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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Just Finished Reading: The Perfect Summer – Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicolson (FP: 2006)

I only really have myself to blame for this. On the front cover is a recommendation of a well-known right-wing newspaper and on the back a personal endorsement who embodies the image of upper-class elegance and sophistication. But then again if I didn’t take risks with my reading from time to time – care of the buy-one-get-one-free or three-for-two offers – then I wouldn’t have had some very pleasant surprises.
The post Victorian pre WW1 period in Europe is an interesting one. In many ways it symbolised the height of western civilisation and the confidence of a variety of societies on the top of their game. But much of that was, with hindsight, mere surface glitter. As this book repeatedly pointed out the prevailing emotion of the upper-class at least was crushing boredom. They had in effect, of often in fact, been everywhere and done everything. Their whole lives revolved around parties, gossip, the same yearly events attended time and again and, just to break the monotony, affairs. Maybe, I couldn’t help but think, the First World War was welcomed so much by so many as simply something different to do! But my interest in the lifestyles of the rich and shameless is generally too small to measure with present technology. I have no interest in who was sleeping with whom, what clubs they went to, what they wore (or ate) at particular events or how they embarrassed themselves or each other in public. Unfortunately well over 75% of the book was on just that. Looking back on it I almost can’t believe that I slogged my way through its 264 pages. Fortunately there was just enough of interest – outside of the society pages – to keep me on to the end.

First there was the summer itself – one of the longest and hottest ever recorded in England and, if memory serves, the first time that 90 degrees F had officially been recorded. Now when it hits 90 degrees these days people cast off their clothes with abandon. Not so in very straight laced Edwardian England – oh, no! Indeed the national press instigated a separate column for heat related deaths – until they became so commonplace that they no longer seemed worthy of reporting. Then there was a famous exhibition of Expressionist and Avant-Guard painting that almost caused riots because of its apparent incomprehensibility. Indeed at least one woman was reported to have fainted in the exhibition room – and not from the heat! What interested me more was the political unrest during that hot summer – at the very top of society was the reform of the House of Lords which was on the brink of causing a great constitutional crisis. At the opposite side of the social class structure where the dock workers who earned a pitiful wage when they could find employment. The resulting strikes and heavy-handed government response almost brought the country to its knees – although the author used this unrest largely as a backdrop and counter-point to the excesses of the rich which she clearly had little problem with.

In any conflict my sympathies naturally gravitate to the working class rather than our so-called betters. So this book – unfortunately as it was generally rather well written – barely engaged me. If it had been more balanced in its approach I for one would have found it far more interesting. I think the problem probably stems from her choice of sources which seem to the diaries and letters of the rich people she spent so much time on. Needless to say I cannot recommend this book but I will be returning to the period latter, this time from street level! 

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