The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff

published 1931

Fortnight in September 3
[how the Stevens family spend the days of their holiday]

Long hours of cricket in the baking sun: arms and faces turning from pink to scarlet—scarlet to indian brown: invigorating plunges in the sea—placid floating on the surface with toes just sticking up into the breeze: pleasant lounging in cool cake shops with feet sprawled out: boisterous buffetings on the pier and silent evening rambles into the sunset—mixed together with the jingle of the pierrots’ piano, the Bandmaster’s baton, and the cry of gulls; smoothly linked by drowsy hours of shade. Three nights running they went down after supper and sat on their balcony in the light of the moon.

Fortnight in September 2

They would talk in undertones then—with their eyes on the glittering path across the sea. The evening sounds eddied round them on breaths of wind that were cooled by the autumn dew, and in the fragments of silence they would hear the sea whispering and the faint, rhythmic pop of Mr. Stevens’ lips as they opened to let out small puffs of blue tobacco smoke.

commentary: Earlier this year I was in New York (and yes, I told you all about it) and was fast asleep in my hotel room when I was woken by my phone beeping a lot. I was using the alarm, and not being very phone-clever I had left normal sounds and notifications on. The relentless beeping made me think it must be something important, and indeed it was. My friend Lissa Evans was asking for book recommendations on Twitter, and all her friends were piling in (it was the middle of the morning in the UK). This was so interesting that eventually I gave up and sat up to read the Tweets and titles. 

One book stood out: this one. I think I’m right in saying that it was the writer Elizabeth Day (here’s her own excellent book The Party on the blog) who had initially recommended it, so full credit to her. Naturally, I downloaded it to my Kindle immediately, and read it in the middle of Manhattan – I have saved the blogpost to feature in September, as that is when the Stevens family, obviously, took their holiday.

It is the most lovely book, an absolute classic, a wonderful read. It tells the story of Mr and Mrs Stevens and their three children, and their annual trip to Bognor Regis. They always stay in the same boarding-house, and they do many of the same things: any change in their activities is discussed at length. This is the question of whether to go for a better beach-hut:
It would cost fifteen shillings more each week, and a lot could be done with thirty shillings: two eggs for breakfast; an extra charabanc ride, shrimp paste for tea, and possibly an extra theatre—but good as these things were, they did not give quite the same feeling as sitting on your own private balcony. They had threshed it out from every point of view and each time it had ended by someone saying, “Let’s decide later on.”

Fortnight in September 1

My first note on the Kindle is ‘one-third of the way in, and they have only just got to Bognor’, and I meant it most approvingly. The book takes a leisurely pace, and we are privy to all the family’s arrangements to go away, which are elaborate, involving many of the neighbours, and the planning of the train trip from Dulwich in south London down to the coast. And by the time they get there, Sherriff has made us see every member of the family very clearly.

Mary makes a friend, and there is a wonderful description of how she slightly panics when the friend is late turning up – the best description I’ve read of this surely universally recognizable feeling. But then she comes and everything is fine:

Her friend was wearing a simple white frock, with a Fortnight in September 4little red belt of shining leather. It looked superbly fresh and cool beside the gaudy coloured posters and automatic machines, and it thrilled Mary to think of the evening she had first seen her friend wearing it, by the railings at the band.

and Mary ends up with a small romance. 

Everyone has their moment on the holiday, although really the point of the book is that nothing happens. We learn more about Mr Stevens and the two great disappointments in his life, and then the family ends up going to tea at the home of one of the important clients at the firm where he is a chief invoice clerk. Very very gently Sherriff makes the point that the Stevens have little money, but a tight-knit family, while the wealthy Montgomerys don’t seem happy at all.

Life isn’t perfect for the Stevens family of course, and during the course of the holiday they think about their futures and what they want out of life, and some changes they might make.

But the author never overplays his hand: of course you are meant to draw some conclusions about the family and their life, but he never pushes it too hard. When you look at RC Sherriff’s own life, (which is well worth doing) it seems likely that the story is based very much on the reality of his own background. He wrote the most successful play to come out of the First World War – Journey’s End, still performed – and his own introduction to the book is fascinating and makes him sound like a lovely man. There is not a second of condescension, or snark, or belittling in the book: he is just describing these people and their lives.

Lissa said it was like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and I saw what she meant: Woolf wrote about what she knew, and so did Sherriff.

The Fortnight in September is a pure delight – and I think everyone who took up the recommendation back in April would agree. Five stars.

Top picture is At the Beach by Constantin Alexeevich Korovin, dated 1932, from the Athenaeum website.  

Next picture is from the Australian Maritime Museum by the wonderful Sam Hood.
Then Stanley Sepncer’s The Beach at Southwold.

Two women in the 1930s (they look as if they have anachronistic mobile phones, but they are at the races, examining the form) from the Powerhouse Museum.


  1. It sounds like a really well-written portrait of a family, Moira. And the bits you've shared are absolutely wonderful descriptions of a summer holiday. I can see why you enjoyed it so much. I like it that there seems to be this 'slice-of-life' feel to it.

    1. I am full of admiration for him as a writer - it could have been either dull, or condescending, but it was neither. As I say above, he sounds like a lovely man.

  2. It's such a great example of a book where not a lot happens, but it's still un-put-downable. There's a moment where they throw the sandwich wrapper out of the train window that stuck with me because it was such a "the past is a foreign country" moment - if a modern author had a character doing that it would be a sign they were a bad lot, but the Stevenses clearly aren't. They became so real I started wondering what would happen to them during the war - I was worried Mrs Stevens might lose the house she loves so much, but perhaps Mr Stevens would find new purpose in the ARP...
    I'm currently on holiday myself near the Pont du Gard, so have brought with me Madam Will You Talk by Mary Stewart, and Black Banner Abroad by Geoffrey Grease.

    1. *Trease* what has autocorrect got against the poor man!

    2. Oh yes, exactly Susanna, I remember that too. And yes, such a real family, I really wanted to know what happened next.
      Your holiday reading sounds perfect.
      Geoffrey T was a well-known left-winger, virtually a commie, so perhaps the revenge is still coming. (Geoffrey Treason would be another option... )

  3. In the middle of reading it. Read your post on my phone on the way to the London Library and a little while later it was in my hands and I started reading it in Waterstone's cafe! Loving it!

    1. Oh how nice, nothing could make me happier. I'm sure I will read it again, it will be on my list of comfort reads for difficult times.

  4. Definitely sounds good, I will be looking for it at the book sale.

    1. Good! I am interested in reading more by him, someone has recommended one of his books but I can't remember what it was called now (of course...).

    2. Was it Greengates? Think that is also published by Persephone - on my TBR list. I think you got A Fortnight in September spot- on. I was trying to explain to someone recently that it was absolutely lovely, yet nothing really happened. But that's true of lovely times IRL also. Journey's End is my absolute favourite play: reading A Fortnight in September many years later showed me such a different side to this wonderful writer.

    3. thank you! The one mentioned to me was The Hopkins Manuscript, but Greengates is on my radar too. I will definitely be reading more of him - what a writer.

  5. It certainly is a lovely gentle read, unchallenging in just the right way. Of course for real book fans you can get the Persephone edition in their stylish grey covers!

    1. Indeed, they are always beautiful. Not so available in a hotel room in Manhattan...


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