The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff

 

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‘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…

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Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

I’ve always been a fan of Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ books for children. Liberally peppered with hilarious incidents and cringeworthy escapades, it is hard to think that Crompton could be capable of writing a sentence that was not funny. I was therefore, intrigued to discover Crompton was a prolific writer of adult, ‘serious’ novels. ‘Family Roundabout’ published by Persephone books, is my first experience with Crompton, writing a non-William book and I must say that I rather enjoyed this alternative voice of Crompton too!

Excerpt: This Persephone book looks at the complex relationship between two neighbouring families, the Fowlers and the Willoughbys,  whose outlooks on life, are on one hand in opposition to one another, but on the other hand, find their paths unavoidably intertwined. Both the matriarch’s of the families, keep a close eye on the fates of their beloved families, but employ different styles in guiding them. Mrs Willoughby, has control of the family fortune, and dictates the actions of her family members by way of controlling the money she endows them. Benevolent Mrs Fowler, watches silently, as her children fall in and out of their individual problems. Most of her children appeal for her help when they require it. But despite, however, much the mothers’ try to resolve their children’s problems, new troubles, recur in cyclical events, almost like a roundabout.

  • Title: Family Roundabout
  • Author: Richmal Crompton
  • Published: 1948 by Hutchinson , later published by Persephone Books in 2001.
  • Location of the story: rural England, in the years preceding World War II.
  • Main Characters: the two families: the Fowlers and the Willoughbys.

Family Roundabout, essentially deals with the domestic events occurring in the neighbouring households of the Fowlers and the Willoughbys. At the start of the book, both the patriarchs of the families have died, leaving their wives at the helm of family affairs.

Mrs. Fowler or Millicent has for so many years moulded her personality to suit the requirements of her husband and family, she has forgotten that she has an individual voice of her own. Quite interestingly, in the first few pages of the book we are introduced to the concept of Millicent having a split personality of sorts- that of the muddle-headed, self-effacing, diminutive ‘Milly’ and also that of ‘Millicent’ – a more discerning, quick-witted, astute individual with a sharp intellect.

Stupidity is not an easy quality to assume, and there had been times when her real self had broken through the barricade

We see in the course of the novel, Mrs Fowler, taking judicious steps to guide the progress of her family but always hiding proof of any deliberate intentions under the ruse of the bemused ‘Millie’.

The Fowlers are a large family who live in Langley Place, a country house located in the small village of Hurstmede, three miles away from the country town of Bellington. When Henry Fowler dies, he leaves behind Millicent, and their five children: Matthew (28) (living abroad in Kenya), Peter an architect (26)(married to Belle), Anice (24), Helen (22) and the youngest Judy, a schoolgirl of 16.

Willoughby, the owner of a large paper-mill, leaves his money in its entirety to his wife, Mrs Willoughby who chooses to distribute this money to her children as she sees fit. As a result she has complete control over the movements of her children. Dasg and dash, wedded to dash and dash respectively, respond to Mrs illooghby’s beck and call much to the consternation of their husbands. But household expenses, clothes and school fees are paid for so there is little or no protest. Max, as the eldest son, takes over as the de facto head of the mills. The youngest son, Oliver, has literary aspirations to publish a novel but his ideas are met with strong disproval from his mother and he forced to at least appear to work in the family business.

While Henry  Fowler and Willoughby were alive the two families paths seldom met. They were separated from one another by a vague idea of class difference and contempt for each other’s standing in society.

The Fowlers were of the county, while the Willoughbys were of the town.”

After the death of the two patriarchs Max and Helen decide to marry, thus unavoidably intertwining the paths of the two families.  Cool and calculative Helen  meets with her mother-in-laws approval and is usually consulted regarding all family affairs. The two youngest children of the respective families, Judy Fowler and Cynthia Willougby are close friends and go to school together. They share a shared juvenile obsession for a famous contemporary author.

Slowly, we are introduced into the individual lives of the Willoughbys and Fowlers. We learn that Peter Fowler has an unhappy home that he shares with his neurotic, manipulative wife Belle and their young daughter Gillian. Peter has a close bond with his brother Matthew, who lives in Kenya , but who frequently writes to their mother about his intentions of returning to his family home.

Anise, close in age to Helen, has grown up in her beautiful younger sisters shadow, marries a poor bookshop employee four of  love and lives an unhappy life constantly trying to compete with her wealthy sister Helen. Judy, grows up to be a beautiful young woman, and she and Oliver , the youngest Willoughby fall in love with one another. Mrs Willoughby, disapproves of the alliance, and tries to discourage Oliver from marrying her. Judy, yearning for the city life, cajoles Oliver into forsaking his position in the family business and tries to convince him to live an independent life in the city as a writer, However, timid Oliver finds himself constantly mustering up the courage to make this tremendous leap into financial insecurity.

Mrs Fowler, silently witnesses the trial and tribulations of her family. She waits in the sidelines, anticipating each wrong turn that her children and grandchildren might make and silently tries to steer them in the right direction. She suffers silently and is often unable to make matters right.

Mrs Willoughby, on the other hand, rules her family with an iron hand. Though she is benevolent and kind to her extended family, several of them poor and aged, she is often dictatorial and uncompromising with her immediate family.

Both women have the well being of their families foremost in their minds, whatever, their methods of dealing with their family problems might be. At the end of the story the two women have a remarkable conversation about family troubles, recurring at cyclical intervals,almost like a constantly moving roundabout.

Family Roundabout by Crompton is a well written, critical observation of domestic drama  and complex familial relationships. Crompton  simultaneously relates the interplay of several plot threads. Each of the characters and their relationships are described with remarkable clarity. Foibles in human character are acutely observed. None of the characters are perfect. Each one of them has their own individual shortcomings and they are remarkably  human. They are prone to make mistakes, and just as their mother’s rush to their sides to offer them assistance, so too do they awaken the sympathy of the reader.

 

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

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  • Excerpt: Three sisters marry three very different men. Lucy, the eldest is happily married to William. Charlotte, is besotted with Geoffrey who is a cruel, dominating husband and Vera, the beautiful youngest sister marries caring, wealthy Brian, whom she marries for  security. The story deals with the fact that choosing a life partner can have far-reaching consequences, and that this decision can dictate to a large extent a person’s individual happiness and the happiness of their families.
  • Title: They Were Sisters
  • Author: Dorothy Whipple
  • Published: 1943 New York MacMillan, later published by Persephone Books.
  • Location of the story: England, in the years preceding World War II.
  • Main Characters: Lucy (elder sister, married to William), Charlotte (married to Geoffrey), Vera (younger sister, married to Brian).

I was fortunate enough to read an old first edition that my local library managed to procure for me. This was an intense book with so much emotion that it became quite oppressive to read at times. Nevertheless, Whipple delivers such a compelling story line that despite my distress at reading about the most unkind characters and unfortunate circumstances, I was unable to put the book down.

At the beginning of the story we are introduced to the Field family. Mr. Field, a lawyer quite suddenly loses his wife to influenza and the responsibility of caring for the large family is transferred to the young shoulders of the eldest daughter of the family, Lucy. Lucy’s siblings include: Harry (the eldest), Aubrey, Jack, Charlotte and Vera. At the time of their mother’s death Charlotte and Vera are just thirteen and eleven years of age.

Lucy sacrifices her entire life to look after the family, a fact that goes largely unappreciated. Charlotte and Vera,love her, but rarely confide in Lucy, preferring to keep their closest secret to themselves. The younger sisters grow up to be beautiful young women, in particular Vera, who draws everyone’s attention the minute she steps into a room. Charlotte falls in love with a young man, Geoffrey Leigh, who delights in partying and playing the fool with her elder brothers. When Charlotte and Geoffrey decide to marry, Vera out of sheer boredom and a need for security marries the attentive,  wealthy, devoted Brian. With Harry and Aubrey emigrating to Canada, Charlotte married and Vera engaged Lucy meets and falls in love with William Moore, at a tennis party.

Soon after Vera’s marriage, Lucy is married herself and goes to live with William in a quaint cottage, in a sleepy village, surrounded by parks and woodland. Despite not having any children, Lucy and William lead a happy, quiet married life, and Lucy finds joy in reading books, taking long walks with her dog and helping the village folk with advice. She is however, very worried by the troubles her sister Charlotte faces in her marriage. Charlotte has three children with Geoffrey and their household is ruled and dominated by high-handed Geoffrey. He critically manages every minute detail of his household, children and wife. He is a manipulative, cruel person who realizes the misery he can produce on other human beings and delights in mentally torturing those around him.He delights in his domination over other human beings. Mostly, he uses devoted Charlotte as his target. In creating the abhorrent character of Geoffrey, Whipple brings to light aspects of domestic cruelty and dominance that may have been prevalent in certain pockets of society, at that time.

Geoffrey’s demeanour is interspersed with  behavioural lapses whereby, he tries to befriend his family again with random acts of kindness.

Geoffrey’s attitude is described in the book in great detail:

Geoffrey’s behaviour went in cycles. He made a violent scene and frightened his family off; he then had an attack and drew them all round him again. Then he was violently good-tempered and took them on a treat.

When I read the book myself, I had periods of anxiety, especially out of compassion for Charlotte. Charlotte, whose nerves are constantly on edge out of fear for Geoffrey’s attacks, takes to drink and anxiety reducing drugs, that slowly but surely, convert her into the shadow of a human being, she once was.

Whipple liken’s Charlotte to a fly described in one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories:

Katherine Mansfield wrote a tale about a fly upon which a man, over and over again, idly dropped a great blot of ink. Over and over again the fly struggled out, dried its wings, worked over itself, recovered, became eager to live, even cheerful, only to be covered by another blot. At last, the fly struggled no more; its resistance was broken. Charlotte was like that fly.

As Charlotte sinks further and further into depression and dormancy, Lucy on multiple occasions tries to save her sister, but to no avail. Charlotte has been reduced to a state where she no longer cares about anything, except that she wants to feel numb.

Watching Charlotte, Lucy was sad. She had loved Geoffrey with all her heart. Too much. “You shouldn’t love as much as that,” thought Lucy,”Its a bit abject. You should keep something of yourself.”

Unable to save her sister, Lucy does manage to create a safe environment for Charlotte’s youngest child, a girl by the name of Judith. Every summer, Easter or Christmas holiday, Judith is welcomed by her childless aunt and uncle and this act of care-giving provides Lucy, at least some comfort.

Charlotte’s plight is largely ignored by her younger sister Vera, whom she was very close to as a child. Vera is unimaginably beautiful, self absorbed and permanently bored with her own life. On one occasion she visits her sister Lucy’s small village for a short stay. The sisters get on to a public bus with the other village folk.

The bus was  a rattling contraption in which the passengers sat facing one another. Usually it was full of friendly talk and laughter but this morning when Vera got in, silence fell and remained. Such beauty was an embarrassment, as if everybody were put to shame somehow.

Even though aware of Charlotte’s state of household affairs, Vera fails to pay any attention to her plight. Vera, also ignores her devoted husband and two demanding daughters. After several years, Vera finds herself in dire financial circumstances due to a turn of events. Lucy is equally upset with the state of Vera’s personal life and that of her families but is again unable to help her sister. This is partly due to the fact that Vera is too headstrong take advice from her sister.

At two ends of the spectrum we witness two very different types of domestic cruelty. That of the dominance and manipulation of Charlotte by Geoffrey. Similarly, we find Vera grossly neglecting and ignoring her husband and daughters in a differential show of cruelty. Will there be any sort of retribution for these acts of cruelty? Will Lucy be able to help her sisters?

This is a frustrating story of sorts. It would be impossible to say anymore without giving away more of the story line. It s a harrowing tale and has affected me more than I can say. Whipple delivers a masterful plot and powerful cast of characters. She creates extraordinary drama and turbulence within the boundaries of everyday domestic occurrences.