“Mourning in a Drawing Room”: Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War

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 LandThe Summer Before the War seemed both fresh and original, and it also, appropriately, made me cry.

“After all, war is war”: All Quiet on the Western Front


All Quiet on the Western Front is as bleak and compelling a version of the “lost generation” narrative of World War I as I’ve read. In fact, Paul Bäumer, the novel’s narrator, comments explicitly, repeatedly, and bitterly on the chasm between the generation fighting in the trenches and the older generation far away from the front lines. “We agree that it’s the same for everyone,” Paul and his comrades conclude;

not only for us here, but everywhere, for everyone who is of our age; to some more, and to others less. It is the common fate of our generation.

Albert expresses it: “The war has ruined us for everything.”

Though the novel is replete with vivid vignettes, from the tedium of training to the camaraderie of trench life and the horrific chaos of bombardments, the most poignant moments arise when the young men (and they are so very young, most of them, just the age of so many of the first-year students I’m about to meet) reflect on the war’s catastrophic effect on normalcy:

To-day we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled–we are indifferent. We might exist there; but should we really live there?

We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.

They can’t even imagine what they will do when it ends: even if they are lucky enough to survive at all, much less intact, what’s the value of a life from which all meaning has been stripped? The physical violence ultimately comes across as peripheral–collateral, even–to the other damage they endure:

The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer. We believe in the war.

Battle is terrible, but it allows no time for reflection; Paul (and the reader) hurtles along, transformed from a thinking being to a “wild beast”:

We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down–now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged. . . . [C]rouching like cats we run on, overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our deliverance. If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him.

 It’s when you stop to think that the true madness of war overwhelms you, because of course it is against men that you fling your bombs, and only the decisions of other men far removed from the consequences have turned ordinary people into enemies. “Just you consider,” observes Paul’s mate Katczinsky,

“almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are just labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchman as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.

“Not you, nor anybody else here.”

But it is dangerous to think this way, or to think at all, as Paul discovers during a turn guarding a group of Russian prisoners. In the trenches, the enemy is abstract until he is upon you, and then your common humanity becomes irrelevant in the desperate struggle to survive. But face to face, what you perceive is “the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life and the pitilessness of men”:

A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom non of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again and they at us if they were free.

Paul pulls himself up short here: “I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss.” Yet he realizes, too, that he needs these thoughts: “I will not lose these thoughts, I will keep them, shut them away until the war is ended.” Though it is these thoughts that make the war unbearable, it is also these thoughts–these moments of recognition–that he hopes give him “the possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling.”

Human feeling surfaces again when, hiding in a shell hole during an enemy attack (and how odd and salutary it is, just by the way, to be on the German side for once in my reading), Paul stabs a Frenchman who tumbles in on top of him. He had expected this moment, prepared for it (“If anyone jumps in here I will go for him … at once, stab him clean through the throat so that he cannot call out; that’s the only way”), but he is not, in fact, prepared (how could he be?) for this moment when killing becomes intimate. He strikes without thinking and feels “how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses.” The man does not die, however–at least, not at once, and Paul is trapped in the shell hole with a man who now seems, not his enemy, but his victim. This way, indeed, lies the abyss:

These hours. . . . The gurgling starts again–but how slowly a man dies! For this I know–he cannot be saved, I have, indeed, tried to tell myself that he will be, but at noon this pretence breaks down and melts before his groans. . . . By noon I am groping on the outer limits of reason. . . . every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.

 At last he dies: what a relief! “I breathe freely again. But only for a short time.” At least his dying was a distraction: “My state is getting worse, I can no longer control my thoughts.” Insanely, pathetically, beautifully, he tells his dead companion what he is thinking:

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they not tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up–take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”

After he finally brings himself to leave the shell hole, Paul is restored to reason (or what passes for it during war) by Kat showing him the snipers gleefully picking off enemies. “What else could you have done?” ask his friends. “That is what you are here for.” “It was only because I had to lie there with him so long,” Paul says; “After all, war is war.”

That simple tautology says everything that is to be said, and at the same time it says nothing, offers no meaning, no consolation. There is nothing to be said, Paul thinks, as, recovering from a wound, he looks at the wreckage of young lives passing in a ceaseless stream through the hospital:

And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

 Paul’s testimony–Remarque’s novel–shows that too, with harrowing simplicity. For Paul (for Remarque) war is definitive. It is everything. Beyond it, for those who have experienced it, there is nothing:

And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;–it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

I had been interested in reading All Quiet on the Western Front for many years; I finally read it as part of my preparation for my Somerville Novelists seminar. It is an example of what Testament of Youth is not: a soldier’s story, a first-hand (if fictionalized) account of fighting and survival and tactics and rations and brothers in arms. It is the masculine story of the war, and as many of the critics I’ve read point out, that’s the valorized story, the “authentic” one. Brittain knew these aspects of the war only second-hand, through the letters she received from the front and through her experience as a nurse. There are many points of convergence, though. Above all, both tell a story of lost innocence. And both focus almost exclusively on the personal, on individual disillusionment, devastation, and loss–but both lead us towards political conclusions by making it impossible to understand what cause could possibly be worth such a price. Outside their books, we might well feel there’s an argument to be had about that. Reading them, though, it’s hard to do anything but mourn.


From the Novel Readings archives (lightly updated). First published September 2, 2012.
Photo of field of poppies from Wikimedia Commons.