I can’t believe how quickly the time has flown since the start of Jessie’s third Persephone Readathon and yet here we are at the end of it already.
From my recently acquired three Persephone books, I chose R C Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September. Published in 1931, this novel was well received at the time and continues to be a treasured read. I found it absolutely breathtakingly good. It might be one of the best books I have ever read.
You can see all the places I flagged for review. In fact, I mentally highlighted about 90% of the text, so frequently were there phrases and sentences that made me stop and marvel at Sherriff’s wonderful capurturing of the human spirit, human frailties, human relationships and so much more.
I found myself referring to the book as ‘A fortnight…’ but it very quickly becomes clear that the title’s ‘The’ is hugely important in underlining the significance for the Stevens family of their annual holiday at the seaside resort of Bognor Regis on the SE coast of England. We travel with them, experiencing the growing excitement of the evening before their departure, the hustle and bustle of the train journey from London to the coast, and the passing of the holiday at the guest house, Seaview, to which they always return each year.
The charm of the novel lies in its exquisite mundanity. In one sense, nothing very much happens plot-wise: the family go away and head home again. And yet, in the crafting of each jewel of a sentence, Sherriff conveys a whole world of complexity and information about the characters and the society of which they are, and are not, part. Who would have thought that one could learn so much about contemporary attitudes from a few lines about neckwear:
“The Bullevants were looked down upon by some of the people in Corunna Road because Mr Bullevant always breakfasted without a collar, but the Stevens knew their worth, and rather scoffed at stupid prejudices of that type.”
And his descriptions are beautifully perceptive:
“In London things grow dark with time: at the seaside things grow pale (except of course the people). In London dirt and rubbish creeps into the corners and lies sluggishly there till someone comes and sweeps it away. At the seaside it runs into the corners, circles gaily round and chases off again.”
But I think the main reason I enjoyed the book so much was because Sherriff captures so accurately the thoughts and feelings which go through all our heads (or mine at least) in circumstances similar to those encountered by the Stevenses. Waiting for the train, for example, they become anxious about the prospect of getting their preferred seats and jostle with the other passengers to achieve their goal. When I was a regular commuter it put a blight on my whole journey if I found someone sitting in ‘my’ seat on the tube! It made me smile to see them behaving exactly as I would:
“”Bognor train the next one down?” asked Mr Stevens of the porter.
“Yes, sir,” replied the porter.
Mr Stevens did not like relying upon the word of one ticket collector and always preferred to take a consensus of opinion from as many officials as possible.”
Even more relatable for me was their joy and relieved sense of contentment at arriving in a place they had come to know and love over many years. When I was aged about 7 or 8, my family had several holidays in Bournemouth (also on England’s SE coast) staying each time in the same guest house. I can very clearly remember the pleasure of ‘knowing the ropes’ and having one’s established holiday routines. Like the Stevenses, we always took a beach hut, which was a source of huge delight and, dare I say it, created an element of smugness at owning, for that brief period at least, a small part of the environs:
“…there was something very stimulating to the self respect in sitting on the balcony [of their beach hut] – cool and aloof from the sweating crowd on the beach…. [theirs] was better than the others, they decided. It looked fresher, and the balcony was a bit higher then its neighbour’s.”
This sounds a bit snobbish, I know. But aren’t the Stevenses just the same as all of us in wanting the best possible outcome for their hard-earned money, and to spend their precious holiday time in their chosen manner? Their constant reassurances to themselves about the way things turn out is a key part of securing an overall sense that the holiday is being, and will be remembered for being, a roaring success.
I could go on and on about this novel’s delights and treasures – I haven’t even got started on each of the characters (the portrayal of Mr and Mrs Stevens in particular could be the subject of a learned thesis). But lest this post become too long for comfort, let me point you in the direction of further reading about the book on the Persephone Forum here. Better yet, get hold of a copy and read the actual book if you have not already done so. I’ll definitely be seeking out Sherriff’s other work and I do not expect that it will be too long before I return to spend a few more days with the Stevens family. 🙂