"The Great Silence" is Juliet Nicholson's second book, after publishing "The Perfect Summer" in 2007. The first book was a social history of that glorious summer of 1911, the first summer after the ending of the Victorian and Edwardian ages.
With "Silence", Nicholson has returned with a meticulously written view of the two years in England after the end of "The Great War" in 1918. British soldiers returned after demob to their homes but in many cases, their lives would never be the same after four years in the trenches in France. So many men - who had marched gaily off to war in 1914 - had been killed or badly wounded, both in body and in spirit. So many women lost their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers. An entire generation of young men were decimated in the four years of war.
Nicholson writes about all strata of British society, both "above" stairs and "below" stairs. Some of the people she interviewed were children in 1919 and are alive today. She also relied on written histories, both personal and academic. All together, Nicholson takes the reader back to that two year post-war period that saw the beginnings of the "Roaring '20's" with a national obsession for dancing and drinking by all levels of society. She also writes about the toll the "Spanish Flu" had on those at home who caught it from returning soldiers.
Nicholson is a very good and controlled writer. This book is not yet available in the States and I had to order it from Amazon/UK. It is a wonderful look at a very interesting time in British society.
I started reading this book with high hopes of an in-depth discussion of the social aftermath of this devastating conflict because it included a great, informative chapter on facial reconstruction that I found riveting in its detail. There was a reference to Tommy Atkins along the way, leading me to think there would be an even-handed approach to all parts of society, allied to an excellent writing style. However, it was not to be, as other reviewers have pointed out. By the middle of the book, the author has largely given up on any objective view of working class families and their suffering and there are extended descriptions of the Savoy, upper-class gatherings and little mention of 'ordinary' people - aligned to a falling off in the writing quality. As others have also stated, there is an alarming amount of name dropping, to little purpose. This is such a pity because there is much to commend but it is just not sustained.
on 19 November 2009
I enjoyed Juliet Nicolson's previous book on the summer before WW1 and I was not disappointed with this book. It looks at the time of the Armistice on the 11th November 1918 and then the 2 years immediately after.
Taking the perspective of many different people from various walks of life, the author narrates how their world changed from that moment at 11am. Although the war was over and no-one was in danger of being killed, for a lot of people the war didn't end then.
Most poignant of all are the war widows who slept with their husbands uniform or sprinkled his shampoo on their pillow. The description of the ceremonies at the Cenotaph and the burial of the Unknown Soldier are very moving and I read them with tears in my eyes.
A valuable book on a period of history that is sometimes forgotten.
on 25 October 2015
One of those whose contributions to this sad disappointment of a book are acknowledged is Juliet Nicolson's editor at John Murray. It is difficult to see how he spent his time. Not only does he appear to have done little about the lumbering, clumsy, adjective-heavy style; he has let a number of glaring spelling errors through. Carress? Fourthcoming? Even if Ms. Nicolson couldn't rely on her editor, doesn't she have a spellchecker on her PC?
This is a pity, for the subject matter of the book is interesting enough to deserve better treatment. There are parts where that subject matter triumphs over the style, particularly in the sections on the work of Harold Gillies in repairing the grossly disfigured faces of those who were wounded at the Front, and on the creation of the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But too often the reader is confronted with a succession of facts (Nicolson rightly acknowledges the work of her researcher) strung together by prose that sets the teeth on edge. The treatment of the two years following 11th November 1918 is mostly chronological, but the chapter headings - "Hopelessness", "Release", "Yearning" - imply that there will be some sort of thematic treatment which, in fact, barely exists. As other reviewers have said, far too much space is given over to the social lives of the aristocracy and the upper middle classes. There is a whole chapter devoted to whether or not Lady Ottoline Morrell would succeed in getting into bed with one of her staff, and to the domestic travails of a young woman called Edna Clarke Hall, which is wholly irrelevant to what is supposed to be the theme of the book.
As for the style, the heart sinks before the end of the first paragraph of the first chapter is reached. We are introduced to the chauffeur and under-chauffeur of the Portuguese Ambassador, who is visiting George V at Sandringham, and we're told that "the driver and his deputy felt themselves to be hovering on the brink of a comfortable lifetime serving the great and good of the land". This makes a wholly speculative and patronising assumption about what the drivers were feeling (and in the context of what the book is supposed to be about, who cares?), expresses it in clunking prose, and rounds off with a tired old cliché ("great and good"). Things don't get any better after that.
A final word about the publishers. The dust-jacket contains a piece of staggering carelessness. It states that "Emily Davidson had thrown herself on the ground at Ascot race course". Not only is this crass - "thrown herself on the ground" is a particularly shallow and misleading way of describing a woman throwing herself under the hooves of a racehorse and getting herself killed in the process - but it's wrong. The race in question was the Derby, which is not run at Ascot but at Epsom. I appreciate that Juliet Nicolson probably doesn't write the blurbs on her dust-jackets, but it's her name over the title, and this sort of thing puts the reader off before a single page is turned.
on 12 September 2014
A goodish curate's egg, redeemed by the interesting anecdotes on on many topics, some unexpected (e,g. Who clears up the battleground mess? It's there on pp124-5).
Don't expect a measured historical account: as outlined in the Introduction (which, it appears, few of the 1-3 star critics have bothered to read). It sets out to describe the varied ways in which grief was handled in the silence which followed the Armistice, over a two-year time-span (which, it seems to have escaped the critics, is the period usually quoted in psychological accounts of the process of grief.)
All this it does very well, in a narrative, based on the experiences of people at all levels of society, which addresses the social structure and climate of its day. The latter was set to a substantial degree by the moneyed and titled classes; working people really _did_ defer to the aristocracy, and showed enormous interest in its doings, whether from wishful thinking or justified resentment of the inequalities involved, and I have to say that I found the treatment of all social groups evenly balanced, if I bear that aspect of social attitudes in mind.
The aristocrats and the well-off were the footballers, the popular music heroes, the Posh and Becks of their day; those who complain about an apparent excess of emphasis on them might bear this in mind if they ever set out to describe the climate of our own times to a 22nd century audience, in a way that reflects everyone's interests, and not simply their own.
on 16 January 2010
After reading previous reviews I was expecting a much more wide-ranging study than this. There are some interesting anecdotes in the early part of the book but overall I was left feeling disappointed. The material covered in the sections covering the Unknown Soldier has been covered recently, and in greater detail, by Neil Hanson in The Unknown Soldier, but it was the basic focus of the book which nagged away increasingly as I read it. The people who endured the most during the Great War were the working class, although you would not think so reading this volume. The author has focused on the middle and upper classes, and large parts are linked to her family connections with the latter. The experiences described here are often ones which everyday people would not have had access to, and the 'hardships' endured by the aristocracy would have found little sympathy. The disappointment felt by many, and the underlying resentment in much of society is severely under-emphasised.
on 14 August 2011
This book was an interesting idea - examining the two years after the Armistice - and parts of it were interesting. But the book was spoilt by the way the author made generalisations about what people were experiencing based on quotations (often with very little context)from some fairly untypical people. Whilst the people she chose to use as examples were quite interesting, I couldn't help feeling they'd been chosen because they were family connections, rather than because they shed illumination on the period as a whole.
The book felt very lightweight, and was a disappointment.
on 27 January 2013
The book arrived on time and in the conditon described. Surprisingly, it was a signed copy.
I didn't finish the book. It was irritating reportage with poorly constructed chapters and inadequate links between anecdotes. The book was London-centric and focused too much on the upper classes. It was as if the author had done lots of research, talked to lots of people and then shoved it all down on paper. The book needed dramatic editing and rewriting because there were interesting bits, such as the description of shell shock, but these were lost.
If, as many historians have claimed, the Victorian era didn't really end until the outbreak of the First World War, then those four years of bloodshed and conflict served as both the death-throes of one era and the birth pains of another: the modern world, our world, emerging from the bloody fields of Flanders. But it didn't come into being all in one go. There was a period of 'in-between', after the shattering noise of the war and the busy, jazzy jangle of the Roaring Twenties, there was two years of silence, of absence, of stillness and loss.
It is these two years, from the close of hostilities on 11th November 1918 to the unveiling of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior on the same date in 1920, that form the subject of Juliet Nicolson's elegant and elegiac book. She takes a chronological approach, structured around the stages of grief - moving from first shock and denial of all those empty graves, to the anger and bargaining of the first months and years (where was the country fit for heroes promised?) to the final acceptance, symbolised most poignantly in Lutyen's Cenotaph and the Tomb in Westminster Abbey. She tells the story of grieving widows, demobbed soldiers, wounded survivors, fatherless children, helpless and useless politicians, some individuals awaking to life anew and others long-since dead inside.
This book is filled with personal accounts taken from letters, memoirs, speeches, news articles, diaries, supplemented by the poetry and fiction we are all so familiar with, all woven together with Nicholson's own beautifully written narrative. Given the subject matter, this book could very easily teeter into sentimentality and bathos, but Nicholson keeps it together with elegant simplicity, and the end result is an intensely moving account of a country slowly coming to terms with almost staggering loss.
on 1 September 2014
This was a book that any person who lived through the period would have enjoyed and endorsed for the accuracy of the author. It was well researched, logical, and put a personal touch on historical events following WWI in England. History is interesting when it becomes personal, and I particularly enjoyed the intimate look into the lives of persons of all classes who lived through the period 1919-1920. The book portrayed every emotion, from the horrors of the wounded and mutilated to the saddness and elation that families and individuals experienced. Each person mentioned in the book had a story worth telling. The author skillfully provided highlights into their stories and background within the content of historical events that were occurring. I really enjoyed the detail, especially, on the day when the unknown soldier was laid to rest. I felt as if I was standing in the crowd, getting rained on, and felt the release of emotions that had built up from reading the previous history of how the event came to be. The detail of the book was worthy of special merit, the research was praiseworthy, and, the book was, obviously, a labor of love for the author who had some personal interest and connection to the persons mentioned. My knowledge of English customs, traditions and geography was a bit limited; but that did not distract in the least from my appreciation of the events and stories portrayed. A great book worth reading !