Hugh Grange is preparing to pick up the new schoolteacher from the station at the beginning of The Summer Before the War. His Aunt Agatha has been instrumental in the school board’s controversial decision to hire a woman as the school’s new Latin mistress. Agatha has supported the hire because the woman was the most qualified applicant, but she is aware that her position as well as the teacher’s is precarious and that the mayor’s wife, Bettina Fothergill, is up to something.
So, Beatrice Nash arrives to take the position unaware that it is already threatened. She has been eager to leave the home of her father’s relatives, where she has lived since her father’s death. She soon finds that he has bargained away her freedom by agreeing to put her money into trust in return for being allowed to return home to his estranged family. Beatrice’s trustees start right out by assuming that she is mishandling her money.
Hugh is a medical student who is working under Dr. Ramsey, a well-known Harley Street physician. Hugh is a careful person whose future is neatly charted out. He will qualify in a year and then marry Dr. Ramsey’s daughter and join his practice. But the Great War breaks out, and Dr. Ramsey pressures him to accompany him to the front. Hugh wants to finish qualifying first, but Lucy Ramsey threatens to give him a white feather if he doesn’t join up.
Hugh’s cousin Daniel is a poet, and he plans to open a journal in London with his good friend Craigmore, Lord North’s son. But after Lord North sees Daniel and Craigmore together at the local hops festival, he makes Craigmore join the air corps. Daniel joins the Artists’ Rifles in reaction.
This description doesn’t do much justice to the novel, which is about how all the characters’ lives are affected by the war. Aside from the same kind of class and town politics featured in Simonson’s delightful Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, we meet a handful of characters who are genuinely likable and we get very involved in several subplots.
Simonson evokes a bustling town of Rye in 1917, with it occupants becoming involved in their various war activities. Belgian refugees arrive, and the town begins to experience the first horrors of war. This novel makes an absorbing second effort that is at times very touching.