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4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 18 April 2010
Juliet Nicholson has almost perfectly captured the end of an era. The Summer of 1911 finds a Britain showing signs of social change in a world where her economic and military supremacy was also starting to be questioned and challenged. And yet, three years before the war that would definitively alter everything, we can still experience the dripping opulence of the aristocracy and upper middle classes; their extreme wealth, exceptional education, carefree extravagance and suffocating boredom. Although the book cleverly picks up the stories of several dozen important characters from the time, from all classes, it is the depiction of the privileged classes, including the politicians, that leaves the greatest impression on the reader. The author must have carried out an enormous amount of research and read prodigious quantities of diary and newspaper material to be able to write a book so densely packed with factual information. That is its strength and, almost, its weakness. Reading this book is a bit like eating a very rich slice of chocolate cake; gorgeous but almost too filling. That is a small criticism however, because overall the book brilliantly succeeds in depicting, intricately, a Britain at the apogee of Empire; a place where, if you had money and status, the real world hardly troubled you at all. And yet, with that money and status came a set of almost stifling social rules and regulations that makes me little envious of the lives depicted. Juliet Nicholson has produced a well written book that is acutely observed and that makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of British social history in the early years of the 20th century.
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on 31 July 2007
This is a fascinating, highly readable and wonderfully written book which takes you back to the year 1911 through the lives of some of the most prominent and interesting characters of the time. They range from Lady Diana Manners "the most beautiful young woman in England in 1911" to Lord Curzon, ex viceroy of England; from feisty union leader Mary Macarthur to cynical butler Eric Horne. The book truly succeeds in recreating the atmosphere of the time without indulging in futile nostalgia (in fact, it delves quite deeply into the social turmoil of the period) and it offers the same fast pace and intensity of a good novel while being based on "real" people and events.

When I read it, I was unaware that Juliet Nicolson was the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and was therefore completely unbiased in my appreciation of the work. I kept, however, noticing a certain intimate feeling affecting the narration, as if the author had had a first-hand, personal experience of the times. In retrospect, her family heritage might have helped her in powerfully recreating the mood of the time. The book also appears to be in some form of dialogue with Sackville-West's The Ewardians, a novel which ends in 1911with the coronation of George V, precisely when Nicolson begins her Perfect Summer (which, incidentally, appears to be everything but perfect). It would be a good idea to read the two novels together.
If I had to find a fault, I would probably say that, at times, the huge amount of citations (which are, of course, also valuable and necessary) seem to "smother" the narration a bit. Nicolson should certainly have believed more in her own voice.
In spite of this, it is a great read.

I would highly recommend this book to anybody who is interested in Edwardian and Georgian history or literature, who loves impeccable prose (Nicolson's writing is actually more polished than her grandmother's) and is in search of something intellectually engaging without being overwhelming.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 October 2015
It took me more than six months to get through this book: it drove me to distraction and fury so that I would pick it up, read a few pages and then toss the book aside.  I chose the book based on its blurb: "The summer of 1911 was one of the high sunlit meadows of English history but on the horizon lurked a gathering storm.". I was expecting something which would reflect the changes that were afoot in Britain's history in the few years leading up to the outbreak of the first world war. For me there was absolutely no sense of the shadow of the sub-title, and indeed I found the whole thing trite, with no real analysis of anything.

Joanna Trollope's contribution to the blurb describes the book as being "as page-turning as a novel" and therein lies one of the several problems with the book. It does read like a novel, with imputed thoughts and feelings for which there is no evidence. The writing style is gushing and frothy. More or less the entire focus of the book is the life of the aristocracy and upper classes, whether viewed from their own perspective or from that of the servants who waited upon them. For example, references to the passage of the Parliament Bill during 1911 are couched mainly in how inconvenient it was that people like Churchill had to forego some of the pleasures of the summer holiday to concentrate on their government work. Close to half the book is devoted to Queen Mary, crowned in 1911,and to Lady Diana Manners who was a deb that year and I couldn't help but think that the choice of year for the 'shadow' was driven more by these events than anything else. The epilogue to the book reinforced this feeling as I kept thinking that 1912 would have been a more appropriate year to analyse.

Overall then, this is lightweight stuff, and if the intention was to evoke the shadow of WW1 then for me the book failed miserably. Those with a serious interest in history should look elsewhere. This book's main thrust is the gilded life of the pre-WW1 upper classes and that has been done better.
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on 6 July 2007
I've often felt that the freakishly hot summer of 1911 would make a wonderful subject for a writer or film-maker - quite apart from the extreme heat, this was also a period marked by extraordinary social, political and cultural ferment. So I approached this book with a larger than average degree of interest - which was not, at the conclusion, totally satisfied.

Whilst the story of those sun-drenched months could never make for boring reading, Nicholson tries a little too hard to cover a vast and unwieldy terrain - the result is a somewhat breathless and light-weight book, containing several historical inaccuracies. In particular, I question her habit of relating the eccentricities of the few to the practices of the majority; how many Edwardian matrons really had pierced nipples? Not many, I'd venture!

The main value and interest of 'The Perfect Summer' lies in the provision of delightful and idiosyncratic details of parties and amusements (not just for 'Society' but for all classes) garnered from the contemporary press and gossip columns. On this level, I'd say that it makes a pleasant enough companion for hours on the beach or in a sunny garden. 'Serious' historians, though, are probably better advised to steer clear.
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VINE VOICEon 28 February 2009
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Before reading it I must confess I knew little about the year 1911. So much history was made in that year from unseasonally. and at times unbearably, hot weather to strikes and job losses to upper class enjoyment and indulgence on a grand scale. Although the book is a factual account it is so well written that it reads more like a novel. An added interest for me, as a family historian researching my family history, was the fact that since I read the book the 1911 Census is now available on line.
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on 26 January 2014
A truly brilliant book, with exquisite attention to detail of a pivotal year not long before the Great War. Juliet Nicholson captures the essence of a dying era on course for one almighty car crash across the killing fields of Europe. The author's extensive knowledge and research, pigments an exotic canvas of Edwardian life during the sizzling summer of 1911. 'The Perfect Summer ' is really a compelling time-capsule as seen through the eyes of a cross-section of perfect players for the period from all 'the classes'. These real historic characters - whether they be from the privileged upper-class, the servants, the arts, politics, the church and Trade Unions etc - offer glamour, intrigue, nostalgia, drama, to reference an amazing year in British life. Bravo to Juilet Nicholson for her wonderful page-turner!
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on 10 August 2014
A pleasant read and certainly informative with regards to the higher echelons of society, but if you are looking to gain any information about the background to the Great War in terms of thoughts/fears expressed by politicians then this may not be the book for you. Whilst it perfectly encapsulates a year in England, which happened to be 1911, I had no sense of a 'Shadow'.
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on 8 March 2014
This is another book relating to the first world war but this time the previous summer when life was still calm and, how could anything ever come between this English idyll. But it did and other books chronicle the cataclysmic results. This is a good "before" prior to the horrendous"after".
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on 5 April 2015
Riveting read - I couldn't put it down. Anecdotal, well written and cleverly organised account of the experiences of the privileged classes just before their lives changed forever with the advent of the first world war. I'll definitely be reading its sequel.
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on 30 June 2015
An ideal way of finding, provided it is read carefully, historical information which does not seem to be available in the official archives.
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