Archive for the ‘R.C. Sherriff’ Category

I’m a little afraid to talk about The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff, knowing how many people count it as one of their favourite Persephone books.  I liked it (and I love the endpaper).  I am not sure I’ve ever read a more carefully described novel, where all the details are exactly right.  But I would not go so far as to say I loved it.  Indeed, I found it fascinating but difficult to get into and I never really gained any sense of emotional engagement with the story or the characters.

The Fortnight in September is a perfectly observed tale of one unexceptional London family’s annual seaside holiday.  For the last two decades, the Stevens family has taken a two week holiday to Bognor.  Like any long-standing tradition, there is ritual attached to every aspect of their holiday.  We meet the family they night before they set off.  Worrying about the weather, making checklists, and anxiously going over all the last minute details relating to packing and to setting the house, pets, and tradespeople to right before their departure, it’s hard to date when this book was written (it was published in 1931).  All their concerns and thoughts are timeless, reminding me so much of the preparation for the vacations we took when I was a child.

And then they’re off, anxious and excited about their train ride and very, very eager to get to their final destination.  The hassles and fears of travel are flawlessly chronicled (particularly Mrs Stevens worries that either she or the luggage will be misplaced) but, finally, after a very lengthy build up, the family arrives in dear, familiar Bognor.  As he does every year, Mr Stevens has concocted a perfectly planned family agenda, allowing for just the right balance of structure and leisure, and the holiday indulgences (including a large bathing hut rented for their beach days and a medicinal bottle of port for Mrs Stevens) are quickly and giddily obtained.  Then, the family settles down to enjoy their days playing cricket on the beach, bathing in the sea, walking out into the country, and generally taking a break from the stresses of their London lives.  For nineteen year old Mary and seventeen year old Dick, this is the first family holiday where they are both working adults.  Dick, miserable at work, uses the time to reflect on what he wants from life, while Mary, for the first time spending evenings in Bognor separate from her family, falls in love.  For their parents and ten year old brother Ernie, the holiday is less dramatic but no less enjoyable.

All of the emotions of the average holidaymaker are here in eerily perfect detail.   As a portrait of what it feels like to take and enjoy a holiday, Sherriff gets it exactly right.  The resentment when a visit has to be made to an acquaintance, using up precious hours that could be spent on the beach; the thrill of unexpectedly being able to extend the vacation, accompanied by a fear that somehow altering the schedule may make the extra hours less precious; the comfort of staying at the same place, even though it is getting shabbier each year…a jolt of recognition went through me when I read these things, making me think ‘that is it exactly, that is just how it feels.’  But I think it is that perfection that made it difficult for me to grow attached to this book.  The level of detail is extraordinary but there is neither any real plot not, more crucially, is there anything particularly interesting about any member of the Stevens family.  Goodness knows I can do without plot, but, in its absence, the characters need to provide the interest.  The Stevens are perfectly normal people, likeable and recognizable, but deeply unexceptional and, I hate to say it, forgettable.  They are the kind of people you’d be happy to have as neighbours, would always nod to or exchange a kind word with if you saw them, but would completely forget about when they were out of sight.  I was fond of them but did not care about them in the slightest, which made this a difficult novel to enjoy even as I appreciated it.

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