In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
“The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently,” writes R. C. Sherriff in The Fortnight in September, his unassuming but utterly beguiling tale of an ordinary lower-middle-class London family during the interwar years, on their annual holiday to the English seaside town of Bognor Regis. “All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect.”
First published in 1931, The Fortnight in September was the British writer’s first novel, though Sherriff was already known as the author of Journey’s End, based on his experiences in the trenches, and is still today one of the most celebrated plays ever written about the First World War. This had been an unprecedented sell-out success in London’s West End for two years in the late 1920s, after which it moved to Broadway, where it was also a huge hit. But Sherriff had followed it with Badger’s Green (1930), a flop of such magnitude it had all but sent him scurrying back to his am-dram beginnings with his tail between his legs: “A play that, but for the acclaim of Journey’s End, would never have found a place beyond a suburban church hall,” wrote Hannen Swaffer, the drama critic for the Daily Express. “So far as the theatre world was concerned,” Sherriff admitted in his memoir, No Leading Lady (1968), “the Badger’s Green fiasco had proved what most people had suspected: Journey’s End was a fluke. By a lucky chance a small-time writer for local amateurs had hit upon an idea so perfect for the stage that it was bound to be a success whatever way it was written . . . He had tried again, without the heaven-sent material of his first venture, and put himself back where he belonged.” So Sherriff was surprised, on sending out the manuscript for The Fortnight in September—a story he’d written for the sheer fun of it—when the renowned publisher Victor Gollancz fell on it enthusiastically. “This is delightful,” Gollancz wrote back. “I wouldn’t alter a word.” Critics were also impressed. The Sunday Express deemed Sherriff’s debut novel a “little masterpiece.” Soon enough it was selling twenty thousand copies a month.
The novel’s premise is brilliantly simple. We accompany Mr. Stevens, an office clerk, his sweet but nervous wife Flossie, and their three children—Dick, who works for an auctioneer; Mary, a dressmaker’s assistant; and schoolboy Ernie—as they ready themselves for their summer holiday and take the train from London to the coast. Once there, they enjoy their getaway. Nothing in the story surprises. Nevertheless, it’s an absolute delight from start to finish. Sherriff’s tender observations of the family dynamics, and the simple joy each of them takes in the highlight of their year, prove him to be an unrivaled master of the quotidian. For those readers already familiar with Journey’s End, such an accolade might not be that surprising. The play—which George Bernard Shaw famously hailed as a “useful [corrective] to the romantic conception of war”—is not a story about the jingoistic heroics of battle. Instead it takes the reality of life in the trenches as its subject—the death and the destruction, the pain and the horror, but first and foremost, the torturous tedium of it all.
The Fortnight in September opens on the evening before the family departs, at their house in the South London suburb of Dulwich, where Mrs. Stevens, who has lived there all twenty years of her married life, awaits the return of her husband and two eldest children for supper. To begin the story here, on this night of family celebration—second only, in their eyes, to the excited anticipation of Christmas Eve—is a small stroke of genius. For the Stevenses, this evening, pregnant with expectation, sometimes feels like “the best of all the holiday, although it was spent at home and the sea was still sixty miles away.”
It’s a testament to Sherriff’s acute attention to the rhythms of the family’s existence that he devotes a full third of the book simply to getting them to their destination, and the journey itself—on which the family embarks early the next morning—provides plenty of opportunity for excitement. Mr. Stevens is haunted, as they make their way to the local station, by the “unreasoning and ridiculous fear . . . of a passing lady fainting, or accidentally falling down,” for then he would be forced to offer his assistance, a gallantry that could cause them to miss their train. Not that making it onto the first train without any mishap allows him to relax. Instead, he’s newly preoccupied by the question of whether he left the window of the WC open. Clapham Junction, the busy London interchange where they switch trains, provides further opportunity for a page-turning drama of the everyday. Will their trunk make it onto the right train? Have they got the correct platform? Will they find seats for all five of them in the same compartment? Only once everyone is comfortably ensconced on the Bognor train, all children accounted for and the trunk safely stowed in the luggage van, is the reader able to breathe a sigh of relief. Sherriff’s ability to register each and every key change of the day, however minor, transforms the commonplace into something meaningful. Even the family’s modest packed lunch takes on an air of special import: “There was a touch of solemnity in the way that each took their tiny relic of home . . . cut upon a kitchen table that now lies deserted and alone: each little mouthful seems to contain a whisper of familiar sounds.”
Although the novel is narrated in the third person, Sherriff weaves in and out of the minds of his four main characters, while also regularly stepping back to enjoy the family tableau. Once they reach the sea, not a lot happens—at least, nothing more than the small accidents and strokes of fate that make up the texture of ordinary life. They all delight in their decision to rent a bathing hut. Mary strikes up a passing friendship with another girl she meets on the beach, which in turn leads to a short-lived, rather tame romance with a dashing young actor. And Mr. Stevens runs into one of his firm’s most valued clients, a puffed-up bore, who invites the family to tea at his flashy holiday home. They accept with a mixture of annoyance—that they must don their smartest clothes and be on their best behaviour—and elation, because he promises to send his chauffeur to pick them up in his car. The novel exerts a spell, one that leaves us hanging on these characters’ every word, every shift, however subtle, in their own sense of equilibrium and enjoyment. In attuning us so meticulously to the Stevenses’ world, Sherriff invites our utter absorption in it.
Sherriff had the idea for The Fortnight in September while on his own holiday in Bognor, watching the crowds go by down on the seafront, picking out families “at random and imagin[ing] what their lives were like at home.” He was captivated, he explains in No Leading Lady, by this “endless drift of faces” passing in front of him. “[B]ut for a moment, as they passed your seat,” he writes, “you saw them vividly as individuals, and now and then there would be one who struck a spark of interest that smouldered in your memory after they had gone.”
When Journey’s End made its West End debut, he was employed as an “outdoor man” for an insurance office, responsible for traveling up and down a section of the Thames Valley between Putney and Windsor, meeting with clients to renew their policies or investigate their claims. Once the play opened, he would spend the day working, return to the suburban Surrey home he shared with his mother, then take the train into London’s Waterloo station, from which it was a quick walk across the river to the theater. He would arrive shortly before curtain up, and leave again after the interval so as to not return home too late: he had to be up bright and early for work again the following day.
In fact, No Leading Lady reads very much like one of his novels. He devotes just as much attention to the small pleasures he takes in his employment as an insurance man as to his struggles as an aspiring playwright. And he’s just as interested in the people he encounters through his day job as he is in the celebrities brought into his orbit by literary fame. Two of the most memorable portraits in the book belong in the former category; not only are they well observed and obviously written with genuine feeling but it comes as something of a surprise that, of all the famous people in Sherriff’s life, he chooses to write about those ordinary men and women whom less discerning writers might overlook. There’s the sweet-shop owner who’s let her insurance policy lapse, in whose sitting room he waits while she serves the schoolboys who mob her shop after they’ve been released from the classroom—“holding up her hands in comic resignation” she interrupts her discussion with Sherriff to attend to the boys’ clamors for “Auntie.” Then there are the two elderly and fragile spinster sisters to whom Sherriff always tries to offer advice and assistance, whatever they might need, who send him a sweet, lavender-scented note of admiration (“beautifully written, like a page from a Victorian schoolgirl’s copybook—a little shaky here and there, but guided by faint pencilled lines across the paper that had not been entirely rubbed out”) to the theater when Journey’s End opens. Success, it seems, did little to change Sherriff. Even after the unexpected triumph of Journey’s End meant that he had to give up his insurance work—he would have preferred to keep his job, but the theater was keeping him too busy—he took the time to go round and say a personal and heartfelt goodbye to all his long-term customers.
Eventually, Hollywood came knocking, and Sherriff was able to continue earning a more than comfortable living from his pen alone. His screenplay for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) won him an Academy Award nomination, while those for The Dam Busters (1955) and The Night My Number Came Up (1955) were nominated for BAFTAs. He also continued to write novels, later experimenting with stories with a fantastical bent that nevertheless retain the charming familiarity of setting and character for which his earlier works were adored. There’s The Wells of St Mary’s (1962), a comedy in which a small English village finds first fame and fortune and then murder and scandal when the water of a local well is discovered to have healing properties. And The Hopkins Manuscript (1939), an H. G. Wells-inspired sci-fi tale narrated by a retired schoolmaster who breeds prize-winning poultry. Like Mr. Stevens—and Mr Baldwin, the retired insurance clerk who is the quiet hero of Greengates (1936), Sherriff’s second novel—Edgar Hopkins is a middle-aged, middle-class everyman. Sherriff is not concerned with men who rise to the occasion, becoming heroes in the process, but those whose perseverance is discreet, and whose pretensions are few. The moon may crash into the earth, resulting in the collapse of civilization, but the extraordinary events which befall him do little to change Mr. Hopkins.
No matter their circumstances, Sherriff’s characters remain steadfastly familiar, common or garden heroes (and villains). And it’s this that makes his novels so strangely enthralling. He writes without fanfare or affectation, but most importantly, with sympathy and compassion. However inconsequential, unambitious or even downright foolish they might appear to be, he treats his characters’ lives—their hopes and dreams, their fears and disgruntlements—with the greatest of respect.
The Fortnight in September was republished this month by Scribner.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications. Read earlier installments of Re-Covered.
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