Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff




43. The Fortnight in September
by R.C. Sherriff
fiction, 1931
finished, 9/17/09

The endpapers:
from 'Dahlias' a 1931 design for a dress silk by Madeleine Lawrence
©MoDA

I am not a 'good old days' sort of person and I'm not awfully nostalgic; but as I turned the pages of The Fortnight in September I saw that truly something special has been lost forever. Mr. Stevens gets two weeks vacation a year, and every year he and his family have gone to the same place, the sea at Bogner, where Mr. and Mrs. Stevens went on their wedding trip. The whole book is an almost minute by minute travelogue of this annual September vacation.

Nowadays we are, as a rule, much more of a traveled, worldly society. When families go to Africa or Switzerland or Costa Rica, how could they possibly be satisfied with a two week trip to Bogner? Are we spoiled? Perhaps. We expect lovely hotel rooms with cushy robes and down pillows. Teenagers go off alone on an exchange program to some faraway land. College students spend a semester or a year in another country. This would have been unimaginable to the Stevens family. And yet, reading this book I felt that they looked forward to and enjoyed those two weeks a year in a way that none of us can possibly conceive of. I'm not saying one way or another is better; just that these older vacations and the newer vacations are as different as travel by horse and by car. As Joni Mitchell wrote, 'there's something lost, but something gained, in living every day.'

The Fortnight in September captures not only a place and time, but a society that shall never come again. 'How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, after they've seen Paree?' Exactly. Yet this way of life was common to the early 1930s, and even later. My childhood vacations were to the seashore a couple hours away. I went to Canada but only because my father came from there, and we visited relatives. I went to Washington, D.C. with a friend's family one week in April; and to California when my father was a delegate to the Democratic convention in 1960. Occasionally my parents went further afield when my father won trips through selling cars in his Pontiac dealership, though I didn't go. But that's it. No Europe, no Asia, not even out west in my own country. People tended to stay closer to home. I don't recall ever longing to go far away.

It was only when I was in college that I began to go on big trips. Two months in England and Europe, and later another month in England when we got married. We brought our kids over there for a month. We went to visit relatives in Texas and Arkansas and Florida; we visited friends in San Francisco; we spent some summer weeks on Prince Edward Island, Canada. And we did have wonderful times; times that are remembered fondly and spoken of often. But oh, how different from the Stevens family. Not only do they go to the same place, they also stay in the same lodgings, a place called 'Seaview,' which has gotten shabbier as the proprietors age (and one dies).

When I finished the book, I told Tom it had become one of my top favorite books of all time. I loved it beyond words. It is a social document, it is a character study, it is descriptive, it is honest, and it is really perfect. Yes, I do mean it.

The author shows us how delightful Mr. Stevens is with his planning and his almost childlike excitement, but he doesn't fail to note that Mrs. Stevens is not thrilled with the vacation, and has never been except for the very first trip on her honeymoon.

...the coming of the children had made the fortnight a burden - sometimes a nightmare. At home the children were hers: they loved her: came to her in everything. At Bognor, somehow they drew away from her - became different. If she paddled [in the water] they laughed at her: saying she looked so funny. They never laughed at her at home.

The children are now twenty, seventeen, and ten. The older two both have jobs, yet still live at home. There has been a smidgen of concern on the parents' part that they might go off without the family this year, but that doesn't happen. And this year Mrs. Stevens looks toward the trip a bit more favorably because those 'children' have more separate lives at home, and she hopes the trip will 'bind' the family together.

I love the way Mr. Stevens looks at the special days in a year.

... he had the gift of establishing domestic "Occasions," which do so much to strengthen the links of a home.

Something almost in the nature of a ritual surrounded these special days: a ritual that bound the family together in thought and deed.

Christmas Eve: Whit Monday: August Bank Holiday and family birthdays were painted with letters of carefree, flamboyant scarlet. New Year's Eve, and Going Away Eve had titles of a more delicate, meditative red: the former because of its wistful plea to strengthen fading hopes, the latter because it heralded the yearly release of emotions which Mr. Stevens neither wished nor sought to analyse and understand.

In about 300 pages, the Stevens family gets ready to go, travels to Bognor, enjoys its sights and sounds and smells. The book ends when they depart for home. The reader spends the fortnight with them, experiencing every smallest event right alongside them. Nothing hugely dramatic happens, but there are interior changes that the family members feel and the author takes note of. The characters take time to think about their lives at home. Whether we travel near or far on our vacations, the main thing they offer is a break in routine, and a kind of re-creation of ourselves. This is what makes the book just as current today as it was almost eighty years ago.

But on holiday it is the reversing of normal habits that does one so much good.

Dick and Mary had thrown aside their hats and got their canvas shoes on, while Ernie, after some opposition from his mother, had peeled off his stockings, and now sat on the steps, bare legged and bright eyed.

He felt radiantly happy: as young and as light as a schoolboy.

There was nothing, at home in Corunna Road, to compare with this delicious hour of idleness. In the evenings at home there was the washing up to do - the breakfast to set, and all those unexpected little things that conspire in a home to keep you on your feet.

The reader in 2009 is all too aware of what is coming on the world scene in 1931. This dear family doesn't know that in a very few years both their sons will most likely be in the war. The family vacation will never be the same, and most likely will never happen again. There will be war work and air raids and sorrow and loss. But the Stevens family does not know this, which gives the book a different poignancy and meaning.

This book is another gem from Persephone Books, and my favorite so far.

Bognor Pier in the 1930s

20 comments:

  1. We often go to the same place during winter. It does have a feeling of relaxation that I don't get when we go to a new place that has to be explored and understood. We are such a mobile society. Sometimes I think we miss a lot even though we can get around so easily.

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  2. What. An. Awesome. Review! You got me feeling a little nostalgiac and thinking about my first trip to Canada when I was around four or five in my grandparents' travelall...the anticipation of leaving in the early dark hours with a bed made up in the back for sleep and play. On top of that you have got me to add another book to my tbr list:)

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  3. Sounds like a great book! We can't afford to travel very much, or very far, so we tend to go to the same places when we do travel. Some people think that would be dull but honestly I find it comforting -- a routine even though it's in a different place. And I think it helps to build more memories for the kids as well -- at least that's my reasoning :-)

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  4. For some those days have not gone away. A local couple went to Bournemouth on the south coast of England for part of their honeymoon and have been back to the same hotel spring and autumn every year for over 20 years.
    As a 'non reader' I found your commentary on the book intriguing I might find a copy and turn a few pages. Most of my 'reading material' usually has a a picture or two of a cow or a tractor!!

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  5. I read this earlier in the year and like you it has become one of my absolutely favorite books of all time it is so beautifully crafted and you live very minute with them the anticipation and that feeling that time is slipping by in holidays and in life it is really brilliant I am about to read his other novel The Hopkins Manuscript

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  6. Amazing review Nan. I have this on the shelf and I'm looking forward to it even more now.

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  7. Obviously another one for my list. We didn't always go to the same place every year but certainly in the early 1960s we had about four years on the run with a fortnight in the same Lake District cottage. And we never ventured outside Great Britain or had more than a fortnight - often only a week a year.

    There was a great sense of being 'at home' and yet 'on holiday' when revisiting the same place. In a way the best of both worlds in that it lacked any form of stress - even the drawers you used for your clothes would be the same from one year to the next. So the holiday began as soon as one arrived.

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  8. Nan, I love your book reviews and those that really tempt me I put on my to read list. This one sounds particularly lovely and I am thrilled to say it is available at our local library.
    I think these sort of holidays give us a sense of comfort and reassurance in their familiarity. Maybe something we need more of these days.
    My eleven year old grand daughter is presently spending her holidays on a school trip to Japan! They are being billeted with Japanese families, attending Japanese schools and of course doing some sight seeing.Unheard of during my childhood of the 1950s.

    Patricia
    Australia

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  9. Beautiful review Nan. This is one of my favourite Persephones too. It's all about enjoying the small pleasures in life, and you are so right in describing how expectations have changed. It is so humbling and poignant to see what pleasure can be gained by some in doing what I would perceive to be so little. I also loved how you mentioned the spectre of a war we know about but the characters didn't...so sad to know that quiet and peaceful way of life was ripped apart forever just a few years later.

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  10. What a lovely post! I now long to read this book. There should be familiar things in it as I lived in Bognor Regis for a while.

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  11. This sounds wonderful! My childhood travels were even more limited than yours. As the oldest of six, we just didn't travel as a family. We took day trips when my father had vacation. I was in college before I traveled by plane! Things are much different for my children...not necessarily better, but very different.
    I enjoyed reading your review and will look for the book.

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  12. BookPsmith, thank you very much. I love your story. Such a nice memory.

    Marie, I agree. Our three summers in Prince Edward Island (a week each time) were spent in different areas, in different rental houses, and so we got a feeling for the whole island. We liked the continuity - the feeling when we saw familiar welcoming landmarks. We haven't taken a trip now for 8 years!

    Diary Farmer, I wonder if the couple has read the book. Honestly, even for a non-reader, this book is very readable. It felt like I was there with the Stevens family all around me.

    Stella, you expressed it beautifully - I love all the pondering about time. Such a wonderful book. I'm interested in The Hopkins Manuscript too. (is that Vanessa in your picture??!)

    Tara, thank you so much. It is really lovely.

    Scriptor Senex, beautiful description. I think the book would be particularly meaningful to you. If I lived in Britain, I'd probably never go anywhere else (except Ireland).

    Patricia, I think you are so right. I can't imagine an eleven year old off on her own on a plane to such a far off place. It just seems so almost expected these days. Thank you for your nice words about my book reports. They are a labor of love, especially with a book like this one. Aren't you lucky to have a library that carries Persephone Books!!

    Rachel, I love what you wrote. Thank you.

    Oh, Call me madam, thank you! I was amazed to see the picture of Bognor in the 1930s. It was so crowded! This is one of the things Mrs Stevens liked because she spent her days alone in the house. You will love this book, I'm quite, quite certain.

    JoAnn, it is truly a lovely book. Very interesting what you said - and exactly right - 'not necessarily better but very different.'

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  13. Nan

    Yes that is Vanessa in my picture well spotted. Hopkins Manuscript is Persephone Book no 57

    Stella

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  14. Nan, it's funny that you mentioned you summered on Prince Edward's Island. I've always wanted to go there so my husband and I are already planning to go next year. --Catherine Mary

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  15. Your review certainly makes this sound wonderful, delightful but with that touch of poignancy. It's a Persephone I keep meaning to buy but I think I shall in my next order.

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  16. Nan, what a great review. This one was in my "2nd tier" of the books I am going to get from Persephone, but your review just moved it into the first tier.

    I love to travel. I even have a long-range five-year plan of where we will probably go. But as a child only ever went camping at State Parks, mainly in state (Minnesota) but sometimes to Wisconsin and South Dakota.

    I was 19 before I ever got on a plane or even saw the ocean. I guess in the 21 years since I am trying to make up for all of that.

    I can't wait to read this book.

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  17. Stella, I love that photo. I love those sisters. Thanks for the book info.

    Catherine Mary, it is one of the most beautiful places imaginable, with the bonus of music everywhere. Here are a couple bloggers who are lucky enough to live there!

    http://kathie.squarespace.com/

    http://raidergirl3-anadventureinreading.blogspot.com/

    and you've probably already been to this site but there's tons of info.

    http://www.peisland.com/

    Happy vacation!

    Paperback Reader, it is truly wonderful. Slow, thoughtful, kindly.

    Thomas, I loved reading about your travels past and that you have a plan - plans amaze me. I think you'll love the warmth of this book.

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  18. Such a good review, I really want to read that one. When I was very young we went to Devon, The Lake District, and The Isle of Man for holidays, then when I was about eight we started venturing farther afield. I have to say I did enjoy the variation of different countries and learned a lot. When my children were young we went to the same farm in Wales several years running, they could ride, canoe, swim, play ping pong etc and after all this activity there were wonderful meals in the farmhouse every evening. Perfect family holiday.
    King George V spent time in Bognor I seem to remember.
    Love the header too, you excel yourself every time.
    Carole

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  19. Carole, your Wales time sounds wonderful. We spent one week in Llangrannog in the best house I've ever seen. I walked around with my (then) movie camera to capture every nook and cranny. It felt like something out of Rosamunde Pilcher! Thank you about the header - pure luck, my dear. :<)

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