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The Fortnight in September

A Novel

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This charming, timeless classic about a family of five setting out on their annual seaside vacation is “the most uplifting, life-affirming novel I can think of...the beautiful dignity to be found in everyday living has rarely been captured more delicately” (Kazuo Ishiguro).

Meet the Stevens family, as they prepare to embark on their yearly holiday to the coast of England. Mr. and Mrs. Stevens first made the trip to Bognor Regis on their honeymoon, and the tradition has continued ever since. They stay in the same guest house and follow the same carefully honed schedule—now accompanied by their three children, twenty-year-old Mary, seventeen-year-old Dick, and little brother Ernie.

Arriving in Bognor they head to Seaview, the guesthouse where they stay every year. It’s a bit shabbier than it once was—the landlord has died and his wife is struggling as the number of guests dwindles every year. But the family finds bliss in booking a slightly bigger cabana, with a balcony, and in their rediscovery of the familiar places they visit every year.

Mr. Stevens goes on his annual walk across the downs, reflecting on his life, his worries and disappointments, and returns refreshed. Mrs. Stevens treasures an hour spent sitting alone with her medicinal glass of port. Mary has her first small taste of romance. And Dick pulls himself out of the malaise he’s sunk into since graduation, resolving to work towards a new career. The Stevenses savor every moment of their holiday, aware that things may not be the same next year.

Delightfully nostalgic and soothing, The Fortnight in September is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

This reading group guide for The Fortnight in September includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

The Fortnight in September follows a family of five on their annual holiday to the seaside town on the coast of England. Mr. and Mrs. Stevens have stayed at the Seaview guesthouse every year since their honeymoon two decades ago. While many things have remained the same over time, much has also changed.

This year, their twenty-year-old daughter Mary has her first brush with romance. Seventeen-year-old son Dick reflects on his first year in the workforce and contemplates a change. Mr. Stevens goes on a long, refreshing walk to ponder the past. And while young Ernie is asleep in the evenings and everyone else is out on the town, Mrs. Stevens relaxes over a medicinal glass of port.

A quietly powerful family novel, The Fortnight in September dives below the surface of everyday life to explore marital roles, parent-child relationships, financial troubles, class differences, nostalgia for the past, and hope for the future. It’s an ultimately uplifting story about the parts of ourselves we keep secret and the small pleasures we share with those we love.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The Stevens family has taken the same annual vacation for the past twenty years. In the opening chapter, the author writes: “They had often talked of a change—of Brighton, Bexhill—even Lowestoft—but Bognor always won in the end” (p. 4). Why do you think they return to the same destination? How have Bognor and Seaview remained the same over the years and how have they changed? In what other ways do members of the family gravitate toward the familiar? When are they drawn to change and the unknown?

2. When Mr. Stevens brings his wife a cup of tea on the morning of their departure, she remarks internally that he “hadn’t brought her a cup of tea like this for—oh—ever so long” (p. 27). What is the significance of this gesture? What other small gestures in the book hold a lot of emotional importance?

3. The author writes that Mr. Stevens “had the gift of establishing domestic ‘Occasions’” (p. 18) around special days—such as the night before a trip—so that they become almost ritualistic in nature. Why are these rituals important to him and the rest of the family? What other rituals take place throughout the book?

4. Discuss the character of Mrs. Haykin, who watches the Stevenses’ canary, Joe. What do we know about her and her relationship with the family? Why does Mary dread visiting her when it’s time to drop off Joe?

5. Consider the theme of anticipation in the novel. How does it influence the Stevenses’ enjoyment of their holiday? Discuss the following passage that comes shortly after their arrival at Seaview: “With a touch of panic you wonder whether the holiday, after all, is only a dull anti-climax to the journey” (p. 100). Have you experienced a similar emotion upon reaching at a highly anticipated moment?

6. At one point in the novel, Mr. Stevens considers “what a very happy place the world would be if people could lead each other quietly aside, and gently but firmly tell each other the little things they unconsciously do that irritate and annoy their fellows” (p. 103). Do you agree with this sentiment?

7. At the end of the family’s first day at Seaview, Mr. Stevens thinks about how “time only moved evenly upon the hands of clocks: to men it can linger and almost stop dead, race on, leap chasms, and linger again. He knew, with a little sadness, that it always made up its distance in the end. Today it had travelled gropingly, like an engine in a fog, but now, with each passing hour of the holiday it would gather speed, and the days would flash by like little wayside stations” (p. 133). Do you agree with his observations about the passage of time? Where else in the novel does time seem to move faster or slower? Does this resonate with your own experiences?

8. On the topic of family, the author remarks: “All families who live a great deal together are like the Stevenses in this respect: they unconsciously develop two separate personalities; one for family use, the other for use with strangers” (p. 189). How does each character’s personality differ when they are with their family versus when they are on their own? What do we learn about them during their time apart—their anxieties and secrets, aspirations and regrets? Discuss, in particular, Mr. Stevens’s persona on his trips to the pub, Dick’s career aspirations, Mary’s romantic encounter, and Mrs. Stevens’s true feelings about the trips to Bognor.

9. Both Mr. Stevens and Dick go on long walks to order their thoughts, the father looking back on his life and the son looking forward. What other parallels can you identify between the two men? How does each feel about the other and their respective careers? What aspects of their relationship seem universal to all fathers and sons? Do you think their differing feelings are generational?

10. Discuss the family’s visit to the vacation home of Mr. Montgomery, an important customer of Mr. Stevens’s firm. How do class dynamics play out in this chapter? What “signs of careless wealth” does Dick observe in the Montgomery’s house (p. 241)? How does this compare to the Stevenses’ measured relationship to money?

11. While out with Pat, Mary considers how “She had thought of life as something that just began, before you knew, and went quietly on, until you died: she had never known that it could end—and begin again so wonderfully” (p. 256). How does this brush with romance symbolize both an ending and a beginning for her?

12. Mrs. Stevens almost gives up her annual bottle of port citing its expense, but Mr. Stevens insists she buy it, and she relieves her conscience by considering how it was recommended by her doctor as medicinal. Later in the novel, we learn that the hour she spends drinking it alone each night is the one part of the holiday she truly enjoys. Why do you think she feels obligated to justify this small pleasure? How have traditional roles for wives and mothers shaped her sense of duty to prioritize her family’s happiness over her own? To what extent do these gendered pressures exist today?

13. How do memories of the past impact the characters’ experiences in the present? In what moments do they feel an anticipatory type of nostalgia—pre-emptively considering what it will be like to look back on the events currently taking place? What moments in your life have made you feel this way?

14. The novel ends with the Stevens family looking back on this scene: “From the distance Mrs. Huggett’s white lace cuff looked like a handkerchief being waved. They could not see her bad eye any longer, and she looked quite tall and dignified standing there by the gate in her black silk dress” (p. 289). Why do you think the author chose to end with this image? Do you think it is a fitting conclusion to the book? Do you think the Stevens family will return to her guesthouse the following year?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The Fortnight in September is set in the real seaside resort town of Bognor Regis, in West Sussex, England. Look up present-day tourism options in Bognor. What would a vacation there look like now?

2. In the excerpt from his autobiography, R. C. Sherriff says that following the success of his first novel (published in 1931), he didn’t want to write another one because “the critics would probably say it wasn’t another Fortnight in September, and would no doubt be right” (p. 295). He went on to write several more novels anyway, including Greengates (1936) and The Hopkins Manuscript (1939). Read one of these novels and play the role of critic, comparing it to The Fortnight in September.

3. R. C. Sherriff is best known for his play Journey’s End, which offers a glimpse into the lives of British soldiers in the trenches during World War I, drawn from his own experiences. Watch a movie adaptation or filmed stage version together.

R.C. Sherriff was born in 1896. He worked in an insurance office until he joined the East Surrey regiment early in World War One. In 1917 he was severely wounded at Ypres. Journey’s End, based on his letters home from the trenches, was an enormous success and became a classic. In the 1930s Sherriff went to Hollywood to write the script for The Invisible Man, and subsequently worked on the script for Mrs. Miniver, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and many other successful films. He wrote several novels, including The Fortnight in September, Greengates, and The Hopkins Manuscript before his death in 1975.

"A treasure. . . The Fortnight in September is 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. . . . 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." —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

"An absolute delight from start to finish. Sherriff’s tender observations of the family dynamics, and the simple joy each of them takes in the highlight of their year, prove him to be an unrivaled master of the quotidian. . . . The novel exerts a spell, one that leaves us hanging on these characters’ every word."The Paris Review

"A captivating read. . . . quietness is part of the novel's immense charm." Laurie Hertzel, Minneapolis Star Tribune 

“Sharply written and a real joy to read.”Red Carpet Crash

"Extraordinary. . . . The pages are full of anticipation. . . . [T]here’s a sense that time is ticking on these vacations. It must be savored, and so, too, should this very special book." Booklist Reviews (starred)

"Makes you want to hold on to and notice more fully the people you journey the earth with. What struck me most was the essential goodness of each character. . . . I didn’t want it to end, and when I finished it, I experienced the loss of a good vacation being over." Ethan Joella, author of A Little Hope