The Fortnight in September – R C Sherriff

I love Persephone Books and some of their titles that I’ve read are just wonderful – Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven, Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, and Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue are a few examples that come to mind. It is hardly surprisingly therefore when I state that The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was also absolutely terrific. This is a book I should I have read in September instead of October but I happened to read it just before my own beach holiday and so it was perfect in that sense.

The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently. All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect.

There’s a scene on the first day of the Stevens’ holiday when the father Mr Stevens goes for a walk all by himself. It’s an essential part of the family’s travel philosophy (and one that I identify with) that the members occasionally break up to do things on their own, and for Mr Stevens this walk is therapeutic in the way it clears his mind and allows him to reflect on the past, more specifically the twin setbacks in his professional life that continue to cause him a bit of heartache. It is amazing how the abundance of greenery, lush landscapes and natural beauty can fuel a shift in perspective that is restorative and uplifting, and for Mr Stevens this solitary walk offers exactly that…

It had been the little chance things that made him aware of his yearning to understand far more than had come his way: little chance things that seemed to raise a curtain and reveal almost frightening depths beyond. He was glad that he had always had the instinct to step forward and not shrink back – to go groping on – exploring and probing for another beyond.

These wonderful nuggets of wisdom that make up everyday life punctuate the text at regular intervals to make The Fortnight in September – a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years – a pleasure to read. 

The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to embark on their journey. They are to leave for the seaside town of Bognor the next morning, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

The last evening at home is always a momentous occasion, tedious hours of work have finally been put behind and there is the big holiday – two whole weeks of it – to look forward to. Anticipation is running high, but for Mr and Mrs Stevens it is also a bittersweet moment – their two elder children Dick and Mary have turned twenty having unleashed vague hints of wishing to spend future holidays with friends. Thus, given that the future of this annual tradition seems mired in doubt, it heightens the significance of this family holiday for Mr and Mrs Stevens even more this time around.

How splendid it all was!—The whole family going away together again, after those dark, half-thrown hints from Dick and Mary about separate holidays with their friends. Thank God they had come to nothing!

On the day of travel, the weather turns out to be gorgeous (such a crucial factor for any holiday), and Mr Stevens in a spirit of generosity, makes tea for the entire family. There are some unpleasant duties to be carried out and only once the family boards the train does the feeling of freedom finally sink in.

At Bognor, the Stevens stay at the same guest house (‘Seaview’) as in the years before, but the gradual signs of decay and deterioration of the rooms and the furniture within are imminent and noticed by each of them in their own way.

For Dick and Mary, going once more into their old, familiar little bedrooms, had wondered with sinking hearts why they had never noticed in other years how dreadfully dingy and terribly poor they were. Was it a growing desire for better things?—or had these little rooms suddenly shrunk—become darker—and almost squalid?

Mr Stevens is disconcerted by these subtle signals which only highlight the transient nature of things, the looming spectre of change that is sometimes frightening but also a precursor to new beginnings.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. Evenings are spent by the promenade enjoying band music and endless people gazing. At other times, Mr Stevens enjoying taking solitary walks and spending some hours in the local pub catching up with old friends and making new ones, and mildly flirting with the barmaid Rosie; Dick and Mary go for walks together by the promenade, and Mrs Stevens enjoys an evening alone at the guesthouse with her feet finally up and a glass of port with no constant demands on her time.

That’s really the crux of the novel and as you can see it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

We are given glimpses into the thinking of each of the family members – their hopes, aspirations, fears, disappointments – and how the holiday becomes the perfect setting for tranquil reflections on the past and altered perceptions about the future laced with hope and energy.

Both father and son worry about their careers staring at an uncertain future, but while Dick is just launching himself into the professional world quite lost without a sense of purpose or direction, Mr Stevens could very well be staring at an end. For instance, we learn about the frustrations that mark Mr Stevens’ working life – having steadily worked his way to near the top, Mr Stevens is forced to confront the possibility of his career having reached a dead end based on his limitations in terms of ability and background. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Dick, who is just starting out, his career like a pristine piece of clay to mold as he chooses, and yet he remains increasingly fretful about his prospects. Thanks to his father’s efforts, Dick lands a position in a respectable firm, but is quite unhappy and thus guilty for feeling this way lest his father thinks him ungrateful.

Mrs Stevens is a woman whose schedule has always revolved around her husband and children, she is not as excited as her family about the holiday in general and keeps those feelings strictly to herself, but she cherishes the moments when she is alone at Seaview with time only for herself. Mary feels like there’s so much about the world she does not know, she envies the smartly dressed girls who talk so confidently with men and yearns for a personality along those lines, a leap into a world which is not marked by poverty and constrained circumstances.

Some of the core themes explored in the novel are family life, career, the importance of fresh perspectives but it is also a novel that examines wealth and class. The Stevens have come up the hard way bringing in its wake some disillusionment as is expected, yet there is something heroic about how they are grateful about the things that they do possess without harbouring deep resentment or bitterness about their fate. There is a particular set piece in the novel, when Mr Stevens unexpectedly meets a wealthy valuable customer of his firm and the whole family is invited for tea to their extravagant palatial home and yet despite the differences in wealth and class, it the Stevens that come away as the richer family.

The Fortnight in September, then, beautifully captures the simple pleasures that make such a difference to the ordinariness of everyday life, how holidays offer that much needed shot in the arm for rejuvenation, how a change of surroundings can refresh the mind, vitalize the body and provide some clarity of vision.

So much of the travel details as highlighted by Sheriff strike a chord – anxiety mixed with euphoria on the day of travel (the holiday to look forward to but also not missing any train connections), the sense of disorientation on reaching the holiday destination when it’s all new and one has to still blend in (“they had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start”), how time plays tricks on the mind (it flies so much faster on holidays than it does otherwise)…

But he knew that time only moved evenly upon the hands of clocks: to men it can linger and almost stop dead, race on, leap chasms and linger again. He knew, with a little sadness, that it always made up its distance in the end. To-day it had travelled gropingly, like an engine in a fog, but now, with each passing hour of the holiday it would gather speed, and the days would flash by like little wayside stations. In a fortnight he would be sitting in this room on the last evening, thinking how the first night of the holiday seemed like yesterday—full of regrets at wasted time…

In a nutshell, The Fortnight in September is just superb, a novel fraught with poignancy and the fleeting nature of things, tints of nostalgia and slices of bittersweet moments woven into a fabric that otherwise throbs with the humble delights of a family enjoying a good time together. It is a timeless story, joyous and laden with quiet courage, but sometimes achingly sad when it dwells on its characters’ yearnings, missed opportunities and a growing sense of loss. As the blurb aptly states it is an extraordinary story of an ordinary family and one I highly recommend.  

The Greengage Summer – Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden was a discovery for me last year, her novel Black Narcissus found a place on my Best Books of 2021 list. Naturally, I wanted to read more and settled on The Greengage Summer.

The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.

Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky).

Cecil’s father is a botanist, often away from home for long stretches of time. Relying on her brother (called Uncle William by the children) for financial and emotional support, Cecil’s mother and the children reside in lodgings in the dreary, seaside town of Southstone.

Southstone lacks character and Joss and Cecil absolutely loathe it. The pair also bemoans the family’s strained monetary circumstances.

I think now that the discontent was because we were never quite comfortable in Southstone and the rudeness came from the discontent; it was as-if a pattern-mould were being pressed down on us into which we could not fit.

Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are.

Excited by the idea of a short stint in Paris on the way for shopping and visiting museums, Joss, Cecil and the gang are in a state of great anticipation but the trip is doomed right from the start. The mother gets bitten by a horse-fly, her feet swell and she begins to develop a fever. Beset by fear, anxiety and a sense of being lost in a strange, unfamiliar country, the family somehow makes it to Vieux-Moutiers region to finally land at the enchanting Les Oeillets hotel.

However, things do not get easier when they reach the hotel – the mother’s condition deteriorates, language being a barrier the children struggle to communicate, and the hotel manager, Madame Courbet, is not particularly welcoming. Madame Courbet refuses to have a sick patient under her roof, and is not keen on the idea of assuming responsibility for the children. Angered by the terrible treatment meted out to them, Joss is all set to storm out of the hotel with the rest of the gang in tow, when Mademoiselle Zizi and Eliot make an entry.

An Englishman, Eliot quickly gauges the predicament of the family, the mother is settled in a room, and subsequently transferred to the hospital. Meanwhile, he offers to be a guardian to the children.

In the initial days, Joss is also struck by illness and is confined to her room. Thus, Cecil, Hester, Will and Vicky are pretty much left to their own devices and given free rein. Cecil is overcome by the newness and strangeness of not just the hotel, but also its people and their unique mannerisms.   

The staircase was paneled in pale green, riddled with curious holes, but the holes did not take away from its elegance. The hall was elegant too. It was odd that we, who had never seen elegance before – though it was our favourite word – immediately recognized it.

Reveling in their newfound freedom, the kids begin to explore the hotel, the gardens and the orchards around it gorging on greengages that give the novel its name.

Stepping in dew, my head in the sun, I walked into the orchard and, before I knew what I had done, reached up to touch a greengage. It came off, warm and smooth, into my hand I looked quickly round, but no one came, no voice scolded and, after a moment, I bit into the ripe golden flesh. Then I ate another, and another, until replete with fruit and ecstasy, I went back to my post.

Vicky latches on to Monsieur Armand, the hotel cook. Wills finds a spot under the cherry tree to be alone and pore over French fashion books. Cecil and Hester befriend Paul, the cook’s helper, who regales them with hotel gossip. It gradually emerges that Eliot and Zizi are lovers; Zizi especially is besotted with him. Madame Courbet, devoted to Zizi, despises Eliot but is powerless.

Eliot, meanwhile, develops a soft spot for the Grey family much to Zizi’s chagrin. When Joss, having recovered from her illness, finally emerges out of confinement, things begin to hot up. Eliot is mesmerized by her beauty and can’t take his eyes off her, Zizi is insanely jealous, and Cecil becomes a reluctant spectator watching Joss become embroiled in a messy drama…What’s more, thrown into this mix is the renowned French painter, Monsieur Joubert…

Eliot is an interesting, mysterious character, by turns warm and inscrutable whose motives remain hazy to the children. He is generally fond of them, but Cecil also glimpses the occasional changes in mood, the coldness and curt responses which are a sign to her to keep her distance. There is a part of him that remains inaccessible and bewilders Cecil, but his suave, charming personality endears him to the gang and they find themselves loyal to him despite his faults.

He had a carnation in his buttonhole, a dark-red one, and it seemed to symbolize Eliot for us. Why are flowers bought by men so much more notable than those bought by women? I do not know, but they are. Father brought flowers into the house but they were dried, pressed brown, the life gone out of them; with Eliot the flower was alive.

Blessed with striking good looks, Joss has awakened to her sexuality and is aware of the effect it has on men including Eliot. But it is Cecil who, in many ways, is the show stealer with her flair for storytelling and for being in the thick of things. She has reached that point in her life where she wants to be treated like an adult, but still remains innocent in many aspects. The torment that she suffers because of this conflict has been astutely conveyed by Godden. Compared to Joss, Cecil considers herself plain with unremarkable features, a fact that she resents. But she is a wonderful narrator, displaying the naiveté of her age, while occasional moments of astuteness shine through.

The Greengage Summer, then, is a heady cocktail of themes – the loneliness of entering into adulthood, loss of innocence, the intensity of love, and lies and deceit that pepper the world of adults. Under the veneer of languid summers and the joys of new experiences, run currents of darkness with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings. Cecil, accustomed to the straightforward world of children, is often confused by the behaviour of the adults around her, the ease with they lie and extricate themselves from a challenging situation. And she and Joss are faced with the possibility that Eliot may not be what he seems, he has his own secrets to hide.

We were told not to come back until four o’clock and the boundary we were set was the box hedge. On one side lay the house and its happenings, a shifting and changing pattern of Eliot, Mademoiselle Zizi, Madame Corbet, Paul, Monsieur Armand, Mauricette, the carloads and chars-a-bancs of visitors; when we were away from it, it was as unreal as the cocktails they all drank…

On the wilderness and orchard side was an older, more truthful world; every day as we passed into it, I caught its older, simpler scents.

The novel sizzles with the sensuousness of French summer – the light filtering in through the canopy of lush green trees, the shimmering surroundings burnished into gold by the rays of the sun, the languor of the heat, the liquid, dreamy atmosphere inducing feelings of exhilaration and being alive. The exotic food, delectable pastries, sparkling champagne and various others sights, sounds and smells dazzle Cecil and Joss, it is such a stark contrast to the dullness of their English existence. Breathing in the air of elegance and sophistication, they are intoxicated by the ease and glamour of the French way of living. Godden’s storytelling is wonderfully absorbing and she is great at describing things.

At that time of day the sun sinking behind the trees struck through the landing window and turned the staircase into a funnel of light; even the treads of the stairs seemed barred with gold, and through the round window came the sound of trills and flutings, the birds singing their evening song in the garden, before it dropped to silence. The staircase might have been Jacob’s ladder, stairs to heaven.

And here she is describing the ambience in a restaurant…

…As the patron cooked our steaks in front of us and dusk came down, shutting the little glass-sided restaurant into a world of its own, the disappointment went. Eliot gave us vin rosé, and the rose-coloured wine, the réchaud flame, the lights were reflected in the windows over and over again, shutting us into a warm lit world.

The prose is simple and unadorned and perfectly captures the voice of its naïve yet perceptive teenaged narrator.

What is also astonishing about The Greengage Summer is that much of it is autobiographical, based on true events. My edition of this novel has a preface by Rumer Godden and an introduction by Jane Asher. In her preface, Godden reveals to us the actual events that took place during their French holiday in 1923, the richness of material giving birth to this novel (Cecil is Rumer), while Jane Asher gives a flavor of her experiences of filming the book and of being cast in the role of Cecil. Both make for fascinating reading, but I would suggest reading them after the novel.

In a nutshell, The Greengage Summer is a glorious read with its evocative portrayal of summer, a meaty storyline and a cast of memorable characters. Highly recommended!

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim

I read this lovely book in April because of its title, and really wanted to put up my thoughts in that month as well, but alas, it was not to be.

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy.

We are introduced to Lottie Wilkins, who married to a city lawyer, feels bogged down and stifled by their humdrum existence in Hampstead. Her husband Mellersh is an intelligent, respectable, good-looking man, highly regarded by his senior partners, but rather something of a bully at home. In their social circle, when pitted against him, Lottie pales in comparison and her careless style of dressing only adds to the general consensus that she should stay home. Mellersh is cautious with money and the daily drill of having to strictly live within their means with no room for wasteful expenditure begins to take its toll on Lottie.

While on one of her shopping trips, she spends a miserable afternoon at a women’s club, and there chances upon an advertisement in the newspapers that sets off a chain of thoughts. The ad is addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine and proposes to let furnished for the month of April a small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean.

At first, with a resigned air Lottie dismisses the idea, she grudgingly tells herself that such delights exist for the privileged. But Lottie loves wisteria and sunshine and so the idea of spending a month at the castle begins to take hold on her.

Rose Arbuthnot’s circumstances are a source of heartache for her too. Being an extremely religious woman, she is disturbed by her husband Frederick’s success as a writer of trashy but popular memoirs of the mistresses of Kings. This vocation brings him money but Rose feels guilty and dirty touching it and so she immerses herself in charity work, with the fervent hope that it will cleanse her and ease her conscience. As a couple both Rose and Frederick have drifted apart and this hurts Rose a lot given that they were so in love in the early days of their marriage.

When Lottie spots Rose also staring at the ad wistfully on that same dreary afternoon, an idea begins to take shape in the former’s mind. She approaches Rose, the two strike up an earnest conversation and Lottie gradually convinces her that if they in turn advertise for two more companions, the four of them could split the costs of staying at the castle so that the individual burden will be considerably reduced.

Using their saved nest-eggs, the two women begin the process of renting the castle. Also, with respect to their ad for more companions, two women express interest – Lady Caroline Dester and the older Mrs Fisher. Caroline Dester is a stunning woman with many admirers at her beck and call but having tired of all the attention, she is craving to get away and do some soul searching in a restful place, and Italy fits her bill perfectly. Mrs Fisher is a catankerous, old-fashioned woman who still lives in her past and reminisces about her illustrious friends and acquaintances of yore in the literary world.

These women come from completely different backgrounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations of Mrs Fisher and Caroline Dester to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other.

As soon as her stay at the castle begins, Lottie’s personality undergoes a sea of change. Mesmerized by the gorgeous views, Lottie is immediately rejuvenated and her perspective of the world around her alters dramatically. Stunning vistas of the bay, jaw dropping sceneries, abundance of pretty secluded spots and the enchanting feel of the castle all combine to work their therapeutic magic on her.

Something was wrong somewhere. Wonderful that at home she should have been so good, so terribly good, and merely felt tormented. Twinges of every sort had there been her portion; aches, hurts, discouragements, and she the whole time being steadily unselfish.

Now she had taken off her goodness and left it behind her like a heap of rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy. She was naked of goodness, and was rejoicing in being naked. She was stripped, and exulting.

So much so that Lottie’s powers of perception sharpen considerably, and her otherwise timid, resentful personality gives way to a charming, carefree and benevolent demeanor. Indeed, she then comes up with another audacious plan that could disrupt their present idyll or will it?

The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Some of the set-pieces in the first few pages in the novel are hilarious – particularly the one where Lottie and Rose are being driven by the gardener to the castle past midnight, and there is no effective way of communicating with him because they can’t speak the Italian language.

The two men opened their umbrellas for them and handed them to them. From this they received a fair encouragement, because they could not believe that if these men were wicked they would pause to open umbrellas. The man with the lantern then made signs to them to follow him, talking loud and quickly, and Beppo, they noticed, remained behind. Ought they to pay him? Not, they thought, if they were going to be robbed and perhaps murdered. Surely on such an occasion one did not pay.

Von Arnim explores how an invigorating holiday is a much needed respite from mundane routines of everyday life. The novel was penned in the 1920s when there were hardly any career opportunities for women and their role was largely restricted to the household. In the novel, Arnim does not aim to depict how their Italian sojourn alters the circumstances of her characters, but rather to capture the perceptible shift in how they view it.

Lottie and Rose are housewives and will continue to play that role, but there’s something to be said for how a holiday can energize and recharge one’s batteries. Beauty of nature and the wonder of a new place can be a tonic for a tired mind…Lottie and Rose are certainly transformed by the magic of Italy, it is an apt place for some semblance of a rebirth.

“Were you ever, ever in your life so happy?” asked Mrs. Wilkins, catching her by the arm.

“No,” said Mrs. Arbuthnot. Nor had she been; not ever; not even in her first love-days with Frederick. Because always pain had been close at hand in that other happiness, ready to torture with doubts, to torture even with the very excess of her love; while this was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.

Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.