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The Fortnight in September

by RC Sherriff
Persephone book no:

66 67 68

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155576

The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was first published in September 1931. It was glowingly reviewed: ‘A lovely novel,’ declared the Daily Telegraph, ‘a little masterpiece’ wrote the Sunday Express. In America the Saturday Review of Literature thought that ‘nothing since Dickens has come closer to giving between covers the intrinsic spirit of England.’ The Spectator reviewer said: ‘There is more simple human goodness and understanding in this book than in anything I have read for years... Once more, the author of Journey’s End has enriched our lives.’

Journey’s End (1929) is one of the great stage plays. 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. 

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 (also wonderfully evoked by EM Delafield in the short story in The Persephone Book of Short Stories). The family’s only regret is leaving their garden where, we can imagine, because it is September the dahlias are at their fiery best (hence the endpaper): 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 (as in Journey’s End, and The Hopkins Manuscript, Persephone book no. 57, the physical setting is wonderfully evoked): 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 we have reprinted at the beginning of our 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 life is here in the seemingly simple description of the family’s annual holiday. Thus, for reasons we do not have to explain to regular Persephone readers, this is a book which fits fairly and squarely on the Persephone list.

Also available as a Persephone Classic and as a Persephone eBook


Endpapers taken from 'Dahlias', a 1931 design for a dress silk by Madeleine Lawrence

Picture Caption

Bank Holiday (1932) by David Macbeth Sutherland

Read What Readers Say

Kazuo Ishiguro, ‘The Guardian’

Just about the most uplifting, life-affirming novel I can think of right now. Published in 1931, this is an exquisitely subtle account of an ordinary lower-middle class family from south London, preparing for, travelling to, then enjoying their modest summer holiday in Bognor Regis. At one level totally undramatic, Sherriff magically re-calibrates our norms of what is and isn’t wonderfully exciting till we become utterly tuned into the rise and fall of this family’s emotions. Sherriff never patronises, nor does he attempt to exalt these people beyond what they are. He respects them for all the right reasons – for their instinctive decency towards one another and to those they encounter, and for the unselfconscious – perhaps unconscious – way they function as a happy family, despite their individual insecurities and frustrations. The Great English Seaside Holiday in its heyday, and the beautiful dignity to be found in everyday living, have rarely been captured more delicately.

Maureen Corrigan, N.P.R.

An absorbing reflection on time and especially how it changes shape in periods like a vacation – or even a pandemic – that aren’t bounded by normal routines. There’s more than a dash of resemblance between ‘The Fortnight in September’ and Virginia Woolf ’s time-conscious masterpieces, ‘Mrs Dalloway’ and ‘To the Lighthouse’ which were published a few years earlier. But there’s also a dash of Winnie the-Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood magic here. Like RC Sherriff, Pooh’s creator, AA Milne, served and was badly wounded in WWI. Little wonder then that, after the war, both traumatised men wound up creating tales set in time-out-of-time havens, where the small pleasures of everyday life – like honey, a hot bath and a clear blue early autumn sky – are seen for the gifts they are.

Michael Morpurgo, ‘The Telegraph’

This is a masterpiece of gentle understatement, an insight into quiet people living unassuming lives. Almost nothing happens, yet it is the most absorbing book I have read in a long while.

Matthew Dennison, ‘The Spectator’

Sherriff introduces elements of small-scale tragedy. He does so with a completely assured touch, without sentiment, archness or coyness, lacing the novel with passages of pathos that are almost unbearably moving. The Stevenses are wholly believable and, as intended by their creator, wholly ordinary. But their goodness and decency — revealed consistently in little things — raise them to heroic status… It remains a masterpiece — and one that surprises through its understated but irresistible power to move.

‘Slightly Foxed’

No writer has captured the seaside holiday as perfectly as R C Sherriff.

‘The Paris Review’

An absolute delight from start to finish.

Categories: Family Fathers Men (books about) Men (books by)

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