Ethan Joella’s debut novel A Little Hope comes out this November. He teaches English and psychology at the University of Delaware and his work has appeared in River Teeth, The Cimarron Review, and other publications. He lives in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, with his wife and two daughters.
Living in a beach town, a place that becomes a tourist area in the summer, I sometimes forget how special a trip to the sea can be. The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff reminds us of the importance of this type of vacation, and the story it tells—of becoming a different person while you’re away, of how essential it is to escape on holiday with loved ones—is one we all need to hear.
Sherriff’s novel—originally published in Great Britain in 1932 and newly published by Scribner this September—never rushes, and it is the kind of quiet book we sometimes need. Readers can see themselves in the characters: Mr. and Mrs. Stevens are desperate for the trip to go well; they fret over small details, like changing trains and reserving a private cabana. Mary and Dick, the two older children, are each at once disappointed by the adult world and excited about its possibilities. There are hints that this story’s way of life is ending: Seaview, the boarding house they have always stayed in, won’t be able to keep up with the newer flashy hotels much longer. The Stevens’ family dynamic will soon evolve, too.
The novel is an explication of a two-week vacation, and I read it slowly, savoring each day, the way you try to do with a vacation, before it slips through your hands. It is both a period piece, set in early twentieth-century England, and a timeless, always-relevant story. While contemporary readers can relate to the swims in the ocean and lying in the sand, they also get to imagine what life was like with bathing dresses and charabancs (which are motor coaches used for sightseeing) and dance halls and evening promenades.
The book pays attention to small triumphs, and how happiness is the sum of those wins: Mr. Stevens taking a contemplative walk on his own; Mrs. Stevens cherishing her nightly glass of port; Mary forming a friendship with a woman she admires and then having a fling with a young man; Dick realizing his current, semi-unsatisfactory life doesn’t have to be his always life; and young Ernie bringing along his toy yacht and keeping the family youthful.
I felt I was a passenger on the trip with the Stevens’ family, from preparing to leave, to the train ride, to finally arriving in Bognor; and as I finish writing this, I am gripped with the feeling of awe the story stirs in me: of summer almost ending, of my own children growing up, of wishing for the quiet and simplicity of the world the Stevens family gets to experience, if only on vacation.
The Fortnight in September makes you want to hold on to and notice more fully the people you journey the earth with. What struck me most was the essential goodness of each character, and their sensitivity toward their other family members. I didn’t want it to end, and when I finished it, I experienced the loss of a good vacation being over. Sherriff’s observation that he wrote the book for himself and not for anyone to read inspired me as a writer, and reminded me to write the story you most enjoy. Read this book for an escape this September.