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.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, historical fiction, Jocelyn Playfair, literary fiction, Persephone, Publisher, Setting

‘A House in the Country’ by Jocelyn Playfair


A House in the Country

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 264 pages; 2002.

There’s nothing quite like reading a Persephone Book: the weighty feel of them in the hand, the beautiful endpapers (pictured above), the creamy pages and the strangely old-fashioned Baskerville font feels like such a delicious treat.

I’d been saving this one up for a special “occasion”. I figured it would be perfect holiday reading, curled up by the fire in a little cottage in Cornwall, free from the usual schedules and appointments that clutter up my life. Alas, A House in the Country was not the kind of book to be read with the brain in neutral. It’s a deeply philosophical story to mull over and think about. Under normal circumstances I am sure I would have loved it. As a holiday read it failed to win me over.

Set in England in 1942, during the fall of Tobruk, this is a war novel told from a women’s perspective. But, more importantly, it’s a war novel that does not interpret events because, as Persephone points out in its catalogue, it was written in 1944 when the outcome of the Second World War was still uncertain. So, in essence, the flavour of the book is entirely authentic, a kind of postcard from the past that describes what life was like for those in England who were far removed from the battlefields of Europe.

The central character, Cressida Chance, is 38-year-old widow who runs a grand Georgian house in the country. Here she has numerous paying house guests whom she entertains, feeds and looks after, including her formidable elderly aunt, who visits regularly from London, and Tori, a gentleman from an unidentified European country, who has fled the war with nothing more than the clothes on his back.

Throughout the course of the novel Cressida, who is the mother of a
young boy, agonises over the causes of war.

Were humans incapable of happiness, or was it that happiness itself was an invention, a sort of spur, created by man’s instinctive desire to have something to encourage him through a life of drudgery? Could it be that this — this mass frustration — what a hideous expression, she thought — was a fundamental cause of the appalling mess humanity had made of human life?

Similarly she bemoans her fellow countrymen for their indifference to the war. She feels the English are leading selfish lives and are too sheltered from the reality of the horrors happening on the Continent.

People would not give up small personal comforts, they would not
give up the privacy of their homes, they would not give up their
amusements, their games, their use of the car when a bus travelled the
same road, they would not give up their servants, they would not even
give up making toast by electricity until these things were taken from
them by force of law. Most of Europe and a great part of Asia had had
everything, even life, taken from them by force alone. The totality of
their state of war had been violently thrust upon them. The English, by
the mercy of God and the miraculous gallantry of a few young men, had
been saved from the same fate by the skin of their teeth. But still,
still they remained, those people who wouldn’t ‘give nothing up till it
was took from them’.

Even when six bombs drop on her village one Sunday night — the first air raid that the village had endured — Cressida still feels that it has not properly woken the English up to the life and death situation facing their European counterparts.

But the story does not revolve entirely around Cressida and her constant agonising over the war. There is a separate storyline centred on Charles Valery, a military man who survives the sinking of the Alice Corrie by floating on a lifeboat for more than 15 days. Charles has a special place in Cressida’s heart — even though he is not her husband — but to say anything further would spoil the plot for any potential readers.

In essence A House in the Country is an insightful, intelligent novel that grapples with the bigger questions of war. In some places it reads like an essay — a little too preachy, a little too earnest — which might go some way to explain why it does not make the easiest of holiday reads. But if you’re in the mood for something weighty and thought-provoking then this could be the book for you.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Persephone, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘The Blank Wall’ by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding


Fiction – paperback; Persephone; 231 pages; 2003.

This book should come with a warning: make sure you have an entire afternoon free to read this, because you won’t be able to put it down. Honestly.

The Blank Wall, no. 42 in Persephone’s book list and first published by Simon & Schuster in 1947, is a nail biting thriller set in the United States during the Second World War. I read it in a matter of hours and felt myself holding my breath much of the way through it, as I was never certain what was going to happen next. It is, as the Observer called it, a “classic of suspense fiction”.

Lucia is a 38-year-old housewife and mother. Her husband, a Navy man, is away at war in Europe, and she is left to run the household, comprising her elderly father, 17-year-old Bee and a 15 year-old David, with help from her faithful maid, Sibyl.

The family has recently moved to a new house by a lake and are still settling in to the neighbourhood, when Lucia discovers that Bee is going out with a “quite sinister-looking character” more than twice her age. This throws Lucia into a kind of spin: she makes a special trip to New York to warn off the boyfriend and then, one morning, finds him dead in the motorboat moored behind the family’s boathouse. She immediately suspects her father has murdered him and then embarks on a not very well thought out plan to cover up the crime…

This is a thoroughly entertaining read about one woman’s struggle to manage events that are seemingly beyond her control. Lucia is a charming all-too human character, whose honourable (if naive) intentions to protect her family adds a distinctly domestic edge to the drama. Her interior monologues, which form much of the narrative, provide an insightful glimpse of her sometimes tortured mindset: she wants to safeguard her family’s way of life but is all too aware that it could all go wrong if she makes one little slip-up.

Sanxay Holding imbues the text with much social commentary — including the role of women, class, race and educational background — but this never feels heavy. Indeed, it’s the opposite: effortless and seamless.

As strange as it might sound to describe a thriller as delightful, it is the first word that springs to mind when I think of The Blank Wall. A wholly gratifying and pleasurable read.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Persephone, Publisher, Setting, Uncategorized, Winifred Watson

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson

Fiction – paperback; Persephone Books; 234 pages; 2005.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938) is an enchanting version of Cinderella, and the story of its re-printing by Persephone Books is also a kind of fairytale,” writes Henrietta Twycross-Martin in the preface to this quite remarkable book.

According to Twycross-Martin, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was her mother’s favourite book and she, herself, read it as a teenager. When she discovered that Persephone Books was seeking title suggestions, she took her mother’s battered copy to the London office and the book was reprinted in 2000.

If I ever happen to meet Twycross-Martin I will probably hug her for rescuing a truly wonderful, uplifting and inspiring story that would otherwise have been lost forever. Now, thanks to her efforts, a whole new generation of readers can experience one of literature’s secret gems. For that is the best way of describing Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day — a gem.

I read the book in two sittings, but I wanted to drag it out longer because I couldn’t bear it to end. I’ve never quite read anything like it. Joyous without being cloying, light-hearted and fun without being frothy, are just two ways of summing it up.

The Cinderella-like story revolves around a downtrodden middle-aged governess called Miss Pettigrew, who is on the brink of homelessness. When her employment agency accidentally sends her to the home of a young woman seeking a new maid, Miss Pettigrew gets caught up in a day that changes her life forever.

By any stretch of the imagination Miss Pettigrew and her potential employer, the glamorous cabaret singer Miss LaFosse, should not get on. They come from completely different backgrounds, completely different generations and are poles apart when it comes to social mores and morals. But what ensues is an immediate ‘chemistry’ that bolsters Miss Pettigrew’s confidence and has her doing things she’s never done before: donning make-up, getting dressed up to go to a party, downing cocktails and dancing at a nightclub.

She also plays matchmaker and sorts out numerous lovers’ tiffs. All in all, she becomes the star of the show and it is wonderfully upbeat stuff. You can’t help but cheer her on!

Throughout the book, Winifred Watson’s writing is confident and remarkably modern. The dialogue crackles and sparkles and drives the narrative forward without wasting a word, as does the structure in which each chapter is divided into hourly time periods.

My only quibble is that there are a couple of politically incorrect references to Jews and foreigners, probably indicative of the time in which the book was written, but if you ignore them this is pretty much a perfectly written tale about one woman’s second chance at life. Do add it to your collection if you’re looking for something a little on the enchanting side.

‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’ by Winifred Watson, first published in 1938, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a “delightful, intelligent and naughty novel, which reminds us that it is never too late to have a second chance; it is never too late to live”.