The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, by Juliet Nicolson (New York: Grove, 2006) reads like a cross between a gossip column and a cache of family letters -- with a dash of historical analysis thrown in here and there. Nicolson has chosen as her subject the Season (May to September) of 1911, the summer before the Titanic would sink and three years before the conflagration that came to be known as The Great War ("the storm" of the title) would engulf Europe. Drawing on memoirs from multiple social strata (a butler's tell-all narratives; a débutante's diaries) Nicolson manages to piece together a remarkably non-hagiographic portrait of a summer, despite the fact that Perfect Summer reads like one long anecdote pieced together out of a series of little gem-like stories.
For example, we learn that Lady Diana Manners, who "came out" into society in the summer of 1911, was not as alarmed as her peers about the prospect of mixed-sex socializing, since she had an older brother and also because "her elder sister Marjorie had held hair-brushing sessions during her first season to which Diana and the young men who admired Marjorie were invited."
Hair-brushing sessions? Does anyone else's mind go to places you have the feeling it should not go with that phrase?
Okay. Just checking.
But we also get stories about the heat-wave and drought that enveloped England during much of the late summer, causing so many heat-related deaths that the newspapers stopped reporting them (they ceased being "news") and crops failed. Industrial workers and schoolchildren went on strike (for better wages and better meals, respectively) and nation-wide people hotly debated the merits of a proposed National Insurance Act. In other words, the "perfect summer" may not have been so perfect after all.
On the one hand, there are certainly more comprehensive scholarly analyses of the era available, as well as texts that focus more specifically on particular aspects (the suffrage movement barely gets a look-in!). Still, the book is a quick read and a nice companion history to Masterpiece Theater's current costume drama "Downton Abbey" -- which opens with the sinking of the Titanic and will (I anticipate) close with the outbreak of the war. And Nicolson has followed the book up with a history of Britain between the wars, The Great Silence (2009) that I'm looking forward to picking up.