By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #34 – The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

Going on holiday is a wholesome experience. Come join the Stevens family on their holiday in R. C. Sherriff's rediscovered classic The Fortnight in September!

Ever heard of R. C. Sherriff? I hadn’t, until a couple of weeks ago. One of his novels, The Fortnight in September, published in 1931, is all the rage in the Netherlands at the moment. I soon found out why: Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro had written about it in the Guardian, when asked about his favourite uplifting novel, and a Dutch publisher decided to translate it. It was immediately discussed by all the newspapers, hailed as a classic, and a summer must-read. Want to know what it is about? Read on!

The plot of The Fortnight in September must be the least complex one I have ever discussed here on The Open Book. It is about the quintessentially British Stevens family who embark on their annual two-weekly trip to Bognor, a seaside resort on the south coast of England, at their favourite “Seaview” pension with the elderly Mrs Huggett. During their stay, they finally have the time to think about their lives, their family, their jobs, and the future.

Nothing happens in The Fortnight in September, but that’s definitely part of its strength: it’s hard not to fall in love with the lower-middle class family Stevens. There’s Mr Stevens, who once founded a football club and was a celebrated member there but was eventually cast aside, and who is not recognised at his job. He’s married to Mrs Stevens, who is all too used to being a housewife. They have three children: Dick, who expected so much more of life, Mary, who’s shy and desperately wants to find a friend with whom she can share everything, and Ernie, a young boy who is still fascinated by everything he sees around him. Each of them has their own reason to look forward to the holiday, and each of them has their little adventure there, and they all return home a changed person – however slightly.

Nothing happens in this novel, but all the more goes on inside the main characters’ minds. Throughout the year, we tend to become the people we think we are expected to be. During the holidays, however, we can be someone else entirely. Only during this holiday would the Stevens dare to hire a fairly expensive beach house, and look down on (figuratelively and literally!) those who decided to spend their days on the hot beach. Only during the holidays would Mr Stevens go out for long walks and stay in the pub with Bognor friends; only during the holidays would Dick decide to start studying and make something of himself; only during the holidays would Mary find a perfect new friend and go out without her family knowing. They might be small events in the grand scheme of things, but every little thing feels important in this novel.

There’s something tragic about the Stevens family, even though not much happens to them. Slowly but surely, the family realises that nothing ever stays the same. This might well be their very last holiday together, since the children are growing up. Furthermore, Mrs Huggett’s health and her “Seaview” pension (which is called thus because one can see the sea if they stand on tiptoes at the bathroom window) have been deteriorating for years, but the Stevens are determined to stay with her until the very end, even if it means they will not have a perfect holiday – and, paradoxically, to them it means their holiday is better than anyone else’s.

I started reading Sherriff’s novel because of that article in The Guardian, in which authors told their readers about their favourite literary comforts. Kazuo Ishiguro was right: The Fortnight in September is like going on a holiday. Whenever I opened its pages and started reading, I felt my own life slide off me, and all I could think of was what would happen next to the book’s heroes – for Sherriff writes about the Stevens so lovingly I can’t help but think of them as truly good people – and I was cheering them on at every uneventful but wonderful page. I actually felt sad that after their two weeks (and a day!) the Stevens had to go home. Thankfully, they had such a good time that they felt ready to tackle their everyday troubles again.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that The Fortnight in September resonates with a modern audience; it’s been a tough year-and-a-half, with a global pandemic, lockdowns, and remote working. This novel shows us how joy can be found in the smallest moments, as long as they’re shared with our loved ones. Seaside resorts have long since ceased to be as popular as in its heyday, but everyone knows what it’s like to look forward to a well-deserved holiday, and then finally – finally! – actually enjoy it. Many things have happened in the world since this book was published, but nothing has changed. Not really.

What did you think of The Fortnight in September? What are you favourite holiday memories? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

Right. Ehm. Yes. As you can see, my own seaside holiday wasn’t perfect, either. It was raining, the wind was so strong that my hair looked awful, and there was sand everywhere. I did have fun, though, and at least it’s an accurate portrayal of what those Great British Seaside Holidays must have been like.

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