When Beatrice Nash loses her father, she must find a way to support herself, since the money left her is tied up by trustees. She finds a position as a teacher of Latin in the small community of Rye. Beatrice will find life in her new setting however to be neither comfortable nor sedate. War is looming on the horizon, and new difficulties will arise for Beatrice in her own personal life. Not only must she adjust to her new life without her father and find acceptance as a woman teacher, but she also learns to navigate the upper class snobbery and society’s strictures.
“Of course, we did not expect you to be so young,” said Lady Emily. Beatrice felt a flush spread across her neck and cheeks as the question of her age, which would not, of course, be asked, hung in the air.
“I am twenty-three,” she said, looking directly at Lady Emily. “I hope I am therefore sufficiently advanced into spinsterhood?”
“I am sure there is no question that you are,’ said Agatha.
“Positively ancient,” said Daniel. “Don’t you agree, Hugh?”
“That isn’t what I meant at all,’ said Agatha.
“A more wrinkled physiognomy and gray hair might have been expected,” said Hugh. “But I’m sure a few weeks of our local grammar pupils will achieve the desired appearance.”
I was drawn into this novel of pre-World War I and found that the more I read, the more I began to care about the characters. Beatrice is spirited and intelligent, and refuses to be cowed by the town’s hypocrisy. Like others in the small town, Beatrice agrees to take in a young Belgian refugee, Celeste. Still fresh from emotional and physical wounds caused by Germany’s soldiers running amok through occupied Belgium, the poor young refugee is found to be with child (and I appreciate the author’s restraint in her description of war brutality). Beatrice is shocked to come across such hard-hearted snobbery among the the ladies of the town:
“That poor, poor girl,’ said Minnie Buttles.
“So regrettable. Such a lovely girl,” said Mrs. Fothergill. “But this is a respectable town, and something must be done, ladies. Mrs. Turber has expressed to me, with the utmost discretion, that
she would like her out of the house in a week.”
Beatrice finds a mentor, champion, and role model in Agatha Kent, whose husband has an important position in English government at Whitehall. Yet Beatrice finds that even those she looks up to sometimes will have feet of clay. The author does not gloss over human frailties and the all-too-common temptation to make faulty decisions based upon personal need or self-gratification.
“I think our ability to be happy gets covered up by the years of petty rubbing along in the world, the getting ahead,” said Daniel. “But war burns away all the years of decay, like an old penny dropped into vinegar.” He paused and added more tobacco to his pipe, tamping it down slowly and relighting it with a stick poked into the fire. “Here there is nothing but doing our duty; and when duty cannot turn aside the stray sniper’s bullet, one gives up the hubris of thinking man can control his destiny.”
I really enjoyed this book, and even more so when I came to the chapters near the end that dealt with the war, finding them especially poignant and realistic. I read through them quickly, wanting to discover what would happen to Daniel and Hugh as they headed to France, while at the same time nervous to find out. Although never graphic, the author realistically and tastefully portrays a tragic time in England’s history that brought such upheaval and change to society. The author is gifted with bringing home to the reader how incredibly difficult such a period must have been both to live through and adapt to.
Helen Simonson spent her teen years in Rye, East Sussex. She found the town had many literary figures; Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Rudyard Kipling, to name a few, lived in or near Rye. Although the author did not realize when beginning her book how pertinent to contemporary times the refugee issue would be, she discovered during her research that during WW1, England took in 250,000 Belgian refugees.
According to one interview I found with the author, Helen Simonson’s writing attempts to reflect real life: “I believe that life is a comedy of social manners and I find no distinction between social manners and real life and no real distinction between writing a comedy of social manners and writing realistic fiction”.
“The first day of school was a relief to Beatrice. The schoolroom called to her as if it were the sweet voice of civilization itself, summoning her to the white marble halls where poetry and mathematics, painting and song all echoed together in peaceful harmony. As she descended the hill, skirted the busy railway yard, and approached the neat school with its red-tiled gables and bright window boxes, a hope swelled within her that the innocence of schoolchildren might sweep the war from her eyes on this bright September day, and from the earth tomorrow.”