Journey's End (1929). Set during the First World War, it had no women in
it, no heroes and no love interest - it was about the hopes and fears of a
group of ordinary men waiting in a dug-out for an attack to begin. It was
based on Sherriff's own letters home, and its success was in part due to
his ability to recreate the trench experience exactly as he had lived it.
The Fortnight in September, written two years after Journey's End, shares
its emphasis on real people leading real lives. But the atmosphere could
not be more different, embodying as it does the kind of mundane normality
the men in the dug-out longed for - domestic life at 22 Corunna Road in
Dulwich, the train journey via Clapham Junction to the south coast, the
two weeks living in lodgings and going to the beach every day. The
family's only regret is leaving their garden where, we can imagine,
because it is September the dahlias are at their fiery best: as they flash
past in the train they get a glimpse of their back garden, where `a shaft
of sunlight fell through the side passage and lit up the clump of white
asters by the apple tree.' This was what the First World War soldiers
longed for; this, he imagined, was what he was fighting for and would
return to (as in fact Sherriff did).
He had had the idea for his novel at Bognor Regis: watching the crowds go
by, and wondering what their lives were like at home, he `began to feel
the itch to take one of those families at random and build up an
imaginary story of their annual holiday by the sea...I wanted to write
about simple, uncomplicated people doing normal things.'
Sherriff adds, in his memoir No Leading Lady (a few pages of which is
reprinted at the beginning of the Persephone edition of The Fortnight in
September): `The story was a simple one: a small suburban family on their
annual fortnight's holiday at Bognor: man and wife, a grown-up daughter
working for a dressmaker, a son just started in a London office, and a
younger boy still at school. It was a day-by-day account of their holiday
from their last evening at home until the day they packed their bags for
their return; how they came out of their shabby boarding house every
morning and went down to the sea; how the father found hope for the future
in his brief freedom from his humdrum work; how the children found
romance and adventure; how the mother, scared of the sea, tried to make the
others think she was enjoying it.'
The Fortnight in September was a very brave book to write because it was
not obviously `about' anything except the `drama of the undramatic'. And
yet the greatness of the novel is that it is about each one of us: all of
human lilfe is here in the seemingly simple description of the family's
annual holiday in Bognor.
Sherriff never mentions politics inThe Fortnight in September. But there
is a sense throughout the book that the Stevens' kind of ordinariness
might be under threat and that Sherriff is celebrating it while he can.
In this respect The Fortnight in September does indeed expresss `the
genius of a people', as the Spectator put it in 1931 when its reviewer
concluded: `Here is a subject which could have been treated satirically,
cleverly, patronisingly, sentimentally. But Mr Sherriff comes to it fresh,
and makes it universal. The sympathy with which each character is seen is
so perfect that even its pettiest details brings a lump into one's throat.
Many will welcome this book, which expresses the genius of a people.'