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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Summer of 1914

Editor's Note:  This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, one of the most brutal and bloody battles of WWI. More than a million combatants were injured or killed during the offensive, which lasted for more than four months. While it seems hard to imagine now, most people in 1914 thought that war, if it came at all, would be over by Christmas.

In the lovely summer of 1914, hardly anyone in Britain is thinking of war. The citizens of the small East Sussex town of Rye certainly aren’t paying much attention to troubles in the far-off Balkans. Free-spirited Agatha Kent has shaken up the town by proposing that a young woman, Beatrice Nash, take on the role of Latin master in the village schoolhouse. When Agatha’s chief rival in Rye forwards a less-qualified but undeniably male candidate, Agatha’s two nephews gleefully rise to the occasion. Straightforward Hugh and the more light-hearted Daniel quickly put into play a playful prank to support their aunt and help Beatrice win her position. Helen Simonson deliciously mines the snobberies, rivalries and gossip that occupy Rye’s inhabitants for comic effect in The Summer Before the War

Simonson’s novel delves into both light-hearted and deeper issues of the time, in particular the chafing restrictions of class and convention. Hugh, a medical student, wishes to convince the frivolous daughter of his mentor to marry, while Daniel longs to live a literary life in Paris. Beatrice, who holds rather unorthodox opinions, must behave circumspectly to keep her teaching position and remain financially independent. The citizens of Rye find themselves tutting over the living arrangements of a pair of suffragettes and the prospects of a poor Gypsy youth they fear is being educated beyond his station.

The advent of the war at first deepens the absurdities of the various small-town conflicts, as the ladies vie to outdo the patriotism of a neighboring town. The tone of the novel shifts, however, as Rye's inhabitants experience their first losses and begin to understand the true impact of the war. This shift is what gives Simonson’s novel its heft – the snobberies and conventionalities of peacetime have grave consequences during wartime. Simonson’s characters and plot may be predictable at times – but her elegant writing underscores the tragic injustices of prejudice and intolerance.

-Rebecca Wolff, Centreville Regional Library

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