The Fortnight in September

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?

34 thoughts on “The Fortnight in September

  1. “It’s much harder to write a novel about what happiness is; after all, happy families are all alike—boring, right? … Have you read a story about a happy people? How would you generate interest in such a story?”

    Happiness, like all life, is a dynamic and unfolding process rather than some static, permanent quality. It follows, therefore, that happiness must always be worked on, chosen, strived for. I find this unfolding MUCH more interesting than yet another story about short-sighted or destructive people who make poor choices about their lives. Attempting to live well is a high-wire act with no limits on the upwards trajectory. That’s why I hate the Tolstoy quote you have paraphrased here. This is also why I sometimes describe myself as a writer of “positive fiction” in the same way that “positive psychology” has become a dynamic sub-discipline in the science of psychology. There is still death and disappointment in this world (it is a real world after all), but following the way that good people attempt to navigate this can be riveting I believe. Especially if the characters (or authors) have real wisdom to share and learn from.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I think you’ve hit on the crux of the matter. Happiness isn’t some static state, but something that you have to work toward, or at least maintain. And maintenance is certainly work, though it’s not the kind of thing we come across too often in novels.

      “…following the way that good people attempt to navigate this can be riveting I believe. Especially if the characters (or authors) have real wisdom to share and learn from.”

      Absolutely. And it’s certainly a more direct and efficient way to learn than to read about what not to do. Definitely tricky to pull off, but those who do get high marks from me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting premise! I have seen “slice of life” stories before. There is certainly nothing wrong with presenting people living enviable lives! I think it does take a high degree of skill to pull off a story with no major conflict or villains (or robots or spaceships 😀 ).

    I had the interesting experience of (at long last finally) reading Octavia Butler for the first time. I’d just finished a (10 book) series by a new author about a middle aged woman on a world cruise (running away because she caught her husband with her best friend). In every book she gets involved in a mystery,… I got off that bus after five books because the writing was so… cartoonish and Hollywood. Then I read the Butler “Wild Seed” series, and was enthralled, in part, because the writing was so much better. Skill really matters!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Wild Seed is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Butler is a master of exposition, conveying enormous amounts of information without making it feel like that’s what she’s doing. Aside from the story, worth reading for anyone who wants to pick up storytelling techniques.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I definitely have a thing for slice of life stories, and that’s probably because it requires a great deal of skill to pull off. Skill and astute observation of the world. Those are the stories that stick in my mind—the ones I can’t explain or condense, or ‘sell’ to others with an elevator pitch.

      I’m amazed you lasted 5 books with cartoonish Hollywood writing! I’d be off the bus at the next stop. 🙂

      Octavia Butler sounds interesting. I might have to check her out!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Heh, yeah, that’s a good way to put it. It’s the stories that take some time to explain to someone that are the most interesting. I’ve even noticed that sometimes, in writing about a story I didn’t feel I really took to, I find myself reviewing details and realizing it had more depth and detail than I first realized. It’s one reason I write those posts in the first place — almost a homework assignment for a deeper analysis.

        (This happened when I wrote about The Mitchells vs The Machines. A lot bothered me while watching it, and most of my notes were negative, but in writing about it I found more substance and more to like. This is exactly why I think almost any book, movie, or TV show, is worth watching more than once if one really wants to grasp it.)

        I have a strong “finish what you start” ethic that wars with my putting down something just because it’s not grabbing me. There’s a threshold that needs to be crossed for me to abandon pretty much anything. That 10-book series fell into my “beach book” category — simple, easy-to-read, shallow as an oil slick, even cartoonish. Books like that are good for circumstances where you want to read but anticipate lots of distractions (and possibly daiquiris). I was dog-sitting Bentley, so the first three were just what the doc ordered. I read the fourth more from momentum, and the fifth, I suppose, out of sheer masochism. Certainly by then I’d lost all interest. (I plan to mention them in an upcoming post.)

        I was very impressed by Butler. Wild Seed is the first book of the four-book Patternmaster series (also called the Seed to Harvest series). (It’s actually a five-book series, but Butler was so unhappy with one of them she excluded it from later collections and let it go out of print.) Funny thing about the series is that she wrote it out of order. The last book of the series, Patternmaster (1976) is the first book she wrote. Then she wrote book #2, Mind of My Mind (1977), and three years later book #1, Wild Seed. Finally, she wrote book #3, Clay’s Ark, which involves a completely different group of people and explains how the conflict in book #4 came about.

        I just checked out from the library another four-book series, the Xenogenesis series (aka Lilith’s Brood). Going to start on that later today!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Writing is definitely a good way to get a new perspective/opinion on things. It can be irritating to start out writing one idea, but halfway through change your mind, which means you gotta go back and re-write. I can’t tell you how often that happens to me.

          As for the finish what you start ethic, I might have it when it comes to some things, but my natural inclination is to just set it aside for later and never get back to it. I do understand that masochism of which you speak. You kind of have to have some of that to read certain philosophers.

          Which book by Butler would you recommend starting with? I tend not to like series unless each book can also stand alone. I don’t like the commitment. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • At least a novelist can go back and rewrite before the public sees the work. Changing one’s mind is awkward when it happens while writing part three of a three-part blog post and the first two parts are already published. That’s happened to me at least twice now. But it does really illustrate the value of doing the writing (teaching works similarly in focusing your mind on the topic).

            I think we all have our thresholds for sticking with, setting aside, or just giving up on. If anything, mine are probably a bit inappropriately high. I can’t say I got anything from sticking with that Patricia Fisher series as long as I did. Life would likely be easier if I learned to let go of certain things, but old dogs and new tricks. (It’s hard enough trying to learn quantum mechanics.)

            I’m only familiar with the Patternmaster (four-book) series, although I’ve started on the Lilith’s Brood (three-book) series (which is really good so far). According to her Wiki page, she only has two standalone novels, Kindred and Fledgling. I haven’t read either, yet. She has a short story collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories, and I have encountered some of her short stories in various SF collections. Her Parable series is only two-books. It’s probably what I’ll read next.

            Liked by 2 people

  3. Great review! I’ll track down a copy of this book. I had to Google “vacation” because I didn’t know what that was. It could do us all some good to see others “carve something meaningful out of the drab stone of their lives.” There’s no escaping the drudgery, but it would seem there are ways to mitigate its influence. Can’t wait to try for myself, haha!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I bet when you Googled “vacation” all you got was a bunch of Airbnb and Expedia ads—still better than Googling the British ‘holiday’.
      The book is wonderful. I think you’ll like it. It might be very expensive in paperback because you might have to order it from the publisher in England…unless Amazon finally got their hands on it. Anyway, you can definitely get it fast as an ebook. Let me know when you’ve read it so we can discuss!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I can’t recall ever reading a story about happy people being happy. I have read stories of people who initially appear happy, but it typically turns out to be a false happiness, or a happiness built at someone else’s expense, or that shouldn’t exist for some other reason.

    The conventional wisdom is a story needs conflict, but I think what it actually needs is a compelling question, or series of questions. (A conflict seems like just a question about who will win, or how they will win.)

    So if I was going to write a story about happy people, I’d try to make it interesting by having them have interesting questions, or at least have questions arise in the reader. So it could be about someone trying to get their dream job, or get admitted to a school they really want to go to, or two people getting to know each other (romantically or otherwise), or scientists working to understand some phenomenon.

    Although I guess by adding a want into the picture, I’m technically adding some degree of unhappiness. It seems like there has to be some type of happiness gradient, if only a mild one, to have a story. But maybe that’s a failure of imagination on my part?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, I think there’s definitely got to be a happiness gradient, a mild one, as you say. Reading your thoughts about this matter makes me realize that a big part of what drew me into the story was a sense that something bad was going to happen—because it has to. I’m reading a novel. That’s what happens in novels, bad things, right? I think the author actually played on that expectation, but not in a way that made me feel cheated…which is a spectacular feat in itself. Now I wish I’d talked about that in my post!

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s interesting, but I have read stories before where I was so into the characters and setting, it was almost a jolt when the story conflict began. The movie Minority Report comes to mind, where I was actually like, “Oh yeah, I guess there does have to be a problem in this movie.”

        But there’s typically a limit on how far it can go. I think I told you once about the novel Quarter Share which is about people living their day to day lives on a spaceship. For the first half of the book, I was pretty much good, but as it progressed, I became increasingly uneasy, waiting for something to happen. I found out later that that was the whole shtick of that book and series, just portraying everyday life for a space merchant. It might have been if the setting or characters had been more interesting, I could have gone much farther without issue.

        I can’t tell you how many times a point has come out in the discussion that I wished I’d covered in the post. Although the longer I do this, the more inclined I am to consciously leave some points for the discussion, mainly to keep the post itself short and sweet.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I know I’ve seen Minority Report, but I can’t remember much except that it was about stopping crimes before they happen. As for Quarter Share, I don’t recall that discussion…but given what I just said about Minority Report, that probably just reflects my terrible memory. I can’t imagine reading a story about lives on a spaceship with nothing else going on. I get bored with world building, though. That kind of thing has to be short or crucial to the plot, ideally right at that moment, otherwise I’m putting the book down.

          I’ve noticed that you’re really good at calibrating depth and length in your posts. I find that’s one of the trickiest things about blogging. For this post, there was so much I wanted to get into, but I had to pull back otherwise I’d never actually publish the post and no one would actually read it.

          Liked by 2 people

          • World building in sci-fi and fantasy fiction is always a tricky business. Even a hard core SFF fan will be turned off if it’s too much of an infodump before we have reasons to care. You usually want to work it in throughout the story, or if you have to do a dump, hold off until story events have (hopefully) created a desire in the reader to know about it. That’s why I praised Butler. She’s superb at it. And there’s a character backstory dump well into the book, but by the time it comes, we’ve been waiting for it.

            Thanks. In truth, I’m often surprised by how little can be fit within a single 500-1000 word post. I often sit down wondering if I have enough, but once writing begins, end up realizing it would be a very long entry to cover it all, and then have to decide what to focus on. It’s why books often result in a series of posts.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Minority Report is a rare Steven Spielberg movie I liked (rather a lot, even), perhaps because the source material is from Philip K. Dick. (I generally actively dislike Spielberg movies. He’s a master storyteller and filmmaker, but way too emotionally manipulative for my taste.)

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Philip K. Dick isn’t entry-level science fiction, and never easy science fiction. Those adaptations in Electric Dreams do assume familiarity with the modes and tropes of the genre if not that one has read the short stories they’re based on. (FWIW, there is an ebook available that collects those stories.)

    Was the one you watched about Sarah the cop and George the video game guy? You might try the one called “Human Is” (or maybe “Autofac”). For a straight up horror story about a body snatcher, “The Father Thing.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think that’s the one. The characters take something like a soma holiday—a mind trip, a mental vacation—and get to live as another person for a while. I got annoyed with that episode because it felt like they were trying to create suspense by having me wonder about every little thing: Where are we in time? Who’s head are we in? Where are they? Why is this guy constantly confused? What is her traumatic event? What is his traumatic event?Why are these people doing what they’re doing? I sensed I was watching a show full of cheap tricks and unwarranted mystery, and by the end if I worked really hard I’d simply figure out what should’ve been given to me in the beginning. As they say in writing workshops, “What in the hell is going on?” is not a hook.

      But I might give one of the episodes you mentioned a shot. Probably not the horror story. I hate horror. It’s funny, I used to love love love horror as a kid, but now I hate being manipulated in that way. Especially when creatures/bad guys jump out from the shadows or from around the corner.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It may be that science fiction isn’t your thing, because that “what’s going on?” thing is a very common mode in SF. It’s almost a game between the author and the reader. It can also give an alien feel to the story, but I can see some might find it alienating. Being familiar with the common tropes does help.

        FWIW, I have never turned an adult on to science fiction despite many attempts. It seems to be a thing people glom onto when they are young or not at all. I used to think youth was the factor, like how some glom onto certain “life changing” books they discovered in high school or college. But I’ve decided it’s a mindset thing more like a matter of taste. And it’s kind of polarizing. One either rather likes SF or just doesn’t find it interesting. Few seem neutral about it.

        Speaking of cheap techniques, I don’t consider “jump scares” to be horror. The best horror stories leverage your mind. (The Japanese are really good at horrific ghost stories because they don’t have the notion that the good guys always, or even usually, win. I mean, how do you fight ghosts?)

        Liked by 2 people

        • I guess I’d say most sci fi isn’t my thing, but I have been enjoying some of the sci fi short stories put out by a publication called “After Dinner Conversation” which only publishes philosophical short stories. The stories don’t have to be sci-fi, but many are. (I’ve actually volunteered to read the slush pile and look for typos in stories that are about to be published. If you read the stuff they’ve put out, you’ll see why they really need to get on top of that issue.) The writing is really all over the place in terms of quality, but at least they’re all trying to make a point.

          On a side note, I actually started writing a short story that I wanted to submit to this publication, but the other day I found out that my premise had already been taken—twice!—and made into a Netflix show (The One) and an AMC show (Soulmates). Damn! I might try again from a different angle, but who knows if I can find one.

          I’ve never even heard of Japanese horror, but I like the idea of the good guy not winning.

          Liked by 2 people

          • I think a culture that has had two atom bombs dropped on them knows something about horror. And that’s just modern times. The Japanese are extremely interesting people with hella history. Even their cartoons and comic books tell rich and compelling stories. I think their connection with myth makes them very creative storytellers, too. (That movie with the penguins, for instance.)

            One of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen is one of the Ju-On series (Ju-On: The Grudge). The series revolves around Takeo Saeki, who murdered his wife, Kayako, and son, Toshio (and their pet cat). Kayako’s ghost kills Takeo. The murders are so horrific they create vengeful ghosts who infect and kill pretty much all who come in contact with them. The franchise is huge, and I’ve only seen the one film, but I was impressed by it.

            With all the match-making services, SF about them seems inevitable. I’d bet there are others beyond those two shows. It’s very difficult to find anything that hasn’t been done. Spaceships are just boats, after all. Important that you’re writing, though, right? That seems to be the central piece of advice I hear — if you wanna be a writer, then write. And write. And write! 🙂

            I’m two novels short of reading everything Octavia Butler wrote (it isn’t a huge body of work). You’d asked about a good standalone novel of hers to start with. I can now recommend Fledgling. Butler found some new twists on the vampire story.

            Liked by 2 people

            • I meant to connect those last two paragraphs. Butler, both in a novel series and in an essay, has the notion of “positive obsession.” She credits it, more than talent, for success in writing and in most things. (In the novel it’s about the main character’s drive to make a better world.)

              Liked by 2 people

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

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