145 of 152 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2007
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. Anyone born before about 1980 is still touched by the presence of the Great War in the national narrative.
From very shortly after 1918, nostalgia for the Edwardian era, including the first few years of George V, was very powerful. It was the age before the cataclysm. Working men would say that even the beer tasted better, only half joking. Anyone grown to adulthood before 1914 remained a member of a generation apart from the life experience of the younger. Cultural and popular life was thought forever changed. All that had come before 1914 was remembered in a rosy glow.
All knew that this national myth was true in many ways, and all knew that it was also false in others. For those who didn't know, works such as "The Strange Death of Liberal England" (1931) recounted all of the social conflicts great and small that had troubled the age before the war, and indeed connected them to the causes of the war.
And yet on some level it was still true, and Britain has never let go of it because of that. The appreciation of both its truth and its irony is palpable in Nicolson's retelling, as it has been so many times before.
The summer of 1914 has often been given the pride of place in this narrative. It too was a sunny summer of both peace and social strife, the very last halcyon days. But it was also too close to the cliff edge.
The summer of 1911 was the last summer of the strict Edwardian Age, the time Edward still lived and the darkness was farther below the horizon. If 1914 is given second place, then 1911 is raised to first.
And so for all its known ironies, that is why 1911 was "The Perfect Summer". Nicolson knows both sides of it, and presents them well. Good for her.
58 of 58 people found the following review helpful
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.
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
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!
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
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.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on December 18, 2008
A doomed empire tottering on the edge, the old ways starting to crumble and the new order beginning to assert itself. All of this in the sunny foreground while the unmistakable dark storm of catastrophe rumbles on the horizon. With such terrific raw material it would be hard to go wrong. But, to Ms. Nicholson's credit, she adds a delightful sense of humour, an eye for quixotic detail, sensitivity and obvious compassion, to craft an informative and very entertaining read. It's great fun. But it is also a sobering reality check. A colourful portrait of folly that so often precedes the fall.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2007
Examination of the summer months of 1911, the Coronation Summer of King George V. The author's style can be somewhat plodding, and there a few noticable errors of fact. For example, Queen Mary's Aunt Augusta was nearly 89, not 85, in June of 1911. And I thought it was Harold Nicolson who owned the car nicknamed Green Archie, not Vita Sackville West? (Funny that a relative would make that error?)
Just two examples -- I don't want anyone to think I read the book looking for errors, but there are more than these.
The book is interesting yet somehow not very insightful. Despite a substantial bibliography, the book gives an impression of being lightweight. Perhaps that's caused by its focus being somewhat more on the lives of the English aristocracy than on all classes.
I can say with all honesty, while I didn't dislike this book and in fact found some sections very interesting (such as, the cost of a funeral for a lower class English person, and the information about the strikes that occurred that summer) I am glad I borrowed a copy from the library rather than purchasing it.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
It's hard to believe that some people have to have explained to them that the title is not to be taken literally. Maybe this type of book is too advanced for them. At any rate, the summer of 1911 was hardly perfect for anyone. A whole way of life was changing. While the book unfolds like one of the best PBS documentaries (and no doubt will be or has been made into one), domestic servants were becoming dissatisfied with their lives (meaning no lives for themselves), farmers and farm workers were leaving the land for the cities, factory, dock and transportation workers were going out on strike and forming unions, women were agitating for the vote, and the upper classes who still didn't get it were about to find out. Why 1911 and not 1914? Must have something to do with the ominous progress reports on the building and the sea trials of the Titanic (never actually named) but which shook up the world in 1912 before war was declared. Apart from that, with the dissatifaction of the working classes, England was fortunate it didn't end up with the situation that evolved in Russia. Winston Churchill cuts a less than heroic figure in this book, but his moment would come later. During this Perfect Summer, people were dying every day from the heat and the drought (no air conditioning), food poisoning (no refrigeration in most homes) and just plain poverty and starvation. Was London all that different from Dublin? Meanwhile, the super-rich, much like today, indulged in nonstop partying, drinking, gambling, drugs and extra-marital affairs. Servants were expected to turn a blind eye. A major point of the book is that the party was coming to an end, but I wonder. For the upper classes, the 1920s were just as decadent and the leader of the pack was the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor. The book is interesting, well researched and rich in detail of the period. But how much really changes?
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2007
Reminiscent of THE LONG WEEK-END but more artfully constructed, THE PERFECT SUMMER gives us an age, compacted into the broiling summer of 1911 and reflected in hundreds of polished and cleverly interconnected vignettes. The crowning of a king, labor unrest, constitutional crisis and summer heat form the backdrop. The book's characters--high and low, familiar and obscure--make repeated entrances and exits. Winston Churchill, that contradiction made flesh and packaged in pink silk underwear, is always turning up. So too is the all-seeing butler, Eric--and the beautiful Diana Manners, deftly sketched in all her superficial complexity and lively insipidity. We catch a whiff of sweating, roiling humanity each time we turn a page. We watch the high-born as they endure boredom, the low-born as they simply endure, or not. Along the way we learn why the loo is so named, and we meet people who worry about exposure to moonrays and sit up nights waiting for pears to ripen. How Juliet Nicolson has managed to maintain absolute control over such a mass of detail, with apparent effortlessness, and make of it a perfect and powerful unity--that's a question to be pursued at second reading. To use the lingo of the times, this book is utterly utterly. Don't miss it!
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 2007
Social commentary? I think not!
The royal family and aristocrats in the England of 1911 were the famous celebrities of the day. People of all classes followed the daily ups and downs of the royal family just as we follow our celebrities in New York and Los Angeles. If you look at Nicolson's sources, they are diaries, newspaper articles, letters, and memoirs, and these sources focus on self-aggrandizement, hearsay, self-defense, and that old black magic called love. Bettering oneself by marrying well was also a strong theme. Fashion and entertainment were discussed in the print media of the day, and everyone followed the lead of the most exciting of the young celebrities. The debutantes and their escorts were stars of early 20th century England. In short, this book is a thorough account of the gossip of the summer of 1911 including he background we need to appreciate the importance of the gossip.
I do not intend the label of gossip to in anyway denigrate the superb book that Juliet Nicolson has created. As a fan of Edwardian England, I am familiar with much that Nicolson relates in the book. The fascination for me, however, is to compare how similar people living 100 years ago are to those of us living today. Conventions may seem very different, but on inspection we see that the need to know about the activities of our neighbors, and to speculate on our neighbors' motivations, is still the same. Today, in a modern era with numerous and instant means of communication, the general public (mostly commoners in Edwardian England) still have the same fascination with the rich and famous. The rich and famous, while disdaining those they consider below them, still need the adoring public as their audience to affirm their brilliance.
I love gossip even when it is very old!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 14, 2007
As I was born in 1925 much of what is described as occurring in 1911 was still in existence in my growing-up years. Class distictions were still "upstairs and downstairs" although the establishments were not as opulent as in 1911. My father, a rural general practitioner, was called in to treat the sick servants but had to go to the tradesmens entrance while the "county" would have specialists come down from London to treat them; this and many other things described in this book were still true in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War. I really enjoyed this book