The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

This is a lovely novel, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for – a throwback perhaps to simpler times. Its author, the English writer R. C. Sherriff – best known for the play Journey’s Endhad the idea for The Fortnight in September during a seaside holiday at Bognor:

I watched that endless stream of people and began to pick out families at random and imagine what their lives were like at home; what hopes and ambitions the fathers had; whether the mothers were proud of their children or disappointed in them; which of the children would succeed and which would go with the tide and come to nothing. (From Sherriff’s 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady)

Consequently, Sherriff felt inspired to develop a story centred on one of these families by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual holiday at the seaside resort. On the surface, the premise seems simple, yet the apparent simplicity is part of the novel’s magic. It is a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life.

The novel is focused on the Stevens family, who we first see in their Dulwich home on the eve of the holiday. As we join the story, which takes place in the early 1930s, preparations are underway for the Stevens’ annual trip to the Seaview boarding house in Bognor, where the family has holidayed for the past twenty years. While Mr Stevens is looking forward to a fortnight away from the office, Mrs Stevens is secretly apprehensive about the trip, harbouring various worries about the journey and the holiday itself. In truth, Mrs Stevens finds it difficult to enjoy herself while away, preferring instead those quiet moments when she can be alone. Nevertheless, she realises the importance of the break for the rest of the family and is careful not to let her own reservations spoil everyone else’s fun.

Also anticipating the holiday are the Stevens’ children: nineteen-year-old Mary, a seamstress; seventeen-year-old, Dick, who has just started work as a clerk; and ten-year-old Ernie, an excitable boy who will not be separated from his toy yacht.

Interestingly, Sherriff devotes the first 100 pages of the novel to the family’s holiday preparations and train journey to Bognor; and while this might sound a little tedious in principle, these activities prove remarkably revealing, especially in terms of character. Mr Stevens is very well-organised, listing and allocating various tasks to individual family members, thereby maximising the chances of everything running smoothly. That said, there are moments of tension too, especially for Mrs Stevens, whose anxieties at the change of trains at the dreaded Clapham Junction prove quietly gripping.

“Plenty of time,” he said. “They’ve got to get the trunk out.”

Yes, thought Mrs. Stevens—but supposing they don’t get it out!

Mr. Stevens could see that his wife was agitated, and although far from being a selfish man, he could not help a little secret satisfaction. His own coolness would have been thrown away and wasted if she also had been cool. He saw the unspoken questions in her pale face : he saw her hands trembling, and he gave her a smile of encouragement and understanding. (p. 67)

On their arrival at Bognor, the Stevens make their way to their usual boarding house, ‘Seaview‘, which the recently widowed Mrs Huggett manages. In truth, Seaview is struggling to compete with the newer, more glamorous residential hotels with their fairy lights and entertainments. Nevertheless, to Mr and Mrs Stevens, this somewhat shabby boarding house is a home from home, familiar and comforting, despite its tawdry appearance and lack of excitement. Now the holiday can really begin in all its freedom and liberation!        

The early morning and yesterday evening, exciting though they had been, were shaded by those ominous little clouds that inevitably hang over the beginning of a holiday. The anxiety of leaving home : the burden of the luggage : the bogeys of Clapham Junction and the worries about seats—they were things of the past now : things to joke about—and ahead lay the holiday—basking under a clear, untroubled sky—stretching away to the far distant horizon of Sunday fortnight—so far away that you could scarcely measure its distance in terms of tightly packed minutes of sunlit days and starlit nights. (p. 99)

In one sense, very little happens during the fortnight away – the family bathe, play cricket on the beach, attend concerts etc. – and yet, on another level, there are fundamental developments and reflections taking place. For instance, a long walk on the Downs gives Mr Stevens time to contemplate his career, putting to bed earlier disappointments and setting himself straight for the year ahead. Dick, too, experiences a moment of clarity about his future when he finally identifies the cause of his unhappiness at work. On realising that his talents lie elsewhere, Dick vows to train as an architect, a role that he hopes will offer more fulfilment and satisfaction.

For Mary, the holiday brings a fleeting romance in the shape of Pat, a dashing actor in a touring theatrical group. It’s a welcome opportunity for Mary to spread her wings a little, to experience something of the adult world and the sense of anticipation such uncertainties can bring. Even Mrs Stevens finds a greater degree of contentment this year, a quiet hour every evening when she can be alone with her memories.

Her thoughts, when they came, could scarcely be termed thoughts in the strictest meaning of the word : they were memories really, mingled with the pleasant happenings of each passing day, flecked sometimes with stray chinks of light that crept in from the future. (p. 293)

While this is a gentle novel about the small things in life, there are moments of genuine tension or apprehension amid the undoubted quietness. Somehow Sherriff manages to make the most everyday occurrences seem quite suspenseful; for instance, the securing of a coveted beach hut with a balcony – something that could make or break the Stevens’ holiday – is invested with a degree of anxiety usually reserved for mysteries. And yet, somehow it works!

Alongside everything else, this is also a novel about the passing of time, the need to adapt as we grow and develop. For Dick and Mary, this might be the last time they holiday with the family as they find their own ways in the adult world. There may even come a time when for Mr and Mrs Stevens, the downsides of staying at Seaview outweigh their loyalty to Mrs Huggett, whose financial struggles are all too apparent.

In focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can invest in the characters’ inner lives. A gem of a book – very highly recommended, especially for lovers of quiet, contemplative fiction.

The Fortnight in September is published by Persephone Books; personal copy.

45 thoughts on “The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

  1. philipanderton00

    I adore The Fortnight in September. I read it a few years ago and felt almost as though I’d been on holiday with the Stevens family. The eve of the journey and train journey to the resort stick vividly in my mind – the locking up of the house and the description of the mundane sights on the railway line as the train winds out of London – it could have been written yesterday.
    And towards the end you realise they’ll never have a family holiday like that again as perhaps Seaview and the older son won’t be there. I still remember how sad I felt at the end – a longing for something good and so simple to always be there but it can’t be, for life moves on and The Fortnight in September is so lifelike.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly! I think the level of detail Sherriff goes into really brings the story alive. He immerses you in their world – the allocation of tasks to each member of the family as they prepare to go on holiday, all the little things that could go wrong on the journey like the limited time to change trains at Clapham Junction, the availability of a porter, whether they’ll be able to sit together of the train or have to split up etc, etc – as you say, it gets to the point when you feel you’re going with them, hoping all with run smoothly as they travel to Bognor. There’s something wonderfully comforting and nostalgic about this holiday, tinged as it is with the possibility that it might be their last together as a full family.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks Janakay, and I’m glad you liked the quotes! Now would be an ideal time to read it, for sure. The Stevens family always book the same September fortnight every year for their holiday, and it’s right at the beginning of the month, if my memory serves me correctly.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I’m skimming a little again, Jacqui, as I haven’t read this one yet – though I suspect from what I know about it that plot is not the main point. I love Sherriff’s writing thought – his “Hopkins Manuscript” is one of my favourite Persephones – so I really must pick up my copy of “Fortnight” sooner rather than later.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll have to look that up, Karen, as it’s not a book I’ve come across before – thanks for the tip. As for this one, it’s a really lovely read. Very comforting and life-affirming in a nostalgic kind of way.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Ooh this is such a delightful novel, so glad you enjoyed it. It’s years since I read it, but you have made me want to revisit it. Those small moments, the everyday concerns, the portrait of a traditional family holiday is just so good, is wonderfully nuanced. I’ve read a couple of other novels by Sherriff and he is particularly good at portraying that Mr or Mrs Everyman.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely wonderful! Funnily enough, I found out this morning (after I’d posted this piece) that it’s on Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime this week, with the first episode going out tomorrow. So you could listen to it on the radio as an alterative option!

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    Such a lovely review Jacqui. You’ve really captured what I adored about this novel. I thought the detailed focus on the preparations was so inventive in exploring the characters at the start. I was particularly fond of Mrs Stevens.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Madame Bibi. Yes, I think Sherriff is using those preparations as a way of colouring in each character for us, conveying something about their inner world and preoccupations. It really is the most lovely book, isn’t it? Such a joy to read.

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    I’m an admirer of Journey’s End and, while at first glance this doesn’t seem to have much in common, it feels like both possess a keen psychological insight and observance of the small details.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right about the focus on small details. I’m not quite sure how Sherriff does it, but he makes the reader feel fully invested in the outcome of the most minor of factors. Whether they’ll make the connecting train without any mishaps? Will they be able to sit together as a family or have to separate? Should they splash out on a beach hut with a balcony or will the cheaper, standard version be perfectly acceptable? I know it sounds a bit ridiculous as I’m writing this, but these details make such a difference to the success of the holiday!

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    I’ve noted this and will seek out a copy to read when we are on our summer holiday (assuming we ever get out of lockdown) Sounds a perfect summer book although several commenters enjoy reading it in autumn

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it would make a great summer read, particularly at the end of the season as autumn kicks in. I guess the equivalent down under would be The Fortnight in March!

      Reply
  7. Jane

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this Jacqui, I read it a few years ago and absolutely love it, I think about it quite often in fact! Every single little aspect of each member of the family is so perfectly drawn and a thing I really like about Sherriff is that I think he understands women so well. I’m envious of you having the new classics cover!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think his insights into character are equally strong for men and women – and also across the different generations, which is very impressive. I think we can all recognise elements of our own family dynamics in this story. Mrs Stevens reminds me so much of my mother, as she was also a serial worrier, forever fretting about the little hitches that might occur during our holidays!

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    Now that really is a perfect late summer read! I find it interesting that the author is a man writing in such detail about the minutiae of family life and with insight about the little worries that can overwhelm. That’s so often the kind of book women writers are roundly criticized for as being too small in scope. But what a wonderful post on such an appealing book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jule! That’s a very good point. Also, it fits so naturally within the Persephone list that one might be forgiven for assuming that R.C. was a woman! Nevertheless, the fact that it was written by a man creates a certain impression, meaning that it is perceived to be ‘profound’ rather than ‘domestic’ in its scope and themes.

      Reply
  9. janetemson

    A wonderful review for a wonderful book. I love this book quite passionately. For a book where “nothing” happens there is plenty to digest. And despite being written so long ago, there is something that reflects going on holiday today in the descriptions.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Janet. Now that I’ve read it, I can see why this novel has endured through the years – it really is the most comforting book. As you say, in some respects, nothing very consequential happens, but in terms of the characters’ inner thoughts and reflections, there’s so much going on. I think the way Sherriff gives us access to each character’s inner world is very effective. Each member of the family has their own individual set of hopes and dream, concerns and preoccupations, which we learn during the fortnight. It’s almost as if we’re part of the group, experiencing the holiday alongside them.

      Reply
  10. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s so wonderfully comforting and nostalgic. There’s something very appealing about the understated nature of the story – the little details can be so revealing. I’m really glad you loved it too.

      Reply
  11. Pingback: Review: The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff – Hopewell's Public Library of Life

  12. diotimasladder

    Fantastic review! I loved this book so much I actually had to take some time before writing about it, otherwise I’d end up with a tome of a blog post that bored everyone to tears. I keep thinking about the fortune teller scene in particular, and Sherriff’s amazing ability to evoke a subtle mixture of moods. Anyway, well done. I’d say you captured it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it too. He manages to capture the magic of being on holiday so well: the anticipation of the trip; the journey itself; the pleasure of being able to break free from the daily routine; and the chance to reflect and renew. It really is the most comforting read.

      Reply
  13. Scott W.

    Hello Jacqui – I’m adding this one to my list as I was unaware of R. C. Sherriff’s work aside from his very peculiar and extremely atmospheric sci-fi novel The Hopkins Manuscript, which I fairly devoured a couple of years ago – such a charmingly odd and rather haunting story, concerning the moon crashing into the earth. But rather like what you describe from The Fortnight in September, everything unfolds slowly and – the crash aside – rather gently, and with a lot of very British detail. In fact, what I loved about it was precisely this steady slowness. It very much reminded me of a Samuel Palmer painting, another moonstruck Brit. I also thought the subject had some prescient parallels – as a story of facing catastrophe – to climate change, depicting denialism, a slow acknowledgement of the problem, and then frantic efforts to deal with it. One rarely sees “bucolic” and “globally catastrophic” pair so well in fiction.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, Scott…it’s so lovely to hear from you via the blog, and with such an interesting comment too. Thank you. I’m going to take a closer look at The Hopkins Manuscript, which sounds excellent based on your description above – ‘charmingly odd and rather haunting’ seems strangely appealing, particularly given where we are in the world right now!

      As for Fortnight, it’s a lovely novel. Quiet, understated and terribly British, in a comforting, nostalgic sort of way. I loved its simplicity, the sense of returning to more straightforward time when life was ‘smaller’ yet still fulfilling in its own particular way.

      Reply

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