prisoner was shattered by Dick, who one day pointed out the very ordinary side door. The Railway Company had dropped a little in his estimation.
Once the Stevens family arrive in Bognor they all start to decompress with the worst of their worries eventually falling away. During the course of the holiday, each of the family, with the possible exception of Ernie, work through a personal issue or two on their own. For those of us who are used to social, educational, and economic mobility in our own lives, it is sometimes hard to fathom what it would have been like to have our life opportunities as limited as they were for the Stevens'. Yet there is something comforting about their limited world view. Maybe I am romanticizing their lives a little too much, but I think there is some perspective to be gained by appreciating the small pleasures in life. Mrs. Stevens doesn't like the seaside much. She goes along because her family enjoys it. But she does look forward to those two weeks when she can have a quiet hour to herself each evening as she sips her "medicinal" sherry--something she would never do the other 50 weeks of the year. And Mr. Stevens doesn't have much hope of advancing beyond being a clerk but at least he has those two weeks where he can breathe in the fresh sea air and go on long solitary rambles in the nearby countryside. When I think about all that I have had the opportunity to do in my 41 years, the Stevens' life could seem quite depressing. But then I think about how excited I get each day to spend time with John and truly enjoy our life together and I realize that despite all my yearning for more, I really do appreciate the small things in life. Of course it is always good to be reminded of that.

The more the memory of the book bounces around in my head the more I appreciate what R.C. Sherriff pulled off in The Fortnight in September. Although it is a charming tale of a family on holiday it has so many more layers to appreciate: brilliantly, but quietly quirky and likable characters, a fascinating look into days long past, and a rather touching exploration of life's priorities. Even among Persephone fans I think this one deserves more attention.

6 comments:

  1. Oh, I want to reread this all over again. I thought it was charming (and I love your take on it too). But sadly all of my Persephone books are in boxes in our new house.....

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  2. What a brilliant post! I read this book last September (!) and loved it too. I so enjoyed reading about your personal connections with the characters though, and what perfect accompanying pictures.

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  3. A lovely review to start my day off! And I'm so glad your reading slump has been brought to an end, thank goodness for Persephone indeed.

    I'm currently reading The Other Elizabeth Taylor and am even more in awe of Nicola Beauman than ever.

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  4. One of my favourite Persephones.

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  5. What a fantastic review. I love reading, I adore Persephone but I generally find book reviews really really dull. But yours is a total gem!

    Thank you, I have 3 Persephone vouchers to spend and was pondering what to spend them on. You've just spent one...!

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  6. I think this is the reason why I loved my one Persephone Book (The Victorian Chaise-Longue) so much. I love a varied, multi-layered approach within a story and it's been one I've been craving so much lately and feel that I've been missing.

    By the way, thanks for hosting the giveaway from your other post. I'd love to be entered. coffeeandabookchick at gmail dot com.

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