For once I forgot to note which blog I found this book on! I always like to give a nice shout-out to fellow bloggers whose reviews get me to read the book.
Regardless of where I noticed it first, this book fit perfectly with my seasonal reading plan and I had a nice long Labor Day weekend on which to read most of it. That it is a Persephone Book is just gravy on top, right?
A Funny Story from History
That toddler looking up so happily at King George V is today’s Queen Elizabeth II, now aged 95. Queen Mary looks on. This was taken at Bognor. Photo may be copyright protected. I found it here.
The story goes that after convalescing following nearly fatal illness, George V, was visited by a delegation from Bognor–the town where the sea air had restored his health. Told that the delegation wanted His Majesty’s permission to rechristen the town “Bognor Regis” in his honor, George muttered “Bugger Bognor.” [Americans–like F— Bognor, only with a twist in the meaning. Google it.] Although this story is left out, you can read more about the King’s stay in Bognor here.
At about the time of the King’s visit, an utterly ordinary English family of father, mother, two sons, and a daughter park their budgie with the next door neighbor, dump the feeding of their cat on the lady across the street and head out on their annual holiday in Bognor–the “fortnight in September” of the title. They have stayed in the same boarding house every year for most of Ernest and Flossie’s married life–almost from the time of Ernest’s hiring as a boy laborer until now, when he is an important man in a shirt and tie in the warehouse office.
Now Mary and Dick have left school (at probably 14 for Mary and 17 for Dick who went to a very, very minor “public” (American private) day school). Mary is a seamstress for a fashionable ladies boutique and Dick has reluctantly hired on with a stationary firm–a “job for life,” as his father proudly put it. Ernie, about 10, is the only one still not contributing to the family’s housekeeping budget.
During father’s micromanaging of every packing detail, his strict attendance to the budget, and his total command of his family, the travel by train to Bognor is accomplished with little stress and the family settles into the boarding house which now is run by the very elderly and apparently failing lady owner and her maid-of-work. The Stevens family notices that things are a bit rundown, but love their holidays and put up with the bolster in the middle of the marital bed and other discomforts for old time’s sake.
In among the details of the holiday though, the author paints wonderfully vivid pictures of each member of the family. We see the train journey through Ernie’s eye’s, through Ernest and Flossie’s stories we see why anti-depressants and television enlivened marriages. Mary is perhaps the least developed character, but it was Dick I saw the most promise in.
Now that there has been a labor Government, with former miners and other laborers become lawyers, MPs, and even Cabinet Minister, Dick is wanting to do the unthinkable–to rise “beyond his station.” He understands his father’s good intentions in securing his a “job for a lifetime” upon leaving school, but he is heartsick at the life sentence he feels the job to be. Like his father, Dick is sensible and works things out on long walks, He comes to see that just like those miners and laborers in the government, he too, can use that job as a mere starting place.
Flossie I found to almost be a ninny. I realize things were very different for women–especially wives back then. She was fortunate to be married to a decent man who put his family, if not quite first to his own needs then put them at 1.5 on the list. He is thoughtful and budgets for Flossie to have a bottle of port for her own enjoyment each evening when he goes to the pub for a pint. We learn that her perspective is not always the same as that of the other members of the family–in fact we see, perhaps, that a little suffragette-like independent thinking has intruded. (Yes, she is still a ninny). Flossie provides one of my favorite moments in the book. On the train she is looking at a magazine and complains to herself in a way that proves there truly is nothing new under the sun:
“Mrs. Stevens opened her magazine and looked at the tall, willowy girls on the fashion page. She had grown a little tired of fashion pages, for they never offered suggestions to ladies of her own height. All the girls on this page were at least six feet high, or even more…”
[Reading the recipes for a suggested menu] “It sounded lovely, but why didn’t they sometimes give a new idea for cooking rice and jam–or a new falvour for corn flour shape? (p. 65). Substitute “cheap ground beef” and “skinless, boneless chicken breasts” and it’s today! [If you are curious, there is a vintage recipe in the corn flour shape link–I had to Google it].
In the end the family all seem to realize, but Mary most of all, that this will be their last whole family trip to Bognor. It is the end of an era, but one they will look back on fondly as the do every trip.
Aside from wanting to give fictional Dick a ticket to America to earn his way through college and become a [No spoilers!] there was nothing I didn’t love about this book. Yes, Ernest was a man of his time and I did not always appreciate his way of looking at his wife, but he was a good man in his time. While Ernest micromanaged, he had a good plan for the holiday–schedule only every-other-day. I liked that–it is good advice. His eye on the budget was necessary–he may have had the possibility of a small pension, but likely not. The first Labor government did bring in a few changes. He would had to have put money away for his and Flossie’s old age. He had stretched and stretched to give his sons a private education to improve their chances in life. That spoke volumes to me.
It was a little scary to see what people had to eat–no wonder health actually improved for some during rationing! Bread and Jam and more bread and jam. I knew that in World War I many, many men were rejected by the British forces due to the stunting effects of malnutrition, worsened by lack of access to sunlight and unpolluted air, but I didn’t expect a family with three members working to eat such an awful diet (comparing with my knowledge of what my own family ate in the 1920s). Ernest has false teeth apparently before turning 50. Our world has changed for the better for many people at least.
While reading about the book for this review, I learned that Dick was at least somewhat modeled on the author–whose script (with co-authors) was nominated for an Academy Award (An “Oscar”) for Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939. My only sad thought is that there is no sequel to this book. I would love that. Ernie would be of age just in time for the War. Mary would probably be married and send her husband off to the Army and Dick would certainly go. Oh well….my imagination will have to develop that story.
According to Wikipedia again, I learned that no less an author than Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day) chose Fortnight in September as his choice of a book to uplift and cheer people during the covid epidemic in this story in the London newpaper The Guardain.
For once I read the Kindle version–I did not listen to an audio book version.
The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff