Long Summer Day was a long summer read, but I enjoyed every minute of it! First published in 1966, this is the first part of RF Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy (originally just two books rather than three, as this one and Post of Honour were intended to form one huge volume; the final book, The Green Gauntlet, came a few years later).
Long Summer Day begins in 1902, early in the reign of King Edward VII, and ends in 1911, shortly after the coronation of his successor, George V. The novel takes its title from the fact that this period of history, coming just before the horrors of the First World War, came to be looked back on with nostalgia and described as the ‘Long Edwardian Summer’. Set in rural Devon, it follows the story of Paul Craddock, a young man who is injured during the Boer War and, with his military career at an end, decides to use his inheritance from his father to buy an estate in the countryside.
At first the inhabitants of the Sorrel Valley are suspicious of their new Squire, but through his efforts to befriend and understand them, Paul quickly earns their respect and acceptance. As he gets to know each of the families who live in and around the valley, we, the reader, have a chance to get to know them all too. It’s a very large cast and at first it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, but eventually each character, however minor, becomes a fully formed human being and is given a storyline of his or her own.
I can’t mention all of the characters here, but some that I found particularly memorable include Ikey Palfrey, the stableboy Paul informally adopts and sends to school; Will Codsall and Elinor Willoughby, a young couple whose marriage forms one of the novel’s first small dramas; the agent John Rudd who manages the estate and provides Paul with both advice and friendship; and Hazel Potter, the wild youngest daughter of one of the valley’s most notorious families. In such a tight-knit community, the stories of each of these characters and many more are closely intertwined so that the actions of one may have repercussions on the lives of the others.
As an eligible young bachelor, Paul attracts the attention of several of his female neighbours almost from the moment he arrives in Devon, but only two come to play an important role in his life. One of them is Claire Derwent, daughter of one of his tenant farmers, and the other is Grace Lovell, a cousin of the family who previously owned Shallowford, Paul’s estate. Grace is a fiercely independent person, a feminist who believes passionately in women’s suffrage. I felt that I should like her, but although I did admire her strength and courage, her prickly nature made it difficult for me to warm to her. Claire, though, I loved from the start – and my opinion of her never changed. Although she has little interest in politics and keeps herself busy with more domestic tasks, it’s clear that she is happy with this and that it’s her choice. I found her sensible, down-to-earth, kind-hearted and a strong person too, although not in the same way as Grace. To discover which of these women Paul chooses, you’ll have to read the book for yourself!
The personal stories of the characters are played out against a backdrop of events from Edwardian history: Edward VII’s illness and delayed coronation, the political conflict between the Conservative and Liberal parties (it’s plain to see where the author’s own political sympathies lie) and the beginnings of the suffragette movement. We also find out how the characters react when change and progress finally makes its way to the Devon countryside and they see their first ‘horseless carriage’.
Long Summer Day is one of my books of the year so far, without a doubt. It’s written in the sort of warm, comforting, old-fashioned style that I love, and despite its length I felt that the pages were going by very quickly because I was so absorbed in the lives of Paul and his friends – it’s one of those books where you truly feel as though you’ve escaped into another world for a little while!
A Horseman Riding By was adapted by the BBC in the 1970s, with Nigel Havers as Paul Craddock. Has anyone seen it?
This is book 6/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.