Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff

Calm Morning by Frank Weston Benson, 1904

This book published by Persephone Post (No. 67) is a snapshot taken of a family on their annual two-week vacation to the southern coastal town of Bognor Regis, England, where they have holidayed for the past 20 years. As the book opens, we see Mr. and Mrs. Stevens beginning their mental and physical preparations for the grand excursion with their three children: Mary and Dick, both of whom are now out of high school and working, and younger, busy, and enthusiastic Ernie.  This may be their last vacation as a family, as Mr. Stevens notes at the outset: "How splendid it all was!--the whole family going away together again, after those dark, half-thrown hints from Dick and Mary about separate holidays with their friends. Thank God they had come to nothing!"

Sherriff evokes that delicious savoring of every moment of a happy vacation, and shows that their yearly carefree two weeks at the seaside have built up a monument of memories in the minds of each family member that binds them together.

With attention to domestic detail and the thoughts of especially Mr. Stevens and his two older children, A Fortnight in September is a snapshot of middle-middle-class life in Britain between the two wars. Money is tight, hopes have been disappointed, the future is uncertain. In this frame, the Stevens family shows loyalty, determination, prudence, and forebearance.

The book reminded me of the film, This Happy Breed, which tells the story of a similar family in the same time period. But whereas the family in "the happy breed" is actually happy, often joking with one another, and socialable with neighbors and relatives, the Stevens family seems more isolated and far more nervous about their station in life and of maintaining proprieties. For instance, the train trip to Bognor Regis is described in detail from the standpoint of Mr. Stevens, who is extremely anxious about getting seats, getting tickets, getting the train connection, getting everyone on board. All travelers are nervous, but I found myself irritated that I had to read about Mr. Stevens' anxiety, which was all for naught anyway. But this nervousness permeates his thoughts, and although I respected him for his stalwartness and care for his family, I didn't enjoy him; he seems encased in his logistical and social fears.

Mrs. Stevens, we learn in the first chapter, does not actually savor these vacations like the rest of the family because she does not like the sea. Good woman that she is, she never complains or tries to persuade her husband of an alternative. She goes enjoys the holiday as best she can. The author effectively dispenses with Mrs. Stevens as an emotional pole for her family--she is a loving and devoted caretaker, but throughout the rest of the book we never hear much of her inner thoughts. This imbalance weakens the book considerably.

Overall, the book was a disappointment, not because I was looking for a more robust plot, but because I felt that the author had painted a portrait that diminished the quality of the people portrayed by focusing on what was on their minds, rather than in their hearts.

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