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The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff — family life in microcosm

Cover of The Fortnight in September, a completely absorbing novel about family life during the years before World War 2

The Fortnight In September follows a married couple and their three children as they head to the seaside for their annual holiday. They’re creatures of habit so they always go to Bognor Regis, always stay in the same guest house and always rent one of the beach huts. During the two weeks away from their suburban London home, they swim, play cricket, walk along the prom and sleep in lumpy beds.

To readers who prefer stories containing action and adventure as well as a few dramas, that summary of R C Sherriff’s novel will probably sound as exciting as reading a railway timetable.

They will however kick themselves for missing a novel whose power lies in its very ordinariness.

A Typical Family

Sherriff builds the novel around the Stevens family; one that is just like thousands of other lower-middle-class British families in the early 1930s. Their lives are governed by routine peppered with small pleasures. Even their holiday preparations have a fixed procedure with everyone assigned tasks according to “Marching Orders” a list that’s been fine tuned over many years by the meticulous Mr Stevens.

The Fortnight in September follows this family through every stage of their pilgrimage to Bognor. The excitement of packing; anxieties about luggage and over-crowded train compartments but then the joy of recognition over the familiar sights at the resort.

But of course, they find that things do change.

The “Seaview” guest house where Mr and Mrs Stevens stayed there on their honeymoon is shabbier than they remember it from their last visit. The linoleum flooring is worn bare in some places, the bedroom curtains frayed at the edges and the sitting room exudes a “faint, sour atmosphere, as if apples had been stored in it.” The widowed proprietor Mrs Huggett isn’t as cheerful as on past visits; now she looks drawn and maybe a little tearful.

The elder Stevens children — 17-year-old Dick and 20-year-old Mary — can’t help compare Seaview to the newer residential hotels “that hung out fairy lights and blared their radio music across the roads.” Instead they’re in the same little bedrooms as before, wondering why they’d never noticed in previous years how “dreadfully dingy and terribly poor they were.”

”’ the little blackened gas brackets that would give them a feeble, fan-shaped glimmer of naked yellow light — that would go up in a thin blue squeak if turned too high: the battered chests of drawers: the rickety little washhandstands whose thin legs seemed to totter under the heavy imitation marble tops; the ponderous china jugs and tooth brush jars, and the poor little white grey soap dishes …

Only youngest son Ernie is oblivious to the down at heel nature of the accommodation. At 11 years old he’s too excited by the idea he could become a railway porter one day or — better still — the bandmaster of a military band, The others accept the discomforts of Seaview because they enjoy the comfort of familiarity too much to think of going elsewhere.

Regrets and Desires

One of the joys of reading The Fortnight in September is how R C Sherriff reveals the inner lives of each member of the family; their private regrets and desires for their lives to be different.

Mary longs for a real friend and Dick for a career that will take him away from his current place at a wholesale stationery company. Their father is planning on stepping into the Secretary’s position in his company when the current incumbent retires.

Mrs Stevens is the saddest member of this family. Her horizons are limited; even in London she never ventures far from her home in Dulwich. Of London and neighbouring suburbs she knows nothing; they are merely the lights she sees on the other side of the railway line. She doesn’t view the holiday with as much excitement as the other members of the party. She’s as frightened by the sea as she is by most of the world outside her door:

She had never conquered her fear. It frightened her most when it was dead calm. Something within her shuddered at the great smooth, slimy surface, stretching into a nothingness that made her giddy.

It’s a tender portrait that gives the novel a slight touch of melancholy. Yet it isn’t a sad story; this is a family who enjoy each other’s company and take pleasure in small rituals. By the end of the book we do get a sense that their fortnight in Bognor has brought about subtle changes in their attitudes and their lives but nothing of such significance that it will prevent them returning to Bognor next year.

The Fortnight in September is a novel without any momentous events or big surprises. Sherriff devotes much of the book to the detail of this family’s life — it takes 100 pages before they even get to the seaside resort. In other novels that could be tedious but here it’s essential to understanding the Stevenses’ world. Touchingly nostalgic, it gives an utterly absorbing account of the rhythms of family life in the inter-war years. 

The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff: Footnotes

First published in 1931, The Fortnight in September was R C Sherriff’s first novel though he was already well established as a writer through his play  Journey’s End which was based on his experiences in the trenches of World War 1. He got the idea for the novel while on a holiday in Bognor. As he watched the crowds pass by on the seafront, he picked out families at random and imagined what their lives were like at home. He wrote the novel for fun and was astonished at the manuscript’s enthusiastic response from the publisher Victor Gollancz. Readers loved it just as much; shortly after publication sales reached twenty thousand copies a month.

Sherriff continued to write novels though became better known for film screenplays such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) which won him an Academy Award nomination, and The Dam Busters (1955).

The Fortnight in September was re-issued by Persephone in 2017. They also have editions of two other novels:  Greengates (1936), and The Hopkins Manuscript (1939).

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