‘The Fortnight in September’ by R.C. Sherriff is the evocative account of an ordinary, middle-class family’s annual holiday at the English seaside town of Bognor Regis. A most vivid story, recording the minutia of human existence, this gem of a story is far from being ordinary. Cozy and comforting and ever so intimate, the slow pace of the novel affords a glimpse of a way of life that has long become obsolete.
It had always been Bognor-ever since, on her honeymoon, her pale eyes had first glimpsed the sea.
The story opens through the eyes of Mrs. Stevens, wife of 20 years and mother to Mary, Dick and Ernie aged twenty, seventeen and ten respectively. We learn very quickly that the Stevens, as a family, are creatures of habit. They have always holidayed at the same time each year, at the same guest-house in Bognor Regis. The meals they eat, the activities they embark on, the traditions that they hold so dear, are a part of their collective history as a family. A history that does not and must not change. Right down to the clothes they pack, how they unpack, how they organize their holiday schedules, even down to the beverages they drink as special holiday treats: Mr. Stevens’ crate of dinner ale, the large stone jar of draught ginger beer holding a week’s supply of refreshment and Mrs. Stevens’ special bottle of port, to be enjoyed a glass at a time after supper.
Throughout the story, the narrative shifts to different members of the family. R.C. Sherriff uses the narrative shift as a useful plot device so that we are afforded a more personal glimpse of the character and inner thoughts of each family member. Each of them has a small but personal story to tell.
Mr. Stevens, middle-aged, staid and respectable has a wistful story to tell. It touches upon loss of prestige and the unfulfillment of ambitious dreams. Mrs. Stevens does not share the same enthusiasm for the family holiday as the others, and strives to keep this to herself. The best part of her day is when she has the guesthouse to herself in the evenings, to sip on her glass of port wine and not think about the call of mundane household chores. Mary, twenty years old, young and innocent, longs to find holiday romance to break the monotony of her sheltered life. Dick, recently graduated from school, on the cusp of youth and locked in a boring but respectable job, plots ways to break free from middle class shackles. Ernie is too young and carefree to think of matters more complicated than the working and design of automatic machinery.
Holidaying at the seaside town has become a tradition for the Stevens family. Every inch, nook and corner holds some sort of memory for them.
There were associations: sentiments. The ink stain on the sitting room tablecloth which Dick made as a little boy: the ornament that Mary made by glueing seashells on a card; which had been presented to Mrs. Huggett at the end of one holiday, and was always on the sitting-room mantelpiece when they arrived each year.
‘The Fortnight in September’ is tinged with an air of wistfulness for dreams and ambitions that remain unfulfilled. In a way the story is not just the story of the Stevens, it is representative of the English middle-class in the 1930’s, showcasing their trials and tribulations. These were people who were by no means financially deprived but they were always wanting and yearning for a little more in life. The neat row of nondescript houses with the white picket fences and carefully manicured lawns were their lot in life along with the two weeks in a dilapidated guesthouse at Bognor. But if by chance they could gain that promotion at work, then they could aspire for something bigger and not so ordinary.
Mostly the fortnight’s holiday was a time to remember the trials of the past, to nurse old wounds, to contemplate the present and to make plans for the future.
Some readers might complain of the slowness of the narrative style of the book and the lack of plot but I enjoyed this book immensely. Never, to my mind, has a family holiday reached such heights of descriptive perfection.
When I was reading ‘The Fortnight in September’ I kept waiting for something awful to happen- some disturbing revelation about the past of a particular family member, a skeleton in the closet, or a shocking incident to disturb the coziness of the novel- much like the disruptive moment that shakes up a Katherine Mansfield story. I will leave it to you, to find out if R.C. Sherriff takes us down that same path…