26 April 2019

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson

Two major themes running through this book are the heatwave of 1911 and the relatively carefree atmosphere in Britain prior to The Great War.  While the pall of an approaching war that would result in the deaths of millions was as yet unimaginable, the intense heat of that summer was ever present.  With only basic sanitation and a lack of refrigeration the air would have been full of wafts of unpleasantness and rot.  The Times ran a column listing people whose deaths resulted from the record heat, and thousands walked off their jobs due to the oppressive conditions.

For the wealthy and aristocratic The Season was the time from May to September.  Young ladies were debuted and invitations to dozens of balls flooded their hall tables.  The Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary took place on June 22, while crowds lined the streets in high-neck dresses and wool suits.  I watched a video of the event on youtube and took pity on the Horse Guards in their uniforms.

Moving through the ranks of society, Juliet Nicolson pulled snippets from the archives. filling the pages with social history tidbits and lots of name-dropping.  I noted a description of Clementine Churchill's choice of wall colour....

'The decoration of the house reflected Clemmie's gentle but elegant taste, though while briefly under the influence of Art Nouveau she had had her own room painted green, brown and orange, with a large orange tree laden with oranges appliqu├ęd all over the walls.  The French Ambassador, visiting one weekend, winced at the sight.'

While everything is relative, it's impossible not to imagine how many properties in leafy squares we could buy with today's currency.  Winston Churchill bought a new car for £610, an outrageous expense in the early 1900s, in fact, three times the annual rent on their home in Eccleston Square.

The socialite Lady Diana Manners (later Lady Diana Cooper) features throughout this book, mostly for her exuberant personality and teen antics.  She even managed to be banned from Lady Desborough's home for excessive behaviour.  I would argue her heart was in the right place though as she thought her prize of 250 guineas for Best Costume at a ball....would come in useful for buying books.    

Away from the stark pavement and stone buildings of London the scene moves to the green and pleasant lands of Kent.  I haven't read anything by Siegfried Sassoon but I will now!

'Sitting under the Irish yew, we seemed to have forgotten that there was such a thing as the future.'

In one sentence he's conveyed the feeling of staying in the moment and just how heavenly (not to mention infrequent) that can be.

While The Perfect Summer largely centres around the world of political figures, the aristocracy and celebrities of the day there are sections on the fight for workers' rights and the suffrage movement.  One heartbreaking story mentions a young girl, borrowed from the workhouse, who arrived for work weighing an already slight 76 lbs but left weighing even less, only 62 lbs.  But another member of house staff, Eric Horne, made the bold move of secretly noting what went on behind the closed doors of his employers at various country houses.  His book What the Butler Winked At: Being the Life and Adventures of Eric Horne, Butler pulled back the curtain on the secret lives of the wealthy.  Horne's plan was to make enough money to feather his nest in retirement.

Other readers of The Perfect Summer have been irritated by the patchwork feeling of the batches of information.  I think that's a fair complaint.  This books doesn't flow in a continuous timeline and never immerses too deeply into any one event but sometimes that's just the sort of non-fiction read you want.  This is a book I'll be keeping on my shelves as a resource and has piqued my interest in reading more about Lady Diana Cooper!

Portrait of Lady Diana Manners by Sir James Jabusa Shannon
(1900)

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