The Fortnight in September is a really lovely read, though a touch bittersweet. That doesn't take away from the enjoyment, however, it just adds to the charm of the story. Where else can you find a delightful story of one family's annual seaside holiday but from Persephone Books? It follows the Stevens family from the day before they leave to their journey home a fortnight later and chronicles the minutiae of their daily routine, and while it may sound mundane, truly it is never boring.
The introduction to the novel is taken from R.C. Sherriff's autobiography, No Leading Lady. Written in the early 1930s, the idea for The Fortnight in September came about as Sherriff himself was on holiday in Bognor. He watched the endless stream of people go by and wondered about their lives. His recent attempts at novel writing had ended up in the trash, so he decided to write with the intention of simply writing, not thinking about publishing the story. Sherriff had been feeling what probably all writers must feel--an inability to write the way he really wanted to.
"After some fruitless efforts I began to wonder whether I hadn't been right off the track in all my previous attempts. I wanted to write about simple, uncomplicated people doing normal things, and I was groping around for flowery stuff and highfalutin words to do it with. Clearly the best way was to write about these people in the simple, uncomplicated words that they would use themselves to describe their feelings and adventures. I decided to try it that way, to confine myself to the modest supply of words at my command and see whether they would last the distance. It might not produce a book that anybody would want to read, but it would keep my pencil busy and fill the empty evenings."
He didn't expect any publisher to want to publish his novel, but in the end it became a bestseller, the first edition selling out in a week.
Sherriff writes with a simplicity that is never "simple", which fits well with his representation of this very average, very middle class British family--parents, two grown children out working now, and a younger son still at school. I think I enjoyed this novel so much because they were so normal and average. They could be any family. They might even be my family. The Stevens are quite ordinary, but in their own way courageous, too (does that sound silly?). They're not necessarily happy to make due with the lives they've ended up with, but at the same time they find a contentment in their middle class lot in life. I know that sounds incongruous, how can you do both, but each member of the family, save for the youngest son, works through his or her own problems and disappointments. In a way, isn't that what a vacation is meant to be? A way of breaking with the mundanity of life and refreshing yourself and coming away with a different view?
The annual fortnight to Bognor is looked forward to all year long by the family. Each year they descend on the "Seaview", a quaint bed and breakfast that's actually seen better days, but as the family has always stayed there they don't really notice or mind the shabbiness. For Mr. Stevens the night before the trip is almost the most satisfying--the anticipation of all that's to come and the knowledge that he's left the office behind and can pull out all his comfortable clothes. I think Mrs. Stevens might actually enjoy the annual trip a little less than everyone else, not being fond of the sea, but she puts on a good show of finding it all relaxing. It's the end of the day that she really appreciates, when she has an hour entirely to herself, no dishes to wash, no chores to worry about, when she can take out her needlework and have her glass of "medicinal" port that she only drinks on holiday.
This is probably as close as I'll come to a fortnight holiday anywhere this year, so I found it entertaining and enjoyable to spend time by the seaside, if only vicariously with the Stevens family. Sheriff is so spot on with all the little worries and emotions that a family might feel. The house must be properly closed up, pets cared for, the tickets bought and steps taken to ensure the family arrives at the train station on time. There's the excitement of finally arriving and having two long weeks to look forward to. Everything's possible in the beginning. Of course deciding whether to pay extra money to have a cubby on the beach is agonizing. If you don't take it, will you regret it later. Or would the money be better spent elsewhere? And then all of the sudden the days start moving swiftly by, time slipping through their hands. It doesn't matter that this was written in the 1930s, as some things never change.
I've yet to read a Persephone title that I didn't like. With each new book I pick up I discover yet another treasure to be savored and read again and again and this was no exception. There are many wonderful stories hiding behind those plain dove grey wrappers. As I've read only a handful, I happily have 70 odd titles to look forward to. I'm not sure which Persephone to read next, but whatever it is I am sure I am in for yet another treat.