Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Fortnight in September, by R. C. Sheriff

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

R.C. Sheriff’s simple tale of a family taking their annual holiday at Bognor presents a sensitively balanced portrait of English middle class life in the 1930s. The Stevens live in a world of modest pleasures and small disappointments, yet maintain a guarded optimism. The Fortnight in September celebrates life’s fragilities and the common decencies of English life.

Robert Cedric Sheriff (1896-1975) wrote plays, novels and screenplays, and was also nominated for an Academy award and two BAFTA awards. He served as a captain in World War I and used his war experiences for his play, Journey’s End (1928), which he also turned into a novel.

The Fortnight in September (1931) describes the small pleasures and disappointments of the British middle classes. The Stevens are an everyday English family living at their modest digs at 22 Corunna Avenue, Dulwich. Mr Stevens works as a clerk, while Mrs Stevens is a slightly anxious former actress. They have three children, young adults Dick and Mary, and a young boy, Ernie. Every year the family takes the train journey to Bognor, a sea side resort. The trip is almost a firm family tradition, but with Dick and Mary grown up and now working, and the regular accommodation at ‘Seaview’ showing distinct signs of wear and tear, their trips are becoming more nostalgic for past pleasures than present ones.

It seems that everyone in the family knows somewhere deep in their heart that the annual holidays at Bognor are coming to an end. The children, Dick and Mary, are seeking more independence. Even Seaview looks like it is winding down. The respectable hostess, Mrs Huggett, knows that her business is under threat from flashier and more modern establishments. Her rooming house not only has lumpy beds, but the place in general has a depressing worn down atmosphere. It even smells stale. To cap things off for poor Mrs Huggett, she’s having cancellations left, right and centre. The Stevens knows know the reason: lumpy beds! But they are too polite to tell her the real reason why Seaview is falling out of favour.

The Fortnight in September has a gentle bitter-sweet tone. Little discomforts and imperfections form the background to the family’s modest expectations of life. When the family goes to get their holiday snaps processed, they are happy with the overall results, but find a mark in the corner of each photo, probably the result of a blemish on the lens, something they will have to look into they decide. While each of the adult characters, Mr and Mrs Stevens, Dick and Mary, put their best foot forward, and remain resolutely cheery, there is a darkly shaded background of disappointment and dashed dreams that forms a secret history to each character.

R. C. Sheriff draws each member of the Stevens family with an inner life delicately suspended between personal fragility and a brooding doubt about the world around them. Their hold on sanity and security seems quite tenuous; they can support a certain amount of disappointment and injustice in life’s balance, but the reader feels if the scales were tipped ever so slightly that it could precipitate calamity. Mrs Stevens, for example, seems a holiday bottle of port away from a mental asylum. Mr Stevens is crushed by the perceived shabby treatment of his position as secretary of the local football club. While on the surface the Stevens are Britain’s plodding middle class backbone, underneath they are revealed to be sensitive dreamers whose purchase on life is quite fragile.

This is not at all to say that The Fortnight in September is some Kafkaesque journey to the dark night of the soul. R. C. Sheriff’s intention is to show British middle class life, and how it is lived, its many small pleasures and enjoyments. This is a sensitive portrait, almost protective of its ordinary English characters. It’s a bitter-sweet story of the preciousness of everyday life, tinged with nostalgia for a way of life that is slowly slipping away. For the Stevens family knows that their traditional Bognor retreat is inexorably pulling away from them, yet still they nobly cling to a way of life that must certainly change.

The Fortnight in September, by R. C. Sheriff. Published by Persephone Books. ISBN: 9781903155576   $26.95