'As page-turning as a novel' Joanna Trollope
One summer of nearly a hundred years ago saw one of the high sunlit meadows of English history. A new king was crowned; audiences swarmed to Covent Garden to see the Ballet Russes and Nijinskys gravity-defying leaps. The aristocracy was at play, bounding from house party to the next; the socialite Lady Michelham travelled with her nineteen yards of pearls. Rupert Brooke (a 23-year-old poet in love with love, Keats, marrons glaces and truth) swam in the river at Grantchester.
But perfection was over-reaching itself. The rumble of thunder from the summer's storms presaged not only the bloody war years ahead: the country was brought to near standstill by industrial strikes, and unrest exposed the chasm between privileged and poor; as if the heat was torturing those imprisoned in society's straitjacket and stifled by the city smog. Children, seeking relief from the scorching sun, drowned in village ponds.
What the protagonists could not have known is that they were playing out the backdrop to WWI; in a few years time the world, let alone England, would never be the same again. Through the eyes of a series of exceptional individuals; a debutante, a suffragette, a politician, a trade unionist, a butler and the Queen; Juliet Nicolson illuminates a turning point in history. With the gifts of a great storyteller she rekindles a vision of a time when the sun shone but its shadows fell on all.
'Juliet Nicolson has taken this 'perfect summer' as the backdrop for an ambitious work of multiple biography, which sets the extravagance of the upper classes against the increasingly desperate lives of the poor' Observer
'Evoke[s] the full vivid richness of how it smelt, looked, sounded, tasted and felt to be alive in England during the months of such a summer' Lady
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.