I love books in which nothing much happens. I know I am not the only one or otherwise Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, originally published in the 1920’s, would not be loved and absorbed to this day. In fact, I am tempted, after reading The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff to re-read Woolf’s classics.
Back to today’s book.
The Fortnight in September, originally published in 1931 and recently re-issued, is the story of a London family, the Stevens, and the two weeks of their annual holiday in the seaside resort town, Bagnor Regis. We experience them as they prepare for the trip; embark on the journey via trains, of course; their stay at Seaview which over the years has become quite shabby, but they are loyal to the owner, Mrs Huggett; and then as they head back home to the routine of the rest of the year.
Nothing much happens, but in a way that is the point. The family consists of Mr and Mrs Stevens (we never learn their first names) and their children, Dick, age 17 who is somewhat unsatisfied with his work; Mary, age 21 who has a first glimpse of romance while on holiday; and Ernie, still a schoolboy who happily sails his toy yacht, which he almost forgot to bring with him. We experience their days–cricket on the beach, walks on the promenade in the evening, tea time, and it is all quite magical, an escape from the everyday, a satisfaction with another kind of routine.
In fact, the family is quite unsure of itself when unexpectedly they meet a man who is an important customer where Mr. Stevens works. This man invites them to his home for tea and while it is a bit of an adventure, something different, in some ways they would have preferred to have their usual kind of day.
Does that sound dull? I was never bored and in part that speaks to the quality of the writing. Often the writing style of books that rely on creating a certain atmosphere is lush and overdone, but the writing here is delicate, even though the descriptions are clear and complete. I can turn to most any page and find a passage that immerses me in the time and place.
For Mr. Stevens always put down the train journey as a doubtful quantity in the sum of happiness. Even under the worst conditions you might conjure up a faint sense of exhilaration in racing through the country toward the sea, but when anything happened like this: when suddenly your limbs are freed from the aching pressure of other people’s hips and elbows: when luxurious spaces of empty seat lie around you for the spreading of your magazines and papers, and arms and legs—only then can you triumphantly sweep the doubt aside. (p. 86)
The Stevenses settled themselves with half-closed eyes: the sea was lapping drowsily against the wall, and the soft breeze turned its gentle murmur into the rustling of distant elms. They could hear the evening train puffing out from the station, the murmur of voices on the promenade, and the padding of feet–but the music of the band seemed to gather these other sounds and weave them into its symphony. p. 173
The Stevens create routine away from routine, and they rest and quietly rejoice in it. The holiday feels less like escape from what might be unpleasant in their lives, although we readers don’t have much of a sense about that, and more about how the two weeks are part of the routine of their lives. This is what they do every year and this is what is part of who they are and how they live.
I think about my family when I was growing up and how we would go to the same family-run resort in northern Minnesota. How exciting it was when we extended our vacation from one week to two weeks, indicating a growth of income.
We definitely had routines. The Stevens had a trunk. We had a Lake Box with beach towels and the blanket to spread on the grass by the lake and a pin-up lamp to hang on the screen porch and–I wish I could remember what else was in the box. Year after year we did the same thing. I walked to town in the morning for the newspaper for my parents and for rolls or doughnuts for breakfast. We spent the afternoon on the beach most days, but also one day went to Bambiland to feed the deer. One evening we had dinner at Lumbertown, a real treat. I read book after book, only breaking the pace to go for an occasional swim.
Nothing much happened and we loved it and were grateful for it.
At some point life will more than likely change for the Stevens, as it did for my family. Mary will marry and form her own family routine. Mrs Stevens, perhaps, will become ill and not be able to make the journey. Mrs Huggett may die and the Seaview will be sold or torn down. But for the moment this is life as they desire it to be, and while they don’t take it for granted, they don’t hold it too tightly either.
In this Advent season of lists and preparations, this book was a gentle time-out, and I loved it.
An Invitation: What is most important to you in a book? Plot? Character? Setting? Theme? I would love to know.