The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911 by Juliet Nicolson is a fascinating look at life in Britain during the summer of George V’s Coronation year, 1911.
When I finished reading this book I decided that the summer of 1911 was not “the perfect summer”. It was one of the hottest years of the twentieth century, making life most uncomfortable at a time when most people had no means of getting out of the sweltering heat. Even a trip to the seaside for working class people meant they donned their Sunday best clothes and spent the day standing because they couldn’t afford to hire deck chairs!
Men rarely removed their hats, and the poorer female holidaymaker, possessing neither a special holiday outfit nor light-weight summer clothes, was constrained by the weight of her ‘Sunday best’ – since women dressed for a holiday as they did for a strike – from scrambling over the rocks. These women made an arresting sight against the backdrop of a sparkling blue sea in their artificial-flower-laden hats, their long black skirts brushing the sand as they stood, stifling, in their sturdy black shoes. (page 224)
It was also a summer of discontent as the country was almost brought to a standstill by industrial strikes and the enormous gap between the privileged and the poor was becoming more and more obvious.
Focussing on just the period from May to September this book covers a wide spectrum – from King George’s accession to the throne, Queen Mary’s anxiety over the Coronation and worries about their visit to India (what could she wear?) to debutantes, politicians, poets, factory workers, writers, and women trade unionists. There is little about the suffragettes – they agreed a summer truce for the Coronation. With the benefit of hindsight the threat of the First World War is evident, with the new German warship Panther on its way to Morroco, feared by Winston Churchill (then Home Secretary) and Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Secretary) to be an excuse for territorial aggression.
For me this book was at its best in describing the minutiae of everyday life of both the rich and the poor. One character that sticks in my mind is Eric Horne, a butler. He kept a secret diary:
Not quite the faithful servant he was assumed to be by the deluded individuals who employed him, Eric’s was an increasingly cynical view of the changing world. Some of the noblemen and women he worked for had what seemed to him ‘a kink in the brain’. … Eric bridged the gap between the servers and the served. The evolving memoir, written in his idiosyncratic and uncorrected style, recorded what life was like not only in his pantry below-stairs but in the drawing rooms and bedrooms above. It was incriminating and explosive stuff. Eric knew too much; in fact he knew the truth. (page 149)
He later published two volumes of his memoirs: What the Butler Winked At (1923) and More Winks (1932).
I borrowed The Perfect Summer from the library but there is so much in it that I think I may buy a copy for myself. All the time I was reading it I was thinking this was the world when my grandmother was a young woman and I wondered what it was like for her – how she felt and how much she knew of the national events, living as she did in Wales. The Royal Pageant was at Caernarfon Castle on 13 July that year for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales where ten thousand people attended – I doubt very much she was there!
There is a helpful Dramatis Personnae, a bibliography and useful index. Although the bibliography is extensive, I think I prefer non-fiction to have footnotes, even though they can be a bit distracting, because I like to see the source of the information.