This was the confusion of war, thought Beatrice. That some should sit mourning in a drawing room, or smoothing the brow of a dying boy, while in a cottage on a cobbled street, two young lovers could only choose to stand against the shocking burden of death and loss with their love and their passion.
Only the first part of Helen Simonson’s The Summer Before the War is actually about the summer before World War I. In fact, as Hugh Grange, one of the young men at the center of the novel, observes before Part One has even ended, “the gathering storm clouds” have been on the horizon for a while, but they seem peripheral, almost invisible, even with the warning embedded for us, in the novel’s title, even with the dread that is the burden of our historical knowledge.
The Summer Before the War doesn’t seem at all like a war novel at first. It begins as a sly, comic, and occasionally touching tale of village life deliberately reminiscent of E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia, with petty rivalries subtly indicating deeper forces of social change and resistance — and this is just one of many literary echoes. Simonson’s schoolteacher heroine Beatrice Nash, for instance, calls to mind Winifred Holtby’s Sarah Burton: though Beatrice is both an earlier and a less defiant figure of the independent spinster, her very presence in that role is similarly disruptive of expectations for a nice young woman. Mr. Tillingham, the grandiloquent celebrity novelist whose fiction is suffused with “piercing judgment” is very closely related to Henry James; Oscar Wilde’s name is invoked as a cautionary tale for a young man on the brink of potentially devastating scandal; and Hugh’s cousin Daniel eventually takes his place among the war poets who provide some of Simonson’s epigraphs.
This catalogue of self-conscious literary allusions might make The Summer Before the War sound precious or contrived, but Simonson’s characters are too much themselves to feel derivative, and the story she tells is rich in charm and humanity and, ultimately, pathos. Gradually the bright summer gives way, as we know it must, but Simonson unspools her story patiently. First we get to know Beatrice and Hugh and Daniel, and the young men’s dynamic aunt Agatha, and all the assorted characters in their community, with their foibles and attachments. There are many small satisfactions, including — to give just one example — Beatrice’s triumph (with significant assistance from Hugh and Daniel) over an attempt to oust her from her teaching position before it has even begun; and Beatrice’s discovery that at least one of the seemingly loutish boys she tutors in Latin during the summer has a real passion and aptitude for the work — including favorite passages of Virgil — is one of many specific details that will take on greater resonance later in the novel.
Only very gradually do the new realities of England at war make themselves felt. Food becomes scarcer, and extra preserves seem called for. Belgian refugees arrive, their suffering at first nearly overlooked in the villagers’ excitement at being part of “the great enterprise under way”:
To provide sanctuary was an ancient tradition, and as long as pride did not become hubris — she must not start talking of ‘my refugee,’ like Mrs. Fothergill — [Beatrice] acknowledged that it felt gratifying to have found some small connection to the war.
Inevitably, however, as the consequences and casualties mount, the pomp and pageantry yields to suffering. “At first it was just the King canceling the visit to Cowes,” muses Agatha;
“Then the cancellations . . . First just one or two amid the weddings, then more canceled than announced. And now the lists run with the names of all the finest young men of Britain, their deaths announced in place of their marriages, their lives ended before they can begin.”
As Hugh and Daniel both head for the front, it no longer seems “a grand adventure”:
Britain’s Expeditionary Force was being slowly decimated at Ypres as the opposing armies entrenched in a grim line across Flanders. The outcome of the war was no longer the rousing certainty so touted in the papers.
In this way The Summer Before the War follows the classic story of the “Great War” as a loss of innocence, a cataclysmic ending to a seemingly golden period of youth and hope and vigor. Though in many ways this is a myth (one initiated and perpetuated by some contemporary writers, including Vera Brittain), it still feels true, maybe because there really is a vast chasm between the heroic idea of war (and the glorifying paeans of nationalism) and the truth of fighting and dying, even (maybe especially) for “King and country.”
What interested and impressed me the most about The Summer Before the War as the inevitable catastrophe unleashes itself on our characters is that once the war is fully upon them, and us, it isn’t the contrast with the earlier, more innocent and bucolic, scenes that makes its horrors and losses so painful: rather, it’s the continuity. These are the same people, with the same dreams and values, the same attachments and affections — even the tone of the novel is very nearly the same in the trenches as it is when we’re in a sunny lane or a village shop. The Summer Before the War balances its attention between the battlefields and the home front, where loss leads too often to isolation. “On such a day as this,” thinks Beatrice, contemplating the bright morning of a planned festivity,
the widows and the grieving mothers were expected to keep their black weeds and pale faces in their shuttered homes. . . . No parade of victory or peace ever included the biers of the dead.
That has certainly not been true of the literature produced by the First World War, which includes some of the most potent anti-war poetry and prose ever written — and yet, as Beatrice reflects, watching one grieving mother kneel before the white stone that marks her son’s grave, no writer has ever conveyed the scene “well enough that men might cease to war.” Simonson certainly did her best, and to unexpectedly powerful effect, given the novel’s initial lightness. Unlike Simon Tolkien’s plodding No Man’s Land, The Summer Before the War seemed both fresh and original, and it also, appropriately, made me cry.