Helen Simonson sets her historical novel “The Summer Before the War” in the small, seaside village of Rye, in East Sussex in 1914. Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk, crates of books and a bicycle in tow, hired by the school board upon Agatha Kent’s recommendation to teach Latin at the village school.
Agatha Kent is a 45- year-old, wealthy, local woman with forward thinking ideas about social equality and gender. At first the novel seems like a light read about the English nobility as they gossip and play games.
There is a strict adherence to class order with the outlying small clan Romanies (gypsies) being at the very bottom of things even though the farmers could not manage without their help.
Agatha and John Kent, a senior official with the foreign office, are gentry. His peers think he probably is involved in all that war noise. Agatha is very fond of her two adult nephews whom she raised. Daniel, the poet with an artistic temperament, is probably her favorite, but it is dependable, solid Hugh on whom she leans. He is training to become a surgeon.
Beatrice Nash is determined to make a life for herself after the death of her scholar father, dependent upon no one. She rents a modest cottage, takes in a young female refugee from Belgium and tutors three young boys in Latin, including a gypsy boy with great potential. She has even vowed she will never marry.
At 23, she already considers herself a spinster, and she is happy to have been offered the job of Latin teacher in the local school.
In 1914, things are changing in this quiet village as telephones, photographs, motorcycles and suffragettes are now part of the village scene.
The novel depicts the period just before the UK is to enter WWl. There is talk but most in the village envision a romantic notion of the young men going off in uniform, coming home within a month – all heroes. However, the scene shifts the killing fields of France-more poignant because the lives portrayed before had been so pleasant and pacific.
The contrast between the pastoral peace and violent chaos is what give this novel its strength. As the soldiers fight side-by-side with their neighbors, the old class distinctions begin to blur.
The second part of this novel is a depiction of war as a tragedy that affects everyone. This novel presents a sensitive portrait of England, including prejudice and treatment of refugees at the outbreak of World War 1.