As 2020 heads into autumn with no sign whatsoever of Covid relaxing its destructive grip on all that we know, this little-known novel provided me with a welcome distraction from the bombardment of grim headlines about Corona and Brexit. The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was first published in 1931. Sherriff was the author of Journey’s End; a First World War play that is often hailed as one of the greatest of its time. The Fortnight in September is vastly different in subject matter but shares its emphasis on real people living real lives. It charmed and delighted me with its simple yet moving narrative.
The novel follows the mundane normality of the Stevens family of 22 Corunna Road in Dulwich as they embark on their annual two-week holiday to Bognor Regis. This might not sound the most gripping of plots, but the simplicity of the story is in fact the novel’s strength. The lack of plot noise enables the reader to see him or herself reflected in each of the characters as Sheriff explores his characters’ interior worlds. The quiet, gentle prose is unexpectedly pleasing and tender and every page is bursting with the hopes and fears of its protagonists, their unexpressed desires and dreams creating instantly recognisable pathos and longing.
Sherriff wrote in his memoir:
‘The story was a simple one. A small suburban family on their annual holiday fortnight, a holiday at Bognor: man and wife, a grown-up daughter working for a dressmaker, a son just started in a London office, and a younger boy still at school. It was a day-by-day account of their holiday from their last night at home until the day they packed their bags for their return, how they came out of the shabby boarding house every morning and went down to the sea, how the father found hope for the future in his brief freedom from his humdrum work, how the children found romance and adventure, how the mother, scared of the sea, tried to make others think she was enjoying it.’
Brave in its choice to focus on the ‘drama of the undramatic’, The Fortnight in September touched me deeply. Sherriff exposes the daily anxieties, preoccupations, dreams and complicated social negotiations faced by the members of this modest, lower middle-class family. The novel provides an engrossing portrait of everyday life for an ordinary suburban family in the deeply class-conscious Britain of the 1930s. The intense joy the family find in the simple things of life – a train carriage all to themselves, a beach hut with a veranda, a dip in the sea, a walk on the downs – is contagious. And, although the novel was written nearly a century ago, so many of us face the same anxieties today – paying off the mortgage, the daily drama of office politics, the desire to fit in socially.
The novel is a wonderful period piece of 1930s social history yet simultaneously feels relatable, contemporary and alive. Just like the Stevens family, we all desperately want a brighter future – and now more than ever.
The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff is published by Persephone Books, 336 pages.