R.C. Sherriff’s 1931 novel “The Fortnight in September” is about an English family — father, mother, three children — spending their annual holiday in a modest seaside town. Nothing much happens. They pack. They travel by train. They unpack. They walk along the beach. They swim. They spend time together, and each of them spends some time alone. They pack to return home. The end.
Yet despite this apparent simplicity — or more accurately, because of it — the novel is surprisingly riveting and moving. It’s a nonjudgmental chronicle of small moments.
The father coming home from work the night before they leave, thinking the anticipation is almost the best part of the vacation. The mother worrying because they have to change trains at a busy station and something might go wrong. The daughter, tired and a little grouchy after a hard day at work as a seamstress, volunteering to do the job that no one else in the family wants to do: carry the pet canary and the birdseed over to the lonely and extremely talkative neighbor who takes care of the bird when they go away.
It’s a social novel, but not a sociological one. The characters are not mere types. They are autonomous and individual. Yet you also see where they fit within society — what has shaped them and what limits them. This is a lower-middle-class family. The father is a clerk in a warehouse. They think in terms of shillings and pence, not pounds. Every year during the vacation they rent a small changing hut on the beach; this year, after a lot of debate, they giddily decide to splurge on a slightly larger hut with a balcony. But will one be available? You wait, along with them, in suspense. Not today (you share their acute disappointment), but there will be one available starting in two days (hurrah!).
I had bought a copy of the book’s reissue and was saving it to read in September. So I happened to be in the middle of it when news came that the queen had died.
Though the difference between the balcony on a seaside changing hut and the balcony of Buckingham Palace could hardly be any greater, Sherriff’s England is also the England that Elizabeth was born into in 1926, five years before this novel was published. It was the time we now think of as “between the wars,” though of course then no one knew that another catastrophic world war was coming. The worst years of the worldwide economic depression, too, were still ahead. After a century-long boom, England was already beginning to decline as an industrial nation. And the sun was about to set for good on the vast British Empire.
Reading Sherriff’s novel, you are constantly aware of time. The two weeks of the vacation ticking away. The exhilaration of the spacious first week; the subtle sadness at the halfway point when there’s more time behind you than ahead; the joy at an unexpected extra day tacked on at the end, mixed with a sense of anticlimax and even slight disappointment (now you’ll get home on Sunday instead of Saturday, with no chance to tidy up the garden before going back to work on Monday). It’s the same every year but it isn’t. A larger kind of time is passing. The two oldest children are grown up, or nearly; they won’t be coming on these family vacations much longer. The landlady of the guest house is visibly anxious this year: Business has dwindled, and the shabby house has gotten even shabbier. How much longer can she keep it going?
In the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s death, the passage of time — the difference between then and now — was on vivid display. Her coffin was flown from Scotland to England on a jet, and the funeral was televised live via satellite, technologies unheard of at the time of her birth. But the ceremonies took place in churches and halls built for such ceremonies a thousand years ago.
There is a moment in “The Fortnight in September” where the father, out walking in the countryside alone, realizes that the ground under his feet is the same ground walked upon by the Roman legions. “He knew that in another thousand years the downs would still be just the same — quite timeless,” Sherriff writes.
And yet, in the next paragraph, the father consults his map and sees that he is walking over the site of a Roman camp, of which nothing remains, and he thinks of the sandcastles his younger son has been building on the beach, to be swept away by the sea. “A difference,” Sherriff writes, “between moments and years.”
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.