April 2016

Helen Simonson’s sly comedy of manners

Interview by
Like the best historical fiction, The Summer Before the War not only takes readers back to the past, but also gives them a new perspective on the present. We talked to Simonson about her charming second novel.
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As the summer of 1914 draws to a close, 23-year-old Beatrice Nash is headed to East Sussex by train. The small town of Rye doesn’t know it yet, but her arrival is about to shake up the status quo—not to mention the lives of town matron Agatha Kent and her two nephews.

In her long-awaited second novel, following the 2011 word-of-mouth hit Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson returns readers to her hometown of Rye, East Sussex—although, as she admits during a phone call to her adopted hometown of Brooklyn, she’s able to view it through “somewhat rose-colored glasses. I don’t have to put up with the rain or the warm beer, so I’m left to plumb all these deep emotional wells without any of the hindrances of daily, petty annoyances!”

Simonson has spent most of her adult life in the United States, where she moved with her American husband to pursue a career in advertising, and eventually raised two sons. While she loves the States, and visits England often, Simonson admits to “a deep longing for home. I’m one of those people who believes that children need to go out in the world—the farther the better—but those of us who go off to explore are left with a hole . . . it’s this kind of push-pull situation,” she says in a voice that still sounds quite English to this American interviewer.

Simonson’s writing has a distinctly English flavor . . . moving, but not sentimental.

Simonson’s writing also has a distinctly English flavor, but her books are unlikely to be described as “cozy.” Though she uses a small-town setting, Simonson is interested in the ways people interact. Her novels are moving but not sentimental—sly comedies of manners that have more in common with Jane Austen than Jan Karon.

“I believe the whole world can be explained in a small town,” says Simonson with a laugh—and The Summer Before the War opens up a whole world to readers. From socialites to refugees, this rich, beautifully written social comedy encompasses a range of nationalities and classes and is told from three perspectives. It’s the first time Simonson has written from a female point of view.

“There’s a long history of women wanting to go out into the world dressed as a man, and that’s essentially what I got to do writing Major Pettigrew. So it was funny to come back and write as a woman—I almost felt more exposed.”

Writing historical fiction was also a new step for Simonson. Using her hometown—and her fascination with the Edwardian writers Henry James and Edith Wharton, who spent time there—as a touchstone, Simonson decided to “prove myself as a real writer by taking people on a time-travel journey.”

That journey begins as Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye. Both prettier and younger than expected, the new teacher is almost immediately required to defend her position—which she desperately needs after the death of her father—against Agatha Kent’s scheming society nemesis, Lady Emily. Siding with Agatha and her husband, John, in support of the new teacher are the couple’s two nephews, cousins Daniel and Hugh. Carefree poet Daniel is Simonson’s homage to “all the young men who went off to war writing poetry,” while practical Hugh is completing his surgical training. The two are like sons to the Kents, who never had children of their own, and their relationships with Agatha are among the most compelling in the novel.

“I was really interested in how difficult it is to be an aunt who would love to be a mother,” says Simonson. She adds that she needed distance between Agatha and the two boys for other reasons as well. “As a mother of two sons, I’m just unable to write about the mother of two sons. I think my writing would come across as impossibly cheesy because I love my sons to death and would be totally incapable of writing anything nuanced about them!”

There may not be a better word to describe the characters in The Summer Before the War than “nuanced.” Even background players are fully rounded and alive, thanks to Simonson’s textured writing. By the time World War I breaks out, the reader knows this community, which makes the “very, very small” approach that Simonson takes to portraying the war feel right.

“When we go to war, I focus very closely on Hugh, working in the hospital. There are no epic battle scenes. By keeping things small and hopefully somewhat mundane, I try to navigate the geography of the battlefield without making any great claims to expertise in discussing war or the pain that it brings people.”

Like the best historical fiction, The Summer Before the War not only takes readers back to the past, but also gives them a new perspective on the present.

Like the best historical fiction, The Summer Before the War not only takes readers back to the past, but also gives them a new perspective on the present. Take Hugh’s observation that “spirited debate was the first casualty of any war,” or the discussion between Agatha and Beatrice about whether the best way to advance women’s rights is to work within the system, or defy it. Perhaps the most topical of these is the Belgian refugee crisis, which is largely forgotten in the U.K. today.

“I had no idea until I read a Henry James essay on the subject that there were Belgian refugees in my hometown,” says Simonson. “England took in 250,000 Belgian refugees and housed them and fed them and found them work for four years, all on a charitable basis. Perhaps it’s a lesson we could learn from today.”

Though there are plenty of lessons to ponder in this novel, it is also very, very funny. The crackling repartee between Agatha and Lady Emily recalls Isobel Crawley and Lady Violet on “Downton Abbey.” Hugh and Daniel, close as brothers, “spend endless hours trying to prove the other one wrong,” says Simonson, to a reader’s delight.

Full of trenchant observations on human nature and featuring a lovable cast of characters, The Summer Before the War is a second novel that satisfies.

Author photo © Nina Subin
This article was originally published in the April 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Summer Before the War

The Summer Before the War

By Helen Simonson
Random House
ISBN 9780812993103

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