Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson

As we approach the 100th anniversary of America's entry into WWI, it's a good time to reflect on the state of the world on the eve of that war as Helen Simonson sets out to do in her novel, "The Summer Before the War."

Beatrice Nash is our protagonist. A scholar in her early 20s, Nash has agreed to stay a spinster in order to become the latin teacher at the local school in the English coastal town of Rye. Having been her professorial father's assistant for many years, Beatrice has been left with almost nothing after his death. Used to her independence, she is now beholden to her father's distant, cold family for money from her trust and subservient to the Victorian-era school board as to whether or not she is spinsterly enough for the teaching position.

In the early summer of 1914, as Beatrice settles into Rye, England was suffering from a hide-bound ruling class that hunted down and imprisoned homosexuals, and that was unable to deal with the pressure of a rising working class, and a strong suffragette movement. While England "was dreaming under summer skies, . . wrapped in her mantle of marshes and calm channel waters," the old feuds between Queen Victoria's grandchildren were also exploding; the assassination of the Archduke in Sarejo simply lit a fuse that was ready to burn.

Although Henry James claimed this was "the most beautiful English summer conceivable," its beauty and innocence were paper thin. The slaughter of British troops in the Crimea and the Boer wars with their merciless battles and blood soaked fields, was still a recent memory. As was the bloody civil war which Simonson's character, Tillingham, (based on Henry James), clearly remembers, telling Beatrice: "I have been remembering the great American conflict of my youth. Not a hundred years from gaining our independence, we tore each other apart—brother against brother, patriot against patriot—the wheat fields dressed in the blood of young farm boys, towns burned to the ground by neighbors. Most of all I remember that what begins with drums and fife, flags and bunting, becomes too swiftly a long and gray winter of the spirit. . . .Some argument must be made as to whether America, if it stands by while all that is fine and ancient in the civilized world is put to the sword, can still hope to build its own shining city.”

"The Summer Before the War" is a wonderful, enjoyable novel that, on the one hand allows us to pretend, for a moment, that Edwardian England was all roses and innocence in the summer of 1914, and on the other hand forces us to look at the shattering of Edwardian society during and after the war as England came to grips with the wholesale slaughter of a generation of young men, including child-soldiers who often ended up as fodder for bloody battles that won nothing, with many executed by their own leaders for the crime of being afraid or too shell-shocked to follow orders.

Unfortunately, the lessons of WWI are still, for the most part, unlearned and 100 years later, we are still a long way from building that "shining city."

Print Length: 497 pages
Publisher: Random House; Reprint edition (March 22, 2016)
Publication Date: March 22, 2016
Sold by: Random House LLC

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