Almost exactly a year ago I mentioned RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September, which I started reading on a train home from London (after a visit to Younger Daughter which took in a trip to the Persephone Shop), and said I would do a proper review at a later stage. Then it all went very quiet… anyway, here I am a year later trying to pull some coherent thoughts from a mass of disparate observations. I LOVED this but, as I so often find with books I enjoy, there’s so much I want to say that it’s hard to know where to begin or what to include.
Written in 1931, it’s about a family’s two-week holiday in Bognor, which may not sound very promising but, believe me, it is absolutely wonderful, one of those quiet, reflective novels, full of little insights to the characters and their way of life, where anyone of a certain age (by which I mean my age or older) will make connections.
Every year Mr and Mrs Stevens, from Dulwich, spend the first two weeks of September at a boarding house in Bognor, together with their 19-year-old daughter Mary, and their sons Dick and Ernie, aged 17 and 10. It’s the highlight of their year, and as far as they’re concerned the anticipation and the journey are as thrilling and joyful as the holiday itself. Preparations have their own rituals, with duties allocated to each member of the family. Garden tools must be cleaned and greased; the shed locked; papers and tradesmen cancelled, and the canary left with a neighbour. Other neighbours will call each day to feed the cat, keep an eye on the house and garden, and send on any letters – in return they can gather runner beans and rhubarb. Mr Stevens gives everyone their ‘Marching Orders’ and as each task is accomplished he ticks it off on his master list.
The train journey, with its change at Clapham Junction (Mrs Stevens’ idea of hell) is planned down to the last minute, and I was enchanted to discover they have booked the ‘outside porter’ to trolley their luggage from home to station. This was well before the advent of wheeled cases when, presumably, taxis were expensive – but did porters really call at people’s homes to collect luggage?
I bought the book after reading Lynne’s review over at Dove Grey Reader. We are of an age, and both come from Surrey (not too far from Sherriff’s Esher home and within easy striking distance of the south coast) and, like her, I found it resonated with my 1950s childhood. In our house my mother made the lists and chivvied the rest of us along, and the preparations began well in advance. Just like the Stevens family we had a special meal the night before the holiday, and took sandwiches and a flask of tea to sustain us on the journey – as well as thick slices of Mum’s home-made fruit cake and fruit from the garden. We had at least two holidays in Bognor, but in caravans rather than boarding houses, though I do remember staying in a boarding house at Hastings. Sometimes we travelled on trains, but when I was very small my father had a motorbike and sidecar and I would be left with a neighbour while he ferried my mother and baby brother to our destination. Then he would come back for me and the luggage – and the process would be reversed on the journey home.
The journey and the holiday are extraordinary events that take the family outside their usual lives, freeing them to be other than they are, revealing the people they might have been (or, in the case of Mary and Dick the people they could be) had things been different. They abandon their familiar routine. Yet familiarity and routine are important to them – a kind of safety net or comfort zone perhaps – so each year they pick up the pattern of activities laid down on previous holidays. They swim in the sea, play games on the beach, soak up the sun while relaxing on deckchairs, go for walks, renew old acquaintances, and make make new friends. May and Dick get a brief taste of romance and adventure, while Ernie makes a nuisance of himself.
There are highs and lows. The worst day is a tea party from hell at the showy, soulless home of a wealthy and important customer at the firm where Mr Stevens works as a clerk – he just happens to live in the area. Set against that is their joy at daringly renting a beach hut for the first time, their pleasure heightened by anticipation, because by waiting a few days to take over they save five shillings which covers the cost of a trip to Arundel.
Everyone enjoys themselves, except Mrs Stevens, who is happy because the others are happy, but is scared of the sea, and doesn’t play games, and isn’t a great reader, and the sun gives her a headache. And she worries about all the awful things that might happen (they never do) and feels her family, engaged in such different pursuits, no longer belong to her.
They are a strong and united family unit. They are decent, honest, hard-working, kindly, caring people, disturbed by anything new or different, but their world is on the cusp of change and old values will be replaced. Already things are not as they were: their landlady, Mrs Huggett, is old and ailing, her establishment is shabby and run-down, and the Stevens are her only guests. Others have moved elsewhere, but Mr Stevens and his family stick with her out of loyalty and a sense of pity.
Everyday life makes them yearn for a break – but their time away ensures that they appreciate their own home even more. “It was good to have a home that called you: a home that made you feel unhappy when you went to sleep in a strange bed on the first night away – that lay restfully in the background of your holiday, then called you again when it was time to return,” Sherriff tells us.
There is so much here that I could focus on. Reading the early part of the novel made me think about journeys and expectations, and how they can become more more important than reaching a destination. And as I read on I found myself continuing to think about our expectations – in life, at work, in relationships – and what we do if those expectations remain unfulfilled, and how we set our hopes of happiness and improvements.
It would be easy to attribute the book’s appeal appeal to nostalgia, but it was hugely popular in its own time. It marked a change of style for Sherriff, whose career was somewhat in the doldrums. His inspiration came while he was on holiday in Bognor, watching people and imagining what their lives were like. The introduction to the Persephone edition is taken from Sherriff’s autobiography, and quotes his explanation: “Clearly the best way was to write about these people in the simple, uncomplicated words that they would use themselves to describe their feelings and adventures.”
He succeeded brilliantly, writing with warmth and gentle humour about a family we really believe in.