Sunday 16 July 2023

The Summer Before the War

Finished July 10
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

This historical novel takes place mostly in the summer  of 1914 in the small coastal town of Rye in East Sussex. Agatha Kent is one of the women who makes things happen in the town. She is progressive to a degree and protective of her own. Often, her nephews, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, spent their summers there. Agatha's husband John works in the government and gets down from London when he can. Hugh is studying to be a surgeon and Daniel is a poet, who aspires to larger literary pursuits with his friend Craigmore North.
Beatrice Nash has been living with her father's family since his death, but can't go on doing so. She was close to her father who was a writer, and she acted as his secretary and assistant for as long as she can remember, travelling widely with him. Agatha has arranged for her to take over as Latin teacher at their local school, and Beatrice is both thankful for the opportunity to make her own way, and a bit nervous at the prospect of teaching. 
Hugh has been tutoring three of the boys from the school in Latin, but is happy to hand them over to Beatrice for the summer. The boys: Jack, Richard (Snout), and Arty are to be tutored by Beatrice during that time. 
As Beatrice navigates the politics of the small town, and the responsibilities of her position, she also makes friends and tries for some small changes.
Another female in town who has pushed for Beatrice to be taken on as Latin teacher is Lady Emily Wheaton, who has two grown children, with her daughter married to a German duke. 
As the war begins, the men in town are drawn away to military pursuits and the women find themselves called in different directions. 
There are some scenes at the front with Hugh visiting Daniel and his unit there. 
This is a book that shows the ways of society before the this world-changing war, and gives a hint of the aims and dreams of the young generation that will end up giving the most in this war. We see the traditions of this rural community in the celebration of the hop harvest and the military parade of the local soldiers. 
The way the community welcomed some Belgian refugees was also interesting in many ways, and displayed prejudices and social commentary. 
This is a book that truly makes you care about several of the characters and brings them to life with their own personalities. From Snout to Agatha, and Beatrice to Hugh, we get a glimpse into their lives which will be changed forever. 

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