This is a book I read last year and one I have been meaning to share with you for some time. As you know I am a great fan of Persephone and have yet to read a Persephone book I haven’t enjoyed or wanted to share. The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff is no different.
This is the story of the Stevens Family. Mr Stevens, an office clerk, Mrs Stevens a housewife and mother, Mary their nearly grown up daughter, their oldest son Dick who is now working and their youngest son Ernie, who is still a school boy. Each year in September the family leave their home in Dulwich for a fortnight in Bognor Regis, where they always stay in the same guesthouse. This novel opens on the evening before their holiday and closes as they leave to go home.
I cannot deny that this is a very ordinary story, with little drama or action. But I don’t imagine that drama or action were the intention of RC Sheriff when he wrote this. What he does so very well is capture a very ordinary family on, to all intents and purposes a very ordinary holiday. The excitement of the preparation, and then the initial trepidation when on arriving at the place you have dreamed of all year is described beautifully.
“You cannot help feeling a little out of it when first you mingle with them. Lots of them have probably only just arrived, like you – and yet you feel you are the only novices amongst the crowds of sun baked veterans. It is far better not to take buckets and spades, yachts, or even kites on your first day’s visit to the sands. It is best simply to stroll along, to get your sea legs, and look at things”
Individual details of the family members are drawn out, capturing how their characters as indivicuals but also as part of a whole. There is such charm to be found in the simple pleasures the family share together and the love and concern they have for one another.
Mr Stevens is an interesting character. In some ways quite pompous and patronising. I didn’t altogether appreciate the way he could on occasion made his wife feel a ‘little silly’.
“He wished his wife would be more careful; it was only in excitement that she spoke like that. Her first word had been such a raw and bleeding stump; the aitch seemed to have been torn from it with a blunt hatchet”
There are sorrows too as we learn of Mr Stevens lack of expected promotion at work, his disappointments with the esteemed place he had once held in his foot ball club. And yet his love for his family is so clear and it is them and their pleasures he puts above all this, always doing his utmost to ensure their happiness. Treating his family to ice creams or a beach hut or special food pleases him and confirms his place as breadwinner and provider.
There is something of the ‘long suffering wife’ of Mrs Stevens, and of all the family members it is she who perhaps draws most sympathy. She is staying in a guest house which is clearly shabby and past its best. Her feet constantly ache in the shoes and stocking she wears despite the scorching heat, and, her favourite moments are in the evenings when she can sit on her own with her feet up sipping a glass of port!
The charm doesn’t just come from the family but also from the simpler times and the old fashioned way of doing things.
“Mary had brought down a bottle of olive oil to rub over the scarlet patches on their chests and backs, for there was no point in getting sunburnt merely to have the skin come peeling painful off in a few day’s time. A little oil prevented the skin from cracking, and helped it towards that rich mellow brown that everyone likes to bring back from a holiday.”
I’m certainly not advocating this method of sun protection but it did make me smile and remember….
‘The Fortnight in September’ has a tremendous sense of place. The guest house, the beach, the walks. Although this is not exactly the sort of holiday many of us would recognise today, there is much about it that will be familiar. The sense of anticipation, the holiday rituals, the longing for it not to end and the wistfullness we feel as it inevitably does.
I adored this novel and I hope if you choose to read it you will too.