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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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.