Let’s have a drum roll and a chorus of Rule Britannia! Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

August 27, 2010 at 1:23 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

One  could think of Major Ernest Pettigrew, resident of the village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex, as a proud defender of the old ways. Or as a superfluous relic of the past. Or as a man whose upright carriage and flawless manners provide cover for an almost unbearable loneliness.

As depicted in the novel by Helen Simonson, he is all of those things and more. The Major has been widowed for some years when suddenly and unexpectedly  a potential new love comes into his life. Although all occasions seem to inform against him, he is dauntless in his pursuit of Mrs. Ali, the  widow who runs a shop in the village. As the novel’s events unfold, she proves a most worthy recipient of his affections.

Mrs. Ali is childless; the major has a son. Roger, a big city striver in the financial sector, is something of a thorn in the Major’s side. They see eye to eye on virtually nothing. Their confrontations range from the frustrating, the outrageous, and the just plain hilarious. Roger’s cheerful materialism leaves no room for the eternal verities cherished by his father.

With her felicitous mode of expression and great sense of humor, Helen Simonson puts me in mind of Kate Atkinson. Both can be warmhearted, even tender, without becoming mawkish. Both create fully three-dimensional characters. write great dialog, and have formidable powers of description. (Jane Gardam comes to mind here as well.)

To wit, here is the major reflecting on his love for the  village in which he has been privileged to live for most of his life:

He had been many decades, as man and boy, in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary, and yet the walk down the hill to the village never ceased to give him pleasure. The lane was steeply cambered to either side, as if the narrow tarmac were the curving roof of some buried chamber. The dense hedges of privet, hawthorn, and beech swelled together as fat and complacent as medieval burghers. The air was scented with their spicy dry fragrance overlaid with the tang of animals in the fields behind the cottages….As he rounded a curve, the hedges gave way to the plain wire fence of a sheep field and allowed a view of twenty miles of Sussex countryside spreading beyond the roofs of the village below. Behind him, above his own house, the hills swelled upward into the rabbit-cropped grass of the chalk downs. Below him, the Weald of Sussex cradled fields full of late rye and the acid yellow of mustard. He liked to pause at  the stile, one foot up on the step, and drink in the landscape. Something–perhaps it was the quality of the light, or the infinite variety of greens in the trees and hedges–never failed to fill his heart with a love of country that he would have been embarrassed to express aloud.

As I transcribed the above, I was reminded of some of the landscapes we saw and the villages we passed through on our recent trips to England:

The village of Hawes, in Yorkshire

Middleham, in Yorkshire

In a completely different vein, there’s this memorable description of Dr. Khan, husband of one of the village’s more zealous social climbers:

The doctor looked stiff to the point of rigor mortis, thought the Major. He was a handsome man with thick short hair and large brown eyes, but his head was slightly small and was stuck well into the air as if the man were afraid of his own shirt collar. He wore a white military uniform with a short scarlet cloak and a close-fitting hat adorned with medals. The Major could immediately see him as a photo in the newspaper of some minor royalty recently executed during a coup.

*****************

The author information on the jacket flap indicates that Helen Simonson spent her adolescence in “a small village in East Sussex” – a village, in other words, like Edgecombe St. Mary. Simonson has lived in the U.S. for some twenty years now, so it’s interesting that she has chosen, at this point in time, to write such a quintessentially English novel. One wonders whether she misses English village life. (Heck, I miss it – and I’ve never even lived in such a place – only visited, all too briefly.)

Not everything in this novel works. At the story’s climax, Simonson throws in a melodramatic scenario that, to me at least, seemed both confusing and misplaced. Nevertheless, for a first outing, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an absolute treasure. I can’t wait to see what this gifted author does next.

Highly, highly recommended!

Helen Simonson

6 Comments

  1. Yvette said,

    Roberta, I too loved this wonderful book. Read it straight through in one sitting. I also love the pictures of the English countryside you posted in your review. I think MAJOR PETTIGREW will make a great movie. I keep hoping to read some casting news one of these days.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Yvette,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you liked the pictures. I’m the most avid Anglophile you can imagine, and for me, those scenes say it all.

      And yes – let’s have a movie made of MAJOR PETTIGREW!

  2. Yvette said,

    Speaking of Anglophiles from way back, that would be me. Yep, you’re talking to another one. Went to Great Britain many years ago and have always wished I could go back. I think I’m going to scan the pictures from that trip and put some of them on my blog one of these days. We went to England, Scotland and Wales. Magnificent places and the scenery…well, I don’t have to tell you. Of course, my favorite book of all time is: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. No real surprise there. ; )

  3. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    I enjoyed the book a lot. Regarding the scenery of Sussex–where I spent most of my life before coming to the U.S. and have continued to visit–it has a different look/feel to it than Yorkshire’s landscape. I can’t explain the difference, but it’s there for me. I suggest anyone who is interested in seeing some photos of Sussex should go to Google Images and types in “Sussex England”.

    Pauline

  4. Kay said,

    Having lived for 3 years in Yorkshire (30 years ago), I agree that there’s quite a difference in the people and the scenery. Yorkshire includes the Pennine Mountains and is more rugged than Sussex. The stony soil is more suited to grazing than crops. Houses are typically made of grey stone, not the thatch-roofed cottages that once typified Sussex. The people are different too –more blunt spoken but also, in my experience, friendlier and more welcoming to strangers.
    Thank you so much for reviewing this book! I read it earlier this year and should have put it at the very top of my “Best of” list.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      First – thanks are due to Pauline and Kay for their comments. I have no doubt that the Sussex landscape differs markedly from that of Yorkshire. I was responding specifically to two points in Helen Simonson’s lovely description; namely, the quality of the light, and the differing shades of green. These two aspects of the countryside struck me forcibly when I traveled in Yorkshire, and have remained vibrant within my imagination.
      I would dearly love to travel in Sussex. In particular, I would love to go to the new South Downs National Park.
      Oh well – let’s face it: I want to see every inch of this wonderful land!

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