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The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age Hardcover – June 1, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Queen Mary's diary and the recollections of an under-chauffeur to the Portuguese ambassador are two of the disparate sources Nicholson (The Perfect Summer) uses in her anecdotal account of the period between the end of WWI on November 11, 1918, and the burial of an unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey two years later. Vividly portraying the horrors of trench warfare and the misery of the bereaved and wounded, she uses the metaphor of the great silence—two minutes of stillness commemorating the armistice—to explore Britons' attempts to cope with the growing despair generated by broken promises and false hopes. Industrial unrest, advances in women's rights, increasing drug use, and the new craze of jazz reveal, says Nicolson, the clamor of the nation's progress through grief. Her sometimes affecting pastiche of Britain's post-WWI mood is marred by the absence of source notes, disconnected vignettes, and minor inaccuracies, such as the origins of the word barmy (which relates to beer's froth, not to the Barming Hospital at Maidstone) and the postwar fashion for men's wristwatches. 37 b&w photos. (June)
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Review

“Wonderfully vivid…When we study history we…tend to overlook the transitional periods. Juliet Nicolson has, in a short time, become the voice of these critical gaps in the fabric of British history…In another splendid work of social history, Nicolson focuses on the years between 1918 and 1920. At once grand and intimate, Nicolson takes on a captivating journey.”—The Daily Beast

“[Nicolson has] a strong narrative, an empathic interest in characters under stress and a gift for the telling moment. The large historical shifts are here, but the small scenes steal the show…eloquent.”—Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier (Charleston)

“[A] vivid account of the aftermath of the carnage we glamorize as the Great War…[Nicolson] excels at ferreting out revealing details…[she offers] some wonderful vignettes. And the final pages of The Great Silence, which document Britain’s official tribute to the dead, are magnificent.”—Miranda Seymour, The New York Times Book Review

“Nicolson’s anecdotal history describes with facts and feeling the two years of silence and emptiness that followed the joyless armistice...a moving account…When the unknown British soldier was buried with solemn pomp in Westminster Abbey, some found the ritual stagy, sentimental, and hypocritical but most found it healing and hopeful. Nicolson ends her history with a long and loving re-creation of this collective expression of grief and gratitude. It may make you cry.”—Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

“This is social history at its very best, as Nicolson fascinatingly describes the fast-changing lives of everyday men and women in Britain from 1918 to 1920…Colorful characters abound in Nicolson’s historically insightful and utterly absorbing narrative.”—Chuck Leddy, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A pearl of anecdotal history, The Great Silence is a satisfying companion to major studies of World War I and its aftermath…as Nicolson proceeds through the familiar stages of grief—denial, anger and acceptance—she gives you a deeper understanding of not only this brief period, but also how war’s sacrifices don’t end after the fighting stops.”—Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Seattle Times

“Vividly [portrays] the horrors of trench warfare and the misery of the bereaved and wounded.”—Publishers Weekly

"[Nicolson’s] approach is anecdotal and eclectic, drawing freely on contemporary diaries, letters and memoirs to create an impressionistic picture of the lull preceding the Roaring ‘20s…Nicolson is at her most effective when describing the nation’s search for a fitting public expression of its abiding sense of grief…[she] observes with poignant understatement.”—Elizabeth Lowry, The Wall Street Journal

“If, instead of looking at the great sweep of history, you take just two years, and you find out the small, everyday things that people of all stations in life were doing—the king and his manservant, the prime minister and the postman—you can convey a sense of the past that no conventional history can offer…the method enables [Nicolson] to take us into places that even people who think they know something about the period did not know existed…This is a small treasure-house of a book from a writer who understands the vital importance of small details.”—Francis Beckett, The Guardian

“Terribly moving…so full of feeling and intelligence and interest: the densely detailed, whelmingly sad story of a country with a broken heart.”—Sam Leith, The Daily Mail (UK)

“This masterful book collects random details and somehow manages to orchestrate them into a symphony. Nicolson is particularly brilliant at plucking out the significant detail within the apparently ephemeral…The Great Silence works beautifully as a mosaic of a country at a particular time, artfully constructed from all these extraordinary details plucked from far and wide…a book that contains so much that is truly poignant or fascinating or thoughtful. Nicolson’s concluding description of the final great silence—in Westminster Abbey, at the burial of the coffin of the Unknown Soldier—is piercingly beautiful.”—Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday (UK)

“Nicolson writes with such admirable pace and fluency that it would be easy to suppose that this book had been effortlessly scribbled down. It is, on the contrary, a triumph of balance and organization; a study which comprehends the cultural and the intellectual, the political and the social, and weaves them all into a lively and convincing narrative.”—Philip Ziegler, The Spectator

“Juliet Nicolson’s second book of social history confirms her as one of those writers—particularly unusual among social historians—who can spin straw into gold…Nicolson’s magpie delight in the richness of her material goes a long way to offering the reader an intoxicating peep-show of postwar society.”—Virginia Nicholson, Eastern Daily Press

“An excellent book…quite a story and a worldwide lesson of horror.”—Women on the Web
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802119441
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802119445
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #609,259 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In Virginia Woolf's MRS DALLOWAY, the character of Peter Walsh decides that the few years immediately after the Great War were "somehow very important"; Juliet Nicholson's powerful new cultural history of Great Britain during the period from 1918 to 1920, remind us just how very important that period was. Nicholson's method is to center her study around the lives of thirty-some figures, ranging from royalty and the aristocracy to figures important in the arts and the military, and even the working class. Her style seems initially meandering but as you get the hang of it you see the deeper patterns underneath, as she cleverly structures these figures' lives around the nation's major milestones in articulating the meaning of the War to End All Wars, where one in seven British men of the age of service died. Her choices for her dramatis personae are terrific, and often surprising: we don't hear that much about the Woolfs, Lytton Strachey, or even about her grandparents Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, for example (though those very familiar figures are all in here nonetheless), but rather quite a bit about the great memoirist Vera Brittain and the novelist Winifred Holtby. And most of the stories here have been rarely (if ever) fully told, and yet are of crucial interest to anyone interested in modernism or the InterWar period and here told with great skill: the first graduation of women from Oxford; the sensational glorification by Lowell Thomas of the exploits of T.E.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Much history taught in public schools is macro-history, with pupils required to remember names, dates, places, important events and of course, important people. That became the fashion likely because of the constraints of time. There is so much students must learn that concentration on the details is left for specialty classes at University. But what is it that really shapes a nation's destiny and forms it's national character? Well, it's the little things that do that and when you study them you can better understand the trajectory of a country's history.
I happen to enjoy the details of history and so was delighted to read Juliet Nicolson's fine social history of Great Britain covering the two years immediately following the end of WWI. Since wars are massively disruptive, their end generally entails massive social and economic changes for both the victor and the vanquished. Most reasonably well-educated Americans know about the economic and social upheavals that took place in Germany, Russia, and to a lesser extent, Austria-Hungary following the First World War. Fewer know much about the effects of the war on Great Britain with many assuming that as the victor, it emerged relatively unscathed except for its battlefield losses.
Well, in The Great Silence, Nicolson puts the lie to that notion. Using anecdote, she shows how the war affected all classes of British society from the humblest servants all the way up to the royal family. And it did change them all. But it wasn't all negative. There were many great advances not just socially, but also in science and in technology which resulted in a more restless, but ultimately a freer and slightly less class-ridden society.
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Format: Hardcover
When we study history we often jump directly from World War I to the Roaring Twenties, paying little or no attention to the transition period between. Juliet Nicolson's The Great Silence ably chronicles the years 1919-1920 in Britain (with occasional excursions elsewhere). Readers who enjoyed her earlier work The Perfect Summer will be glad to see that Nicolson has followed much the same format here: telling in roughly chronological order the events of the time as experienced by well known and unknown figures of the time.

The 1919-1920 period saw the ending of one world and the beginning of another. Along with the lives of millions of people, World War I destroyed or at least altered much of Europe's political, cultural, and military establishment. Nicolson does an able job chronicling the physical losses felt by so many people in England during and after the war: families who lost sons, husbands, and fathers, and soldiers who were horribly wounded and disfigured. Advances in medical care meant more men survived terrible shattering wounds, but at the price of becoming objects of fear and disgust to many when they returned home missing limbs or parts of their faces. Women found new work opportunities but struggled to deal with men who, even if they were not physically wounded, often suffered what we now call PTSD.

In 1919 and 1920 there were also plenty of hints about the new world that was taking shape. Jazz music was introduced to London ballrooms, and Coco Chanel began her long and celebrated career. New technologies like airplanes and motorcars were becoming more reliable and more common.
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