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.