Beatrice Nash is an educated, talented, and pleasant woman. But life in 1914 England does not give much credence to those qualities when she has been left orphaned and impoverished at the old maid age of 22 without any marriage prospects. To make matters worse, she must rely on her unfriendly relatives for assistance in finding a job. Her position as Latin teacher to the small school in Kent is tenuous, and she can only hope that somehow she can find the means to get ahead of her fate.
Meanwhile, Hugh Grange visits his aunt in Kent this summer, along with his cousin Daniel, and the two friends find themselves in a new situation as the country turns in the tides of war.
Yes, The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson does have a romance in it, and the tea parlor conversations in it make it a delightful woman’s novel. But in the tradition of Downton Abbey, we also face the dichotomy of the classes during an intriguing changing era when the world is soon to be turned upside down by war. Add in a very timely discussion of refugees from Belgium, and I found The Summer Before the War to be a delightful British novel for capturing my Downton Abbey-starved mind.
The Summer Before the War deals with difficult subjects, as it was a difficult era for an unmarried woman. It deals with the poverty of the unmarried Beatrice Nash, a woman who was raised as a lady and yet, now that she is orphaned and unmarried, now must live in reduced circumstances. It deals with the a very smart child of a blacksmith: a boy who would certainly have the ability to succeed in college, and yet is refused an earned scholarship award due to his family’s occupation. It deals with a woman’s pregnancy outside of marriage and rape, a subject that is incredibly taboo in the small town culture. These issues are developed from the ground up in a tasteful manner, and the
The Summer Before the War is most certainly a character novel. From the beginning, we are privy to the main characters’ thoughts and opinions of those around them, particularly Beatrice’s and Hugh’s. As the novel progresses, the difficulties of the other characters likewise are explored and even by the end we think we understand. The last few pages have a character revelation that surprised even me, although I believe I suspected something of the sort somehow. The last sentences beautifully capture the entire spirit of the novel: acceptance and service. In the time of a mind-numbing world war, as well as our time of refugees and differences of religion, this should be a message of comfort as we share in overcoming adversity.
Note: I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.