September 30, 2016 § Leave a comment
What publisher would be tempted by a writer that suggested a novel dedicated to a lower-middle class family taking their annual holiday in Bognor? The “novel” world usually concerns itself with people whose lives are more exciting than those of its readers (be it the extremes of wealth or poverty) and rarely with those whose lives are duller.
Writing about the commonplace takes considerable skill. RC Sherriff might have found (as Jane Austen did with The Watsons) that he had placed his people too low in society. Making people respectable and poor cuts them off from people who might bring drama into their lives.
The Stevens are respectable people with a moderate income. We do not anticipate that either Mr Stevens (50ish) or Mrs Stevens (in her 40s) will be unfaithful to each other, or that Mary (21) will be seduced and left with an unwanted child, or that Dick (17) will turn to some criminal enterprise to better himself. (Ernie (10) is too young to go to the bad.)
Whole areas of well-trodden literature are barred from the Stevens. Theirs are not the great tragedies of life but the milder (though long-lived) disappointments. Their lives are rather like our own: some successes, counted on, are not realised; expectations are blighted; and careers stagnate.
Mr Stevens, a clerk, never received the promotion he had thought his due. We do not feel that Mr Stevens was undeserving rather that he failed to push himself forward. The entire family, apart from Eric, lacks confidence. The Stevens are easy to pass over, not because they are “unworthy” but because when passed over, they will make no fuss.
The annual family holiday is the high point in all their lives. This year Mary and Dick, no longer children, feel they should be going on independent holidays with their own friends. But they are circumscribed by a lack of money and friends. People who do not have spare cash can find it hard to have friends. The cultivation of “friendship”, save when thrown together at school or in university, is bound to cost money.
Mary may go to a local dance and meet not very exciting people. She has an admirer but he is “no catch”. Mary works as a seamstress. She works long hours in a badly-lit room. On occasion she might help dress a young fashionable woman: a woman she has no hope of ever being. Long hours for little pay, then home. There is little on Mary’s horizon. Perhaps, she will marry a man like her father and contrive to bring up a family on a small wage. Or maybe she won’t marry and she will be swept into the services at the outbreak of World War II.
Dick left school a year ago to work in an office. His father pulled strings to get him the job. And although it is a fine position in Mr Stevens’ eyes, Dick dislikes his routine work. After being captain of the football team at school, the job is a come down.
Mrs Stevens is a diffident woman. It is all she can do to manage and run her home. She has no outside interests and is not sociable. Mr Stevens first met his wife-to-be when he attended an amateur dramatic performance: she was one of the chorus. She was bright and she was vivacious. And Mr Stevens was extremely attracted to her. Mrs Stevens was never to be as bright or vivacious again. She soon dropped the drama. And after marriage, she showed no inclination to involve herself in any groups. That his wife should not be the bright girl he first met is a disappointment to Mr Stevens, but he is philosophical about that. She might have been many a worse thing, an extravagant woman who took no interest in her own family. Sometimes Mrs Stevens will drop her “aitches”. Internally, Mr Stevens winces. He is too self-conscious, and refined not to mind. And at the same time he is aware, as we are, that the “aitch-dropping” is a small blemish.
The Stevens have had twenty summers in Bognor; it is not likely they will have many more. Twenty years of practice has enabled Mr Stevens to produce a complete list of “marching orders” (all those things that need to be done before they can leave). The house must be secured; puss must be fed in their absence and milk deliveries altered. Each member of the family is assigned duties from the orders.
To Mary’s lot falls the bringing of the canary to Mrs Haykin. A task Mary dreads. Mrs Haykin is a lonely old woman whose family has long grown up and gone away. Her conversation will be the same as the year before. Their meeting will be a reminder to Mary of Mrs Haykin’s loneliness, of the fact that the Stevens do not call in to see her enough: it is too hard to get away. And Mary’s own life is not so exciting that she can accommodate a Mrs Haykin. Mary is not unkind. And we feel with her.
We feel with the Stevens over many small embarrassments and anxieties. We can enter their world. It’s not too small for us and we are not above it because some of us seem to encounter just as many embarrassments, in our own lives.
Their holiday money is stretched to the limit: every shilling that is spent has been budgeted for. Mr Stevens is not frugal because he likes it but because he has to be. There is an allowance for morning buns, ginger beer, and Mrs Stevens’s port . . . . Their greatest expense is the hiring of a beach hut “The Cuddy” for part of the holiday.
For twenty years they have stayed at the same boarding house which is slowly deteriorating as their landlady loses her clientele. Mary and Dick are very conscious of the second-rateness of their accommodation. Mary compares their house with that of the young people opposite. They appear unhampered by landladies and parents. However much they too might want something better for their money, Mr Stevens does not feel capable of deserting a sinking ship. They know their landlady is doing her best.
In The Fortnight in September. RC Sherriff achieves what is quite outside the range of imagination of most novelists. When other novels about exciting people in dramatic situations have passed out of our minds, the tale of the Stevens’ holiday lingers there.
(I don’t say that The Fortnight in September is a great book. But I would place it in my top ten favourite novels.)