Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Persephone, Publisher, R.C. Sherriff, Setting

‘The Fortnight in September’ by RC Sherriff

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 336 pages; 2017.

If you are looking for a lovely, gentle story from a more innocent time, then please put R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September on your reading list.

This novel, first published in 1931, perfectly encapsulates the small joys of a family embarking on their annual holiday to the English seaside. Not very much happens in the story, but it’s written in such a mannered, yet insightful, way, that it hardly seems to matter.

A long train journey

There’s a long build-up, introducing us to each member of the Stevens family — Mr Stevens, an office worker (we never really find out exactly what it is he does), his devoted wife Mrs Stevens, and their three children, Mary, 20, Dick 17, and Ernie, 10 — as they make their preparations for their time away, ensuring the milk order is cancelled, that their pet budgerigar has been given to the next-door neighbour to look after, that the gas has been turned off and everything is locked up.

Their journey to Bognor Regis, on the West Sussex coast, is described in exacting detail, including the walk to the train station from their terraced house at 22 Corunna Road in Dulwich, and then the long journey by train, via Clapham Junction, and then onwards to “Seaview”, the apartments they have taken every year since their honeymoon more than 20 years earlier.

Finally, he turned, and said rather lamely—“Well, here we are.” 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. With a touch of panic you wonder whether the holiday, after all, is only a dull anti-climax to the journey.

At Bognor Regis, they have their meals prepared for them by the elderly landlady, Mrs. Huggett, and their days are spent at the beach, playing cricket and swimming. They pass their evenings taking strolls along the promenade or visiting the amusement parlours on the pier. Occasionally, they listen to musical performances at the bandstand. Mr Stevens also sneaks off the local pub for a quiet pint, free from the constraints of his family.

It is all very quaint, predictable and safe, but the holiday is tinged with melancholia, for Mr and Mrs Stevens realise this may be the last holiday they enjoy together as a family because Mary and Dick are adults now — they have jobs and lives of their own — and Mrs Huggett’s establishment has become rundown and dated. (It’s only near the end of their holiday that the Stevens’ learn that they have been the only people to stay during the season — everyone else has cancelled and gone elsewhere; not for the first time, Mr Stevens wonders if his loyalty has been misplaced.)

Universal truths about travel

Even though this story is 90 years old and recounts a time when travel comprised what we would now call “staycations”, it is packed with universal truths: the plotting and planning that accompanies every journey, for example; the budgeting required; the nervousness about missing scheduled services (in this case trains, but in today’s modern world who hasn’t fretted about missing a plane or getting your boarding gate mixed up?); the mild panic when you realise you are more than half-way through your holiday; and the sadness you feel when it’s time to pack your suitcase to go home.

I particularly enjoyed Mrs Stevens’ thoughts about Clapham Junction, where they have to change trains, because I used to visit that station daily on my commute (for about two years) from Kensington Olympia and it is absolutely the worst train station in the world with its 17 platforms, crowds of people and confusing walkways (above ground and underground):

Hell, to Mrs. Stevens would be a white hot Clapham Junction with devils in peaked caps.

Gentle humour

The story is written in a gentle-mannered tone but there’s a vein of mild humour running throughout. For instance, the holiday apartments are called “Seaview,” because “from the lavatory window you could see the top of a lamp post on the seafront”, and to cure Ernie’s travel sickness…

Mrs. Stevens had tried starving the child: she had tried strong peppermints—to no avail. Ultimately she learnt of a good plan from her neighbour Mrs. Jack, whose little Ada was just the same. Mrs. Jack always carried on railway journeys, in her purse, two or three small paper bags. They could be quickly opened—easily applied and conveniently dropped out of the window. So adept had Mrs. Jack become that she boasted sometimes of getting the whole incident over before her surprised fellow passengers knew what had happened.

In another scene, Mr Stevens sits on a soft upholstered chair that practically swallows him whole:

Mr. Stevens, lacking his wife’s foresight, sat right back in his: he sank down and down until he felt his feet jerk off the ground as the edge of the chair straightened out his knees. Ernie watched his father’s struggles with mingled curiosity and dismay: he had a vague feeling that he ought to run and look for a life belt, but Mr. Stevens soon recovered himself, and was just in time to rise as Mrs. Montgomery came in.

There’s some great one-liners too. The sand is crowded with people “as tightly packed on their strip of beach as the blight upon Mr. Stevens’ beans”; a driver is described as looking like “the kind of man who drove ghostly coaches over precipices on dark, stormy nights”, and the pier, which is “black and gaunt” resembles “the skeleton of a gigantic monster with its front legs planted in the sea”.

The Fortnight in September is a real balm for the soul. It’s about an ordinary family momentarily escaping the confines of their mundane lives, but it’s also a fascinating historical look at the minutiae of domestic travel in a different era. I loved it.

UPDATE 14 September: Karen at BookerTalk informs me that this book has recently been BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime. It has been serialized into 10 episodes, which are available to listen to for the next 3 weeks.

26 thoughts on “‘The Fortnight in September’ by RC Sherriff”

    1. Well, it wouldn’t have been nostalgic at the time; I imagine it was very contemporary in 1931. But yes, it’s a lovely story, a perfect antidote to current state of the world. It did make me laugh though, because I’ve been to Bognor Regis (on the train) and it’s a very shabby deprived seaside town far removed from the exotic glamour described here! I find it hard to imagine anyone wanting to spend a fortnight there. Lol.

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          1. Really? I had no idea. LOL That’s what comes of reading Simon’s Tredynas Days blog, it looks so idyllic, and I have nostalgic memories of when I lived there as a child. (Not of the beach though, it was bitterly cold and had stones instead of sand.)

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  1. Do you think the times were more innocent? Maybe it was just certain novels. I ‘grew up’ in pre-War and immediate post War England, in my reading anyway – I’ve only ever been there in person for one day – and I’m sure there was always a charabanc. Mum and dad took us on a boarding house, seaside holiday (Port Broughton SA) in about 1960 and it was a dismal failure.

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    1. Perhaps I should have used the term “simple” instead, because things in 1930, when the book is set, are certainly less complex than they are now. Mind you, that doesn’t necessarily mean things were easier because it’s hilarious the lengths the family has to go to when they decide to extend their holiday by a day – it’s not like they can look things up on the internet in terms of changing their train tickets and they can’t even make a phone call to let their neighbours know not to expect them as planned.

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  2. I’m longing to read this. A. N. Wilson recommended it on perhaps a summer reading list (?) and I’ve had it in my sight. Now I’ll have to wind up my summer with it.

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    1. It would be the perfect end-of-summer read. I read it because it seemed appropriate to read in September, but of course the seasons are reversed here so I probably should have really read this one in March 😂

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  3. I absolutely loved this and have a sweet little paperback copy (Persephone republished it but I was too mean to buy their one when I had one already). I want to read it again, although sadly won’t fit it in this month …

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    1. It is such a lovely read, isn’t it? I really adore books like this. I mean, I couldn’t read an exclusive diet of sweet novels but one every now and then is a true delight.

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  4. This has gone straight onto my list. A perfect read for the moment, I think. Thank you! But yes, I imagine Bournemouth is a pretty sad place now. I fairly recently visited Hastings and was quite shocked at how very impoverished most of it seemed. And that was before EU funding was removed …

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  5. Only recently did I discover Bognor beach. It was low-low tide so I could walk all the way to Littlehampton hardly leaving it. Remember what Lou Reed said about a small town? Bognor is good place to get out of, but that can also make it a good place to start (someone mentioned Brighton – ditto!). Anyway, I just caught on Radio 4 the bit where Dick walks along Bognor beach, and discovers that everything in his life has been and is second rate, through the circumstances of his family and times, but climbs out of that dark place determined to excel in something nevertheless, if I have it right. I may have to obtain the book, and I may have to re-evaluate my own life.

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    1. In the book, the family laments the fact they never walked to Littlehampton and vow to do it next time they stay at Bognor Regis! Please do obtain / read the book if you can. It’s such a wonderful read… a lot going on underneath the surface of things.

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  6. Lovely review, Kim. You’ve really captured the spirit of the novel and its quiet, understated charm. I found the little details so relatable – even though our lives are very different these days, we can all appreciate the anticipation and excitement of going on holiday.

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