It was Reading Matters’ recent review that took me to this 1931 British novel. The edition I read has a helpful excerpt from the author’s autobiography. There I learned that R.C. Sherriff, having had a successful play produced, struggled to write a novel, getting all balled up in words that were unfamiliar. He took a new tack and decided to write for his own pleasure. He says,
I wanted to write about simple, uncomplicated people doing normal things, and I was groping around for flowery stuff and high vaulting words to do it with. 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.
The resulting novel is the story of an ordinary family going off for their annual two-week holiday in Bognor Regis, taking the train from their home south of London to the beach resort which was 24 miles from the better known Brighton. Their home is in Dulwich in sight of the Crystal Palace, the cast iron and plate glass building originally built for the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was moved to this location south of London where it remained until 1936.
For 20 years the Stevens family–Mr. and Mrs. Stevens, Mary, Dick, and Ernie–had been loyal to the boarding house “Seaview” and Bognor, both of which were growing threadbare. Still the excitement was undiminished as they contemplated their time away from work and their routine lives. Their planning document, “Marching Orders,” described each task for preparations the night before departure with the person it was assigned to.
I can’t say that the author has great feeling for these “simple, uncomplicated people,” as he describes their feelings about the details of their ordinary activities. For example, they dither over whether to spend the larger amount of money on a bathing hut with a balcony or one without. (A bathing hut is a small wooden cabin set above the high tide mark used for changing clothes and shelter at the beach.) They find a hut with a balcony is not available until a few days into their stay, which means they will not spend the full amount, but will have a nice hut.
They no longer viewed the passing holiday makers with shyness and envy; their decision had suddenly raised them far beyond the mass, and they looked with pity, and a trace of contempt at a fat, bald man who emerged from a small, common, cheap little hut without a balcony.
This is a particularly unpleasant moment of feeling superior; fortunately the book was not merely descriptions of the family at their most petty. I loved the joy Mr. Stevens felt on his day-long hike on the downs (what is a down?) and Mrs. Stevens’ enjoyment of her quiet moment with a glass of port at the end of the day.
For me the best aspect of the book is dipping into a time and geography that is unknown to me. Bognor Regis is a real place, they rode the train to get there, they lived in sight of the Crystal Palace. So much fun.
R.C. Sherriff’s successful play was Journey’s End about his experience in WWI that was revived in 2007. He was one of three co-writers nominated for an Academy Award for the film Goodbye, Mr. Chips, that irresistible tear-jerker movie.
R.C. Sherriff, The Fortnight in September, orig. published in 1931, reprinted in 2006 by Persephone Books Ltd, 336 pages (I read the kindle version).