Go to the archives

The Perfect Summer: England 1911

Juliet Nicolson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 17, 2016
Category: Non Fiction

In our secret hearts, many of us imagine that we belong elsewhere — say, in England, at a great country estate, in good weather, where we enjoy every luxury because we are rich and titled.

And why not, say, in May of 1911? Edward VII had died the previous spring; mourning was over, George V was about to be crowned, there would be a full season of glorious parties.

And the parties would be…hot. Paul Poiret’s evening gowns were in vogue, and they were wonderfully sheer. The brassiere was replacing the corset; women were displaying their assets. Sex was everywhere. When Rolls-Royce commissioned a new hood ornament, it chose a woman in a clinging gown.

In that year, Winston Churchill wore pink silk underwear. Extra night watchmen were hired at great country houses to protect the precious jewels of weekenders. Porters rang bells at 6 AM so guests could scurry back to the rooms they were supposed to occupy. At parties, the jaded acted out — for fun — moments like announcing a child’s death to its mother.

And, out of sight and out of mind, the lower orders seethed.

The upstairs/downstairs drama is old news — the stuff of Masterpiece Theater.

What makes "The Perfect Summer" fascinating is that England was, in 1911, about to experience dramatic change. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

And — how funny is this? — the weather was a big factor.

Nicolson tells her story chronologically, month by month, a method that always builds suspense. In June, the crew of the Olympic goes on strike in Southampton; others follow. Diaghilev brings his new ballets to London. Leonard Woolf, dining with Lytton Strachey, meets 23-year-old Rupert Brooke.

In July, the temperature’s in the 80s and there are 20 consecutive days without rain.  Fires begin to break out along railroad tracks. At the Savoy, management sprays dancers with “ozone from iced cylinders”. Only the African animals in the London Zoo thrive.

Along the way, there are fascinating details. Did you know that, in 1911, 700 families owned a quarter of England? That a fingertip rubbed on soap and then on the rim of a bottle of champagne will keep the bubbly from frothing? That, after rent, the greatest fixed expense the poor routinely faced was insurance to cover the cost of funerals and burial?

But the poor are a bore. Always with us, etc. Not good copy. So let us gloss over the 548 reported deaths from childhood diarrhea in England in August, when the temperature hit 100 degrees. And let’s not spend too much time reading about that summer’s strikes, even though some believed a revolution was happening and, in mid-August, a railroad strike pretty much crippled the country

And so it goes, day after blistering day, with the rich as idle as ever and the poor making unaccustomed protest. And, of course, three years away and counting down, the war that will slaughter a generation.

This is a gripping portrait of otherwise intelligent people acting like fools because — well, it’s what people of a certain class do. In a way, it’s a very reassuring read: nothing new under the sun, and all. And who can resist several hundred amusing stories about Society Folk?