Summerhills, first published in 1956, is the second book in D.E. Stevenson’s Ayrton family trilogy which began with Amberwell. I knew it had been a few years since I read the first book but was shocked to find that it was actually more than six years! I was worried that I’d left it so long I would struggle to get back into the story, but that turned out to not be a problem; although I could barely remember what happened in Amberwell, Stevenson provides enough of a recap in the opening chapters that I could easily pick up all the threads again.
The book begins with Roger Ayrton, now an officer in the Army, returning to his family home in Scotland for a visit. The house, Amberwell, is where Roger and his brothers and sisters grew up before the outbreak of World War II and it still holds a special place in his heart. Some of the family have moved on, but Amberwell is still home to Roger’s stepmother and his younger sister Nell, who has been taking care of his son, Stephen, since his wife’s death. Stephen is now eight years old and Roger thinks it’s time he was sent away to school, but Nell objects, wanting him to stay close to home. As there are no suitable schools near Amberwell, Roger comes up with what he thinks is the perfect plan – he’ll open a school of his own!
At first it seems that the creation of the school – which becomes known as Summerhills – is going to be the main focus of the book, but the plot soon branches off into several different directions. Roger finds himself unexpectedly falling in love, as does Nell, while his youngest sister, Anne, whose first marriage ended unhappily is trying to move on from her traumatic past and has become housekeeper to an elderly neighbour. A new cook arrives at Amberwell, adding a touch of humour to the story, and there’s also a new governess, Georgina Glassford, who enjoys running and is always looking for someone to time her mile. Although most of the main characters in the book are very likeable, I did find their treatment of Georgina very unkind, particularly as their dislike of her seems to be based on the fact that she wears trousers and gets up early to exercise.
I enjoyed the glimpse of life in post-war Scotland – even though the lifestyles of the Ayrton family seem largely unchanged thanks to Roger receiving a large inheritance on his wife’s death, all around them other once-wealthy families are having to sell their country houses as they can no longer afford to maintain them or pay for servants. This is how Roger manages to acquire a large house to convert into a school (of course there’s no question of an Ayrton boy being sent to an ordinary day school – it must be a boarding school – and there’s no mention of the girls being allowed to go either). At least he does promise to charge reduced fees so that less fortunate boys can attend and gives the job of headmaster to his friend Arnold Maddon (one of my favourite characters), who has lost a foot during the war and has been struggling to find work.
I would have liked Anne’s storyline to have had a proper conclusion – it was left very open-ended – and I was sorry that we saw very little of the other Ayrton sister, Connie, and nothing at all of their brother Tom, who has become a doctor. There’s also a strange subplot in the middle of the book where Roger goes to Rome in search of Aunt Beatrice; I couldn’t really see the point of this as it didn’t have much relevance to the rest of the novel. Still, Stevenson’s writing style is so readable that even pointless episodes like this are quite enjoyable. There is a third novel, Still Glides the Stream, which is described as the final book in the Ayrton trilogy, but seems to be about a completely different family. Have any of you read that one?
This is book 5/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.