You may be way ahead of me—I know I’m not the first on my block to read Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, newly released in paperback and in the top ratings on IndieBound.org and the New York Times Book Review.
A bit of a book snob, I suppose, I tend to shy away from the bestsellers, but a novel about a Sussex village—how could I resist? I put it on reserve at the public library some months ago and forgot about it until last week when I was notified that it was being held for me at my local branch.
I read it in a couple of sittings, charmed from beginning to end. Delightful and well written, it’s a contemporary novel of manners, an adult romance founded on a love of literature, a morality tale against racism and greed, all set in the East Sussex countryside, Virginia Woolf’s beloved landscape.
And of course, as I read it I couldn’t help thinking about Woolf and her life in Rodmell, about my own times there, brief tastes of village life, walks on the downs and to the coast, lunches at charming country pubs.
Like Woolf, Major Pettigrew is a walker who observes the colors and the smells around him, even on frequently traveled terrain. He loves the stroll down the hill from his house to the village center of Edgecombe St. Mary: “Behind him, 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.”
While Edgecombe St. Mary and its neighboring villages are fictional, a reference to the Romney Marsh was a clue that it was set in the area around Rye (known as Tilling to all of us Mapp and Lucia fans). Simonson indeed grew up in that region, which she describes, on her website, as “literary country.” She credits the heritage of Henry James at Lamb House in Rye, Kipling’s Bateman’s at Burwash, and Virginia Woolf at Monk’s House in Rodmell as a great inspiration.
Woolf doesn’t make an appearance in the novel by name, but she’s there in spirit. While the Major and Mrs. Ali bond over Kipling, I can imagine them reading and exchanging impressions about To the Lighthouse.