In the style of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson reflects the local minutia of a small country village in Sussex right before the outbreak of World War I.
Beatrice Nash is an intelligent young woman and aspiring writer whom her father has left virtually destitute. At the mercy of distant family members who hold what little he left her in their hands, she accepts a job in the seaside town of Rye as the new Latin teacher. Her patroness, Agatha Grange has boldly recommended Beatrice for the job, standing against the majority of Rye’s small snobbish bourgeoisie.
When Beatrice arrives, she is very different from what Agatha and her nephews Hugh and Daniel, as well as the rest of Rye are expecting. Quick-witted and ahead of her time, Beatrice soon captures Hugh Grange’s interest, in spite of the tedious obstacle that he is perhaps about to be engaged to another woman. Beatrice quickly becomes a constant fixture in the Grange household, while Hugh becomes increasingly attracted to her honesty and intellect, as well as her beauty.
Soon, the peaceful spirit of Rye will be disturbed by the winds of war as conflict over the Balkans escalates. Many of the village men will be put at risk, as the duty to enlist and to serve King and Country is still paramount. Of course it will soon be overshadowed by the reality of thousands dying on the front lines.
The Summer Before the War is filled with a delightful narrative and entertaining prose, taking us back to the simple life of the Edwardian era. The story develops beautifully and the plot promises to keep the reader interested and enthralled until the very end. Simonson allows us to reminisce on these Austenesque small village, busybody, and humorous characters while simultaneously unfolding the tragedy of war, family secrets, and the sacrifices made by the labeled “Lost Generation”.
The ending of the novel is fitting. While it may leave readers with a sour taste in the face of injustice towards people that in the novel are considered “unacceptable”, it is an authentic reflection of society’s frequent shunning of what it deems too different to tolerate.