“War does have a way of interfering with one’s most closely held desires.”
This yummy novel is part love story, part ode to the English summer of 1914, and partly a gentle feminist manifesto.
Beatrice Nash is a very clever, well read, highly educated woman; more so than is deemed quite proper, really. She’s coming into the little East Sussex town of Rye as a newly appointed Latin teacher, and several of the traditional people there find her a bit shocking. She would become a writer if she could, but has to earn her living, and is frankly fortunate that her own education allows her to do so by using her brain.
Alas, she is also quite lovely to look at. Still recovering herself after the death of her old father, Beatrice is ready for a fresh start. Thanks to Agatha Kent (an old family connection who is also a well-established matron in Rye society) she has secured this new job. Agatha is a strong proponent of women’s rights and education for all children, including those labelled ‘gypsies’. She’s a super-likeable character, and if I were in the novel, I’d want to spend time with her in the hopes that she’d ‘rub off’ on me!
As so often happens, life has more in store for Beatrice than she had in mind for herself. Though she’s not looking for love, Agatha’s sensitive nephew Hugh Grange (a medical student on his summer break) finds his aunt’s bright and lovely young protege irresistible. Their friendship is growing to mean more to both of them by the end of that fateful summer than either of them expected it to…
“But if all else fails, I can always write her a sonnet.” “A sonnet?” said Hugh. “No woman can resist having her name rhymed with a flower in iambic pentameter,” said Daniel.”
Beatrice had found Hugh’s cousin Daniel pretty charming, but there was no future for the two of them as Daniel is homosexual. As are a pair of young local women Beatrice gets to know. Of course this is all kept quiet, as society was unforgiving toward such individuals….
….And toward unmarried women who were no longer virgins. This is appallingly evident in the awful case of Celeste, the daughter of an old Belgian professor. They are taken in as refugees by England, as were countless other Belgians early in World War 1. (Naturally, they were a more palatable family to bring into one’s home than many others, who were made far less welcome due to their ‘peasant’ status.)
But poor Celeste is pregnant with the child of the German soldier who had raped her, and incredibly, she’s treated as ‘damaged goods’ by narrow-minded residents of Rye. It’s a relief to me to see how Beatrice Nash is able to make a difference at a time of terrible upheaval and long-overdue change!
It’s a little tricky to know what to make of the local ‘man of letters’, Mr Tillingham. He seems like a nicely intellectual, slightly eccentric old character; but there’s something about him that feels like sand in my teeth.
Daniel is killed in the fighting, and their poor young Romany student returns home with P.T.S.D. Helen Simonson doesn’t spare her readers a view of the reality of war, which of course contrasts sickeningly with the insanely feverish, flag-waving excitement that drew so many off to battle. Beatrice and Hugh find in each other the love they so deserve after he returns from serving as an army doctor. It doesn’t feel especially romantic, but more like a piece of comfort. They and their lives, like those of millions of others, are forever changed by the war.
This novel makes the same statement as did Testament of Youth. Violence and death is a senseless waste of life. I wrote a blog post about this intense autobiographical book shortly after I read it. Here’s a link to that: Vera Brittain.
It also reminds me of a more recent post, in which I blogged about another historical novel from the same period and not far away; Jacqueline Winspear’s The Care and Management of Lies…
Which literary character do you wish you could actually get inside the world of a novel and hang out with?
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Thank you for reading with me,