My latest Persephone treasure arrived, guiltily ordered when buying a gift for someone. This one arrived within a week of ordering, unexpectedly soon and doubly welcome. Delivery times vary widely from the UK – will it be a week, two weeks or more? On one particularly horrible occasion a book took more than a month to arrive, and I feared it was lost forever.
As soon as is remotely feasible I begin to anticipate the arrival of the small, humble padded envelope. This gives a certain lift to the end of every day, a certain sense of expectation as I open the mailbox and then, of course, a twinge of disappointment when only a pile of bills and pizza delivery flyers reveals itself to my book-hungry eyes. Finally, usually on a day when I’m a little distracted and not even expecting the book, there it is!
I rush into the house, throw the rest of the mail aside as trivia to be dealt with at a later date, tear open the envelope and feast my eyes on the dove grey volume within. First, the end papers have to be carefully examined. Persephone creates beautiful endpapers from fabrics or patterns contemporary with the setting of the book, so the plain cover opens to reveal a glorious wash of colour. Next, the bookmark, tucked carefully inside every volume, matching the endpapers and to be used only with that book. Perhaps a flick through the pages next, stopping to read a particularly enticing paragraph or two. Finally, as soon as is possible, all previous plans for the evening or day carelessly abandoned, I settle myself in the corner of the sofa that is gradually moulding itself to my shape and fall into the text. As my husband says, I’m gone.
The Fortnight in September is a ‘typical’ Persephone book, in that along with many of their other titles, it focuses on ordinary people, living their ordinary lives, happy or tragic in the way that ordinary people are. They are consistently the best books that I read.
This one deals, very simply, with the annual two-week holiday of a lower middle-class family, beginning on the evening before their departure and following them almost day by day until their return. It captures marvellously the sudden sense of liberation that holiday-eve brings. The small pleasures of getting an empty train carriage, first seeing the sea, the temptation to skip the unpacking in favour of that first walk along the beach. How, at the begining of a holiday, time extends luxuriously ahead, until the mid point is reached and the sad, inevitable, unbelievable countdown to the last day begins.
For 20 years the Stevens’ have been staying at ‘Seaview’, a B&B in Bognor that they first visited on their honeymoon and to which they have returned faithfully every year since. Over the years, Seaview has declined gradually and imperceptibly, until now the sheets are thin and worn, the crockery is chipped, a hole in the linoleum is patched with a strip cut from somewhere in the room where its loss will be a little less noticeable than the hole it now covers. The landlady, Mrs Huggett, is deteriorating at the same decorous pace as the building, but tries valiantly to keep up the semblance of comfort and hospitality.
As the characters relax and exchange their confining city-clothes for worn but comfortable items, so they throw off some of the constraints that sustain them in their working lives. Mr Stevens touches on the faded bruise of a promotion he didn’t get; Dick, the grown-up son is struggling to swap the modest success of school life for the dull anonymity of work; Mary, the grown-up daughter, has her first brush with love. Only nervous, bullied, Mrs Stevens remains the same as she is at home, unable even to change her outward appearance: ‘she was never comfortable without her hat.’ Her work has come with her and she is beset with concerns about the shopping, the meals, the weather, and the dangers of cold sea water and hot sun. For her, the best part of the holiday is the evening when she is left alone with her glass of ‘medicinal’ port, one bottle carefully measured out to last the whole trip.
At the beginning of the book, there are hints that this might be the last family holiday: next year, Dick and Mary may branch out on their own. Part of the story also tells of the family’s loyalty to their landlady, Mrs Huggett, as her other ‘people’ abandon her. Will ‘Seaview’ even be open next year? Somehow, this fragile, ordinary, yet wonderful fortnight holds them all together for another year.