R.C. Sherriff’s 1931 novel, The Fortnight in September, is about a happy family on a pleasant seaside vacation during which nothing really bad happens. Try selling that to a publisher.
But when you think about it, it’s actually a tantalizing premise. Pretty much all fiction illustrates what happiness isn’t. It’s much harder to write a novel about what happiness is; after all, happy families are all alike—boring, right? Well, apparently such a thing can be done…if you’re R.C. Sherriff.
Before I get into it, I want to give a shout out to Hariod Brawn for bringing this masterpiece to my attention. Thank you! As you can see, I had to buy a physical copy to have and to hold.
The Stevens are an orderly middle class couple living in south London. They have three children: Ernie is ten, the other two are older, on the brink of adulthood. The seaside boarding house they rent each summer is falling on hard times, but rather than finding a nicer one, they remain loyal—fiercely so by the end of the novel—to its owner, Mrs. Huggett, a widow falling on hard times. With two of the older children moving away soon, this vacation could be the last one they take as a family. Everyone does their part to make sure the trip goes smoothly and lives up to the good times they’ve had in the past.
That’s not to say their annual two-week-long reprieve constitutes a spectacular departure from their ordinary lives. On the contrary, it turns out to be a reflection of their somewhat dull, middle-class existence. In the hands of a lesser writer, we might be made to feel sorry for them or to look down upon them—suburbanites are, after all, an easy target—but Sherriff paints such an endearing portrait of his characters that by the end, their family life is not just relatable, it’s downright enviable.
That’s not to say everyone is perfectly pleased all the time. The eldest son, unsure of whether he ought to feel ashamed of his father’s inability to move up in life, undergoes a minor internal crisis before he comes to the conclusion that his father is someone to be admired after all. The daughter takes her desire for the exotic a step further—I won’t get into that—and seems to undergo a similar sort of metamorphosis, though hers is a bit more nuanced and subtle. In general, though, the conflicts (if you can call them that) are minor, and yet there’s never a dull moment. As a writer, I’m reminded that high stakes don’t automatically create tension; if it matters to the character, it matters to us. If navigating Clapham Junction is a big deal to Mrs. Stevens, we worry right along with her.
Giving insight into why two people should be in love with one another is so rarely done nowadays, and I very much appreciate the way Sherriff reveals Mr. and Mrs. Stevens’ compatibility. They often feel the same way about things, but because they often keep their thoughts private, they don’t realize just how similar they are. For instance, when Mrs. Huggett (B&B owner) reveals no one is lining up to come to “The Seaview” anymore and offers them an extra day, free of charge, they each experience virtually the same flood of mixed feelings:
“Mrs. Stevens could never have explained the queer feeling that came over her…it was as if one wall of “Seaview” had suddenly crumbled to the ground. Nothing gave more pleasure to the holiday than the thought that people were eagerly and impatiently waiting to take their places: it was the people before them and the people after them that squeezed the most precious and tasty juices from the holiday. …and now one end of their holiday seemed to trail forlornly in the air.
Mrs. Stevens handed the letter back in silence—then suddenly her voice surprised her—it was quivering with anger—she had never spoken so fiercely before in all her life— ‘You’ll make them pay!—it’s a scandal!—you’ll make them pay!'”Chapter XXIX
Here’s Mr. Steven’s reaction:
“It was as if he and his family had booked seats for a theatre months ahead, then found themselves surrounded by half-empty seats from which people rose, and quietly stole out during the performance. They stole out because the show was poor and stale […] and was no longer worth seeing […] he and his family were sitting doggedly on, applauding and trying to encourage the actors because they felt a stubborn duty to back them up.
He tried to fight the mean whisper that came to him—”Get out yourselves!—others are getting out because it isn’t good enough—why should you remain!”
He had reached the promenade, and paused a moment looking out to sea. Suddenly he gripped the rail in front of him, squared his shoulders and clenched his jaw. Let the others go if they wanted to—if they wanted to let Mrs. Huggett down: let them clear out if they hadn’t any loyalty—or any memory of happy days gone by: he and his family would stand by Mrs. Huggett—to the end.“Chapter XXX
Mrs. Stevens natural generosity kicks in right away, but it takes a bit longer for Mr. Stevens to overcome his social insecurities—his fear of being a sucker, a loser—as he talks himself into the right frame of mind for accepting another day. Another day turns out to be a big to-do. What follows is an immense scramble of discussing and planning and letter writing (to ensure the neighbors back home are on board with the change in vacation plans) on the part of husband and wife, who all the while keep their labors secret from their three children to avoid getting their hopes up in case an extra day turns out not to be feasible.
Time and again, the couple ends up on the same page. Another instance occurs during my favorite scene, when the family ducks into an arcade to amuse themselves with “automatic machines”; most notably, a Zoltar fortune teller:
“Mr. Stevens felt very much as his wife did: he had all her unreasonable fears—all her shrinking from these little machines that might—who knows?—say something terribly ominous. But he could not allow himself to appear timid and superstitious before the family. With a nervous laugh he drew out a penny and bravely pressed it into the slot.”Chapter XXX
Can you guess what happens when Mr. and Mrs. Stevens read their fortunes?
These mundane details aren’t there just to lend the story a bit of color: they are the story. From beginning to end we’re immersed in their weird—or perhaps weirdly familiar—rituals and strategies, fears and hopes. If the Stevens were very wealthy, they wouldn’t need to put nearly as much thought and effort in their vacation planning. Same goes if they had all the time in the world. For them, both money and time are limited resources, yet in the end, they learn that that’s what makes their fortnight in September so special. Sherriff shapes these themes through a kind of subtextual layering such that we come to see the vacation as more than a vacation, and that extra day as more than a nice surprise.
What makes the Stevens a happy family is their foresight and self-knowledge. They understand that life is mostly drudgery (making lists, cleaning, planning) but they are more than capable of carving something meaningful out of the drab stone of their lives, and they do this by creating family memories which they can treasure for years to come. They are also capable of discerning the hollow pleasure and pride in those who hold the highest honors in society, those who are well-esteemed for their money or taste. (That’s another brilliant scene.) Their annual holiday isn’t about idle luxury or chasing pleasure, it’s about restoring their faith in who they are, and what they have been doing all along, regardless of what the world may think of them.
Have you read a story about a happy people? How would you generate interest in such a story?