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The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm Paperback – May 13, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The granddaughter of Bloomsbury notables Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson chronicles the minutiae of the hot, sunny summer of 1911, when the rich crammed in a succession of parties as industrial strikes almost brought the country to a standstill, and WWI loomed on the horizon. Under Nicolson's lavish attentions, "upstairs" and "downstairs," the weighty and frivolous spring to vivid life. While Mary approached her upcoming coronation as queen with dread, Leonard Woolf fell in love with his Cambridge pal's sister, the budding novelist Virginia Stephen. The bewitching marchioness of Ripon arranged for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to perform at Covent Garden, and the Times revealed that certain servants were selling juicy tidbits about their aristocratic employers to American newspapers. Trade unionist Mary Macarthur's fight for women's rights meshes artfully with racy novelist Elinor Glyn's adulterous affair with ambivalent lover Lord Curzon. Lady Diana Manners's tart observations of her debutante season segue to a rendezvous between a footman and a kitchen maid. Drawing on a wide variety of primary sources—from Churchill's memoirs to the tell-all What the Butler Winked At—journalist Nicolson's debut, a British bestseller, serves up a delightfully gossipy yet substantial slice of social history. Photos not seen by PW. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The storm of the subtitle is the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, and Nicolson focuses on a particular period of quiet before that storm: the English summer of 1911, which boasted extreme heat but also day after day of sunny weather. European life was on the precipice; the forthcoming horrible years of war would bring a sudden modernism to how people lived, from king to commoner. But in that summer of 1911, "England was plump with promise," and the author seeks to "evoke the full vivid richness of how it smelt, looked, sounded, tasted and felt to be alive" in the months from May to September. She reconstructs the lives of several English individuals whose particular life-tales add to the complete picture of those ironically self-contented months. Nicholson visits, among others, Queen Mary, wife of the new king, George V ("The people in the waiting crowd were gratified to see how splendid the new Queen looked in her beautiful frock and diamonds"); politician Winston Churchill ("Life without champagne was inconceivable for Winston"); socialite Lady Dianna Manners ("the golden girl of the summer"); and butler Eric Horne ("Not quite the faithful servant he was assumed to be by the deluded individuals who employed him, Eric's was an increasingly cynical view of the changing world"). As entertaining as it is edifying. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press (May 13, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802143679
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802143679
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #865,574 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

145 of 152 people found the following review helpful By Graham on May 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The British edition came out last year. Washington Post reviewer Yardley actually paints a very good picture. Nicolson is giving us interesting social history, set within a looming historical context of overwhelming magnitude, well written and engaging. There is little new in her book, but it is not material that has been presented this way in a generation or so, so Nicolson is making a real contribution by reviving not only the narrative of the period, but writing it for the present generation of readers. If Yardley's review suggests that this is the sort of thing you will like, then you will like this sort of thing.

Yardley seems to have spectacularly missed the point of the title, though, and spoils his review by repeatedly finding material in the text to slag the use of the word perfect. Even after nearly a century, no British reviewer would have so utterly failed to understand the reference and its meaning. Knowing that context would have helped Yardley to get the point, and would help any American reader appreciate the book for its qualities and flaws alike.

World War I struck Britain hard at every level of society and deep into the psyche of generations of Britons. Britain's more obvious national heroism and apparent unity in WW2, and its having not been occupied, makes that latter war seem more positive and less shattering an event than WW1, even though it truly finished off Britain's empire and gutted its prosperity more completely. As a result, WW1 looms more vividly in the British mind and culture than it does in nations damaged much worse by it. France and Germany have had worse since. 1914-18 remains the great dividing line of modern British history. Perhaps the serenely ahistorical young Britons of today no longer remember.
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58 of 58 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Juliet Nicolson is following in the footsteps of her father Nigel and her grandparents Harold and Vita (Sackville-West) Nicolson by producing history which reads like fine literature. The Perfect Summer is the story of the summer months of 1911, a year which in retrospect for England was indeed the calm before the storm of World War I.

Because 1911 was a Coronation Year much of The Perfect Summer focusses on the lives and doings of England's upper classes, from King George V and Queen Mary through Society luminaries like the Marchioness of Ripon and politicians like Winston Churchill. There is more to The Perfect Summer than gossip about the elite, however. The summer months of 1911 were filled with tension as the Liberal Government struggled to reform the House of Lords, the British and Germans clashed in Morocco, and strikes spread across the country. In addition, most of the summer was brutally hot and dry. All of this is well and thoroughly discussed with plenty of references from newspapers and magazines of the period to add immediacy.

The Perfect Summer will join Barbara Tuchman's The Proud Tower as an essential resource to help us better understand the world which came to an end forever just three summers later.
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35 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Jill Meyer TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover
about a very interesting summer. The Summer of 1914 has been explored in many books, most notably by Barbara Tuchman, but here, Ms Nicolson writes about a very important season a few years earlier. The weather was hot, the new King and Queen were being coronated, and society was in a gentle upheaval. Edward VII's death the previous year truly ended the Victorian age and all sorts of "new things" were being done by members of all levels of society.

Nicolson writes easily about the time and the people. One incident she writes about made me chuckle. On page 167 she mentions Hwfa Williams being shot and wounded "in the Mall by 'an overworked telegraph clerk whose brain had given way under strain'". "Overworked telegraph clerks" then, "overworked postal workers" now. Things haven't changed so much from then til now!
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on August 7, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The author, granddaughter of Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson, and daughter of Nigel Nicholson ("Portrait of a Marriage'), has written really two books in one. Her focus is the summer of 1911, when things were going swimmingly for the British and their empire. What a difference the next few years would make, with the advent of the Great War. The first half or so of the book focuses upon, what Morley Safer used to call, "everybody's favorite eccentrics" the British upper class. Here the emphasis is on shooting parties, the upcoming coronation of George V, debutants, weekend house parties at country homes, and basically filling all that time when one had virtually unlimited money and nothing much to do. I enjoyed this section very much, as I find this topic quite interesting. But then the focus and tone change in the second half of the book--the author concentrates her attention on some of the more unpleasant aspects of this period when one percent of the population owned 60% of the country. Those topics include the way of life of the lower classes (30% fell below the level of barest necessity); labor strikes and disruption; and the very deprived condition of those "in service" (who constituted 16% of the labor force). These disparities are so severe one wonders if the Great War actually foreclosed some manner of domestic insurrection. There is also interwoven throughout discussion of some of the technical changes that Britian was undergoing: airplanes; cinema; automobiles; and subways for example. The book is not meant as a scholarly treatment, although the author's bibliography indicates the substantial amount of research she has undertaken. Also helpful are a listing of the "dramatis personae" so you don't get confused as to who is who, and some helpful illustrations. The author's style is most pleasant to read and the book is quite informative. An interesting book on a very crucial period in British history.
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