Anglophiles mourning the end of “Downton Abbey” will find solace in Helen Simonson’s “The Summer Before the War,” a novel that begins in pre-World War I England and deftly observes the effect of war on the staid Edwardian sensibilities regarding gender, money and class.
In her charming debut, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” (2010), Simonson told a modern story, set in a small English village, about a proper English gentleman who falls for a Pakistani widow. “The Summer Before the War” also is a delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the everybody-knows-everybody complications of living in a small community. The setting is the coastal village of Rye, where young Beatrice Nash has been hired to teach Latin at the local grammar school. Beatrice is a freethinker whose now-dead father placed her inheritance in a trust that can be released only upon her marriage, a state that Beatrice hopes never to enter. She longs to be a writer, but her attempts are frustrated by sexist publishers and an overbearing aunt who considers any profession inappropriate for a woman.
As Beatrice settles into Rye, the clouds of war with Germany are descending. Patriotic villagers, like their peers throughout Britannia, are eager to do their part to help. Men eagerly enlist, including the young medical student Hugh Grange and his sensitive, poetry-loving cousin Daniel Bookham. Rye also welcomes a bedraggled group of Belgian refugees who have already experienced German atrocities.
The novel’s amusing dialogue enlivens its compelling storyline and is sure to please fans of “Downton.” When Agatha Kent, a well-to-do proponent of education for all children, rich or poor, is asked whether she supports “the cause of women,” she replies, “We don’t need all the housemaids declaring their independence and running off to join the music hall, do we?” When the Belgian asylum-seekers arrive, the mayor’s wife complains that Rye should have been sent more genteel refugees because “it is quite impossible to ask our ladies to take absolute peasants into their own houses, however charming their wooden clogs.” After overly patriotic schoolboys throw stones at pet dachshunds — a German breed — their owner is outraged. “How anyone could doubt the patriotism of my dachshunds is just shocking,” she says.
Despite the rib-tickling levity, though, this comedy of manners is also a serious novel about class cruelty on and off the battlefield. This plays out through the young Belgian refugee who was raped by a German officer before she escaped to England. Her subsequent pregnancy is viewed by the local matrons as an “unmentionable indignity,” and they reject her out of fear of the social contagion that could blemish their reputations.
It may seem at times that Simonson takes too long to move her story from Rye to continental Europe, but when the plot finally drops us into the trenches, the juxtaposition of the villagers’ naivete with the soldiers’ suffering effectively shell-shocks readers.
As we saw in “Downton Abbey,” the war brought the beginning of the end of a rigid class system. Practicing medicine on the battlefield, Grange learns that the “earthbound ruffians formed as indelible a part of England’s fabled backbone as any boys from Eton’s playing fields.”
Carol Memmott, who lives in Northern Virginia, also reviews books for the Chicago Tribune.
On April 8 at 7 p.m., Helen Simonson will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW., Washington, D.C.
By Helen Simonson
Random House. 496 pp. $28