The Magazine

On the Brink

England's Indian summer before the Great War.

Dec 3, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 12 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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The Perfect Summer

England 1911, Just Before the Storm

by Juliet Nicolson

Grove, 304 pp., $25

Perhaps posing a bit for pithy immortality, Virginia Woolf famously declared that human nature changed somewhere in the leafy neighborhood of 1910. If Juliet Nicolson were to agree with the claim, she might offer the retort that the doyenne of Bloomsbury had jumped the gun a bit. The real change, she might say, got ushered in a year later when, as a plump England enjoyed one of the hottest summers in living memory, it also marked the formal end of the Edwardian era when the sober, earnest George V ascended the throne, and the British nation, happily oblivious to the guns of August that would commence firing three summers later, lazed languidly in its clubbable, stiff-collared prosperity and corseted propriety.

This well-mannered, genteel world was a massively solid place, but it was also (as Disraeli had said of the Victorian age--and it was H.G. Wells who had once compared Queen Victoria to a paperweight on men's minds) made for the few, and for the very few. And this has become the common, complacent notion. But as Nicolson proves in this evocative book, that picture of English life, so easy to paint and make the stuff of stereotypes, does not bear microscopic scrutiny. There was much more to it.

Nonetheless, she daubs that old picture with its full colors. This was a society, if ever there was, that could be tagged as belonging exclusively, at its upper reaches, to "the idle rich." The lull before the worldwide catastrophe brought on, as Kenneth Clark described it, "a golden age," one that shimmered for the leisured classes. As Clark wrote of his own idly rich family during this period, while there were "many people [who] were richer, there can have been few who were idler." If one came from the right people, this must have been a jolly time and place in which to live. But even the untitled and not-so-rich found themselves entranced by a luminous, retrospective mirage.

The poet Siegfried Sassoon later referred to the sultry months of 1911 as "one of those specially remembered summers, from which one evolves a consistent impression of commingled happiness." A tone of elegy pervades memoirs of that year. "Sitting under the Irish yew," Sassoon eulogized, "we seemed to have forgotten that there was such a thing as the future." Late in May, Nicolson writes, the country "had begun to dance its way into high summer to the background sounds of Ragtime and Stravinsky, humming bees and the fizz of champagne." Apparently, throughout that long summer of 1911, England was Lotus Land.

Yet the title of this book stands at an oblique angle to the truth, as this opulent, extravagantly refined world was not quite what it seemed to the elegists. And this fact Nicolson documents with meticulous care. As the daughter of the Tory author and publisher Nigel Nicolson, and granddaughter of diplomat and diarist Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, Juliet Nicolson sports the pedigree to write about this period, and she does so with the dogged energy of a popular historian whose research is nonetheless thorough and well-sifted, and her material expertly arranged. If her writing at times sweetens itself with a cloying taste for the lyrical, she can be forgiven: Those expansive years in Great Britain just before the onset of the Great War prompt, in any sensible writer armed with a historical imagination, more than a touch of lyricism.

Nicolson sets up her book much like a diary with chapter headings marking the passage of time, two chapters per month, and takes us from May to September, chronicling events, high and low, and the principal characters who strutted their minutes on the stage, sometimes frivolously. We learn as much about the sparkling balls and fickle habits of the rich as we'll ever need to know, and yet what we learn isn't too much. The bold and brash 18-year-old Lady Diana Manners--later the actress and author Diana Cooper--makes this her coming-out season and turns every head for pages.

"We were on the go," wrote one habitué of the high life, "with a sort of frenzied madness of pleasure-seeking throughout every one of our waking hours." Even the lazy among this set can charm. Ida Sitwell strains to allay the burden of her boredom and fill "the blank stretch between hour and hour"--an effort, we gather, only partially successful. We're taken to the starchy dedication of the great marble monument to Victoria, unveiled in May, and then to the magnificent coronation of the new king the following month, where we learn that ladies were discouraged from wearing "hobble skirts" because that fashionable garment impeded the necessary curtsying to Their Majesties.

Some might observe here that this age could produce shallowness on a prodigious scale, and no doubt that's so; but at least it was a shallowness exercised with flair and panache. With these people even solemnity could be playful.

But none of this spirited pomp and fun stopped the perceptive from feeling tremors under their feet. The 36-year-old Winston Churchill, already a veteran of Parliament, confided to his journal earlier in the year that "all the world is changing at once." And when Leonard Woolf returned from the overseas civil service, he found at home "a sweeping away of formalities and barriers," a discovery he thought "exhilarating." (Literary figures like Woolf, his future wife Virginia Stephen, Rupert Brooke, Lytton Strachey, the aforementioned Sassoon, and the eccentric bohemian painter Augustus John get splendid walk-on parts.)

Indeed, much of the world is changing from without. The horse-drawn carriage is disappearing from the streets of London, although not completely, and the arrival of cars, adding their fumes to the stench of manure, combines the worst of both worlds for the ambient nose. Light bulbs are replacing candles at balls and alter the old candlelit glitter of jewels. The first air post is flown in 1911.

But attitudes were altering as well. Boundaries of the forbidden were getting redrawn. Women's exchange of the corset for the brassiere eases abrupt, illicit encounters. Not only can sex be mentioned in certain socially liberal and sophisticated circles, but it can now be a source of ribald amusement. "Does it really matter what these affectionate people do in the bedroom," an actress remarks on the sexual mores of servants, "as long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses?"

However golden a time it seemed for the fortunate, the summer grew less perfect the longer it lasted. The warm temperatures, so welcome in May and early June, turned hot and unrelenting, wilting many a hearty soul and inspiring prayers to return to the wet, chilly spring. Drought overtook the normally cool, damp British Isles. With temperatures holding steady in the mid-80s and above in a country where summer clothes aren't commonly flimsy, no drop of rain was recorded for the first 20 days of July and, according to some, birdsong was silenced. Ominously, the Times started a new daily column, "Deaths From Heat," and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich ruefully (and for the first time) pronounced 100 degrees in the shade on August 10. Diarrhea from rancid food and milk killed hundreds, and in Liverpool, near-revolutionary conditions obtained, causing concern for then-Home Secretary Churchill. An impending strike of dockworkers--Churchill threatened military intervention--served only to heighten national anxiety.

The story of this time and place gets told through sources both familiar and obscure--Nicolson makes excellent use of memoirs--and she organizes them with democratic attention to both the Upstairs and Downstairs of 1911 English society. While we learn mostly of the rich and smart, no one is excluded, and Nicolson throws brighter light on what we now call social history--economic straitjacketing of the servant classes, advocacy for women's suffrage, problems of labor unrest--while a subtle vibration runs through contemporary accounts of the Kaiser's designs and ambitions.

Still, the most enduring residue of The Perfect Summer remains a set of kaleidoscopic images of another world, one past but still intimately linked to our own; and despite our knowing, as we read, of all that is to come for this generation and its children, the servings of mirth and humanity they have left behind still abide. Talking about the benefits of champagne, Churchill declared that it provides "a feeling of exhilaration" in which "the nerves are braced, the imagination is agreeably stirred, [and] the wits become more nimble." There's nothing momentous about this claim--except its truth, which is more or less perfect, and worth remembering.

Tracy Lee Simmons is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.