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Helen Simonson and her new book ‘The Summer Before the War’

PUBLISHED: 15:21 08 April 2016 | UPDATED: 15:43 08 April 2016

Helen Simonson

Helen Simonson

Archant

In her first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson created characters and a milieu that captivated her readers. Her new book is a domestic epic that charts the path to war from the perspective of an extended Rye family. She spoke to Jenny Mark-Bell

At 580 pages, The Summer Before the War is on the long side. But, to paraphrase Jane Austen, it is so well-written that I almost found it too short. Nevertheless there was so much to read that I finished the book as my train drew into London, where I was to meet author Helen Simonson at her publishers’ offices. My tears had barely dried by the time we sat down together.

It is a story of social victories, small town scandals, private heartbreak and what happens to families when war rends the fabric of civilisation. In Rye is the whole world, and in its inhabitants we see the many faces of war. This is Helen’s second book and her first, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, was also set in East Sussex. In both of them the unique atmosphere of the historic coastal town is beautifully realised, which is in one sense surprising, because Helen has been living in the States for 20 years. The landscape of her novels is the one she remembers from her teenage years, after her family “achieved the British dream of a home in the country”.

The period from 15, when her family moved to Peasmarsh, until 18 when she left for university, was hugely influential. “I was there for a short time but it made an absolutely indelible impression on me, such that I can’t really remember my life before Sussex. It is stunningly beautiful and the history of Rye is just incredible. I have been known to put my hands on the stonework of a building and just feel for the vibrations of history. Every layer of British history is there in that small town.

“Being in Peasmarsh there were fields to walk through – good thing, because there was nothing else to do – and then I would go down to Rye. Rye had a little bookshop and the bookshop had a special display of local authors. Well, the local authors include Henry James and Edith Wharton, Vita Sackville-West and Radclyffe Hall. Kipling was only at Burwash too.” The attentive reader of The Summer Before the War might spot some of them among the cast of characters: “This book is an homage to all of them,” says Helen. One pompous man of letters is a “scurrilous portrait” of Henry James; a character by the name of Agatha Kent was inspired by one of Rudyard Kipling’s characters and is named for Agatha Christie. The redoubtable Mrs Kent and her social rival vie for supremacy as fiercely as E F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia.

The theme of writing looms large throughout – our main character, Beatrice Nash, is the bereaved daughter of an academic with her own literary aspirations while another character is a poet. Helen herself published her first book at the age of 45 – she has a degree in Government from the London School of Economics and started as an advertising copywriter before becoming an advertising executive. “I had my eldest son and 12 weeks later, when I was supposed to go back to work, I said ‘you will pry this baby out of my cold dead hands!’ I very unexpectedly found myself a stay-at-home mother, which is the best and worst job in the world: 24/7, no pay, no time off.

“I was desperate for some intellectual escape. I tried a couple of things: I did a lot of gardening but I found I liked buying plants but don’t actually like having to put them in the ground. My husband would come back and say ‘why are there 42 dead petunias on the back patio?’” Finally, Helen signed up for a writing course on 92nd Street in New York. “The first week I realised that I was home. I thought it would be easy: what a great second career for a woman with small children! And I didn’t publish for 15 years.” Instead she enrolled in college: Major Pettigrew, which she published in 2010, was her thesis. It became an international bestseller, a Richard & Judy Book Club pick, and was translated and published in 21 countries.

While she says it was easy to conjure up the flavour and geography of East Sussex from her home in Brooklyn Heights – and online history groups helped a lot – Helen made some research and reconnaissance visits. Rye Library’s local history shelf was useful, as were memories collected by Former Mayor Joe Kirkham via interviews with grammar school pupils and elderly residents, which formed booklets called Rye Memories. But her favourite resource was old periodicals in the British Library Colindale (now closed). “I literally spent days reading The Lady as [my characters] would be reading it and that was really fascinating. The war is not front and centre in those magazines, but suddenly there might be an article on how to tell the servants that there won’t be meat for dinner or how to make an economical Christmas pudding. Then there are the social columns, marriages and engagements: the fallen start building up in the social columns. You see the flowers of England being cut down.”

For a book set at the outbreak of World War I and which took five years to write, The Summer Before the War is remarkably topical. One of the storylines concerns the plight of Belgian refugees. “I had come across the fact that there were Belgian refugees in Rye from looking on the local history shelf. England took in 250,000 Belgian refugees and fed, clothed and housed them, all through private charity. I see some glimmerings that towns and cities in England are now offering to do the same if the government lets in refugees. That appeals to me – that is Britain at its best.”

Personal freedom is a huge theme in Helen’s two novels and she says “I like novels that end with the heroine boarding a Greyhound bus to the big city: that would be my idea of freedom.” Of course, that is in large part what she has done herself, making the journey from rural East Sussex to the core of the Big Apple. But at heart, she is still a small town girl. In her new novel the small, safe world of Rye becomes a microcosm of suffering in Europe while events play out on a much greater stage. Helen explains: “I think the whole world can be explained in a small town and I am personally convinced that decisions about war get made depending on whether the general is suffering from indigestion or bunions, or has enough foie gras.

“There is no big world, just tiny people who happen to be in charge.”

The Summer Before the War (£14.99; Bloomsbury) is available from 24 March

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