Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicholson

In her introduction to this book Nicholson writes, 'This is a biography of a summer, a particularly lovely summer, for some the most perfect of the twentieth century'. It was a very hot summer, far hotter than English summers usually are. Nicholson divides her chapters up into 'Early May', 'Late May', 'Early June' etc. and so the reader works their way through the whole season.

Each chapter has a main character, so for instance in Chapter 2, 'Early May', we read about Queen Mary preparing for the Coronation. She is a shy, reserved woman and is extremely anxious, not only about the ceremony itself, but her whole life as Queen and whether she'll be able to live up to the role. 'Late May' starts with Winston Churchill, then 36 and Home Secretary. Nicholson also explains what is going on in England, and where relevant, the world. So it's not a biography of the person, just what was happening to them during the summer of 1911, and how that fits into the bigger picture.

I was very pleased to see Leonard Woolf make an appearance ('Early July'). I have love Leonard ever since reading Victoria Glendinning's biography of him a couple of years ago. In 1911 Leonard was just back from spending several years in Ceylon working for the Colonial Civil Service. He has come back to find an England much changed. He is reacquainting himself with home and with his old friends such as Lytton Strachey.

Not all the characters are well known. Nicholson covers all sections of society and 'Late July' features Eric Horne, who had been a butler for forty years. Eric kept a diary and was not always complimentary about his employers;

Eric bridged the gap between the servants and the served. The evolving memoir, written in his idiosyncratic and uncorrected style, recorded what life was like not only in his pantry below stairs but in the drawing rooms and bedrooms above. It was incriminating and explosive stuff. Eric knew too much; in fact he knew the truth.

Nicholson also writes about the social unrest of the time. There was a strike by the dock workers which threatened to bring the country to its knees. Without the dock workers loading and unloading the ships, the trade on which the economy depended couldn't take place. The leader of the dock worker's union, Ben Tillett, wrote of London at the time;

the great markets of the city were idle; the rush and turmoil of the City's traffic congesting the principle ways dwindling to a little trickle as motor buses, motor cars and private vehicles of all kinds felt the pressure of a shortage of petrol and all the immense volume of trading traffic through the City streets from the docks to the warehouses and the great railway terminals ceased to move.

Of course one of the most poignant things about this book is that we know the dreadful catastrophe which is just around the corner. Everytime a new person entered the pages I couldn't help wondering what the war would bring to them, and if it's a young man, wondering if he'd still be alive by the end of 1918.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I enjoy reading about Bloomsbury, some of which covers this time period, but of course they moved in quite elevated circles. This book gave me an insight into broader society at the time.


  1. I find the work JN is doing to be just fascinating. I have two of her books (which I haven't read yet), Among the Bohemians, and Singled Out. I love the topics she chooses to write about. I want to get and read this one, too. Thank you for the wonderful review.

  2. Nan, I've read Among the Bohemians which I loved (thought I have to say, I don't think I'd want to be the wife of a Bohemian!) I haven't heard of Singled Out, but my two experiences of Juliet Nicholson have been so good that I think I'd read anything by her.