A Fortnight in September

Bathers, Dieppe by Sickert Liverpool Museums, Walker Art Gallery

Reading for Pleasure: “The Fortnight in September” – R.C.Sherriff

This month the “Reading for Pleasure” book groups discussed, rather appropriately, “The Fortnight in September” by R.C.Sherriff. Here we are unreservedly invited on the Stevens family’s annual holiday, staying with them for a fortnight in Bognor before reluctantly bidding them farewell at the end. At first glance this novel can appear desperately unremarkable with Sherriff’s logical narrative leaving little to satisfy the intellectual; the author even admitted to himself that to present it to Gollancz “seemed like offering a fruit drop to a lion”. However as the lively discussion which followed proved, this novel, despite its modest subject matter and Sherriff’s characteristically understated language, is a neglected gem set within the interwar literary canon.

But what is so special about “The Fortnight in September”? Perhaps it is first and foremost the indulgent nostalgia the novel evokes transcending each generation. “The Fortnight” whispers to all of their own family holidays: directing the family with pre-departure “Marching Orders”: priceless memories of childhood frolicking in the sand: the sea “lazily slapping at the shingle” or “booming and sighing beneath the pier”. But Sherriff not only captures our personal experiences but also successfully preserves a bygone era thus constructing an important piece of social history. Physically he breathes life into the olden railway with the porters, trunks and “the long, wheezing, gasping sighs” of the steam train; mentally he recreates through his upright constructs a past mindset of living practically within your means where debt was less acceptable, “a lot could be done with thirty shillings” and making the best of the hand you are dealt, “Supposing he could do something to turn the sham pride of Belvedere College into a fine reality!”.

However “The Fortnight in September” is truly heart warming for the simple human emotions Sherriff conveys. Without attempting to be profound in a consistently understated tone he speaks of the universal: love between father and son, “It pleased Mr Stevens to see his son (pour out tea) without any prompting: marital understanding, “Mr Stevens knew that his wife would snore if she got into a certain position with her head bent too far down”: the strain of familial bonds, “luckily the hints of separate holidays had come to nothing”. Sherriff’s characters are indubitably stereotypical yet frequently remind us of ourselves or others and consequently he illustrates the interconnected nature of the human race. The fact that we can identify with the Stevens and their experiences makes Sherriff’s brutal honesty and meticulous attention to detail at times rather unnerving, but simultaneously with can find reassurance in his empathy.

For some this novel can seem overly idealistic or mundane: there are no violent arguments: the narrative is largely devoid of sexual innuendo; for example Mr and Mrs Stevens sleep with a bolster between them in the lumpy bed at “Seaview”. For others the security and strict sense of order the family strive to maintain is repressive and inhibiting based not on love, but fear of an ever changing outside world. However, although these interpretations can be justified, (Sherriff’s tone is highly sympathetic and the family certainly desire seclusion, demonstrated by Old Mr Burgin’s futile attempt to walk with them to the station: “It was a stupid, tactless thing to do”), there is a sense not of stagnation but progression. The Stevens break out of routine to stay an extra day, Dick resolves to broaden his horizons and become an architect and Mary begins to socialise outside of the family unit.

All in all “The Fortnight in September” can be seen as an admonition to the inexorable march of time, for although “Seaview” is slowly sinking into decrepitude Sheriff has preserved the past for us all to revisit and depicted aspects of humanity which will never change. The immense understanding and accuracy displayed in this novel perhaps embodies everything one loves about literature; unpretentious, honest insight. Indeed this masterpiece is arguably the ultimate parody – it is so ordinary it is extraordinary and I would recommend it to anyone.

Izzy King

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