Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Perfect Summer

England 1911, Just Before the Storm

by Juliet Nicolson

“Sharp and rangy. . . . Nicolson sets a lively, theatrical pace and makes good use of recurring characters. . . . [There are] many glittering pieces in Nicolson’s book.” —Thomas Mallon, New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date May 12, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4367-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date May 22, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1846-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

Topping the best-seller charts in Britain and published to much acclaim in the United States, The Perfect Summer chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change. That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. To a charity ball where the other girls came dressed as virginal white swans, the striking debutante Lady Diana Manners made a late appearance as a black swan. The Ballets Russes arrived in London for the first time and people swarmed to Covent Garden to see Nijinsky’s gravity-defying leaps.

Through the tight lens of four months, Juliet Nicolson’s rich storytelling gifts rivet us with the sights, colors, and feelings of a bygone era. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing: The country was brought to a standstill by industrial strikes. Led by the charismatic Ben Tillett, the Southampton Dockers’ Union paralyzed shipping in the south. Organizer Mary Macarthur inspired women from the “sweated industries” to take to the streets in protest of intolerable conditions. Home Secretary Winston Churchill, fearing that the country was on the verge of collapse, gave in to demands for wage increases. Temperatures rose steadily to more than 100 degrees; by August deaths from heatstroke were too many for newspapers to report.

Drawing on material from intimate and rarely seen sources and narrated through the eyes of a series of exceptional individuals—among them a debutante, a choirboy, a politician, a trade unionist, a butler, and the queen—The Perfect Summer is a vividly rendered glimpse of the twilight of the Edwardian era.


“A hugely interesting portrait of a society teetering on a precipice both nationally and internationally . . . As page turning as a novel.” —Joanna Trollope, The Guardian

“Absorbing. . . . A deeply pleasurable read.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“[The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm] is a ravishing, ambitious, and extraordinarily intimate portrait of an era whose brilliant ebullience was all the more poignant for its abrupt and violent end.” —Vogue

“Sharp and rangy. . . . Nicolson sets a lively, theatrical pace and makes good use of recurring characters. . . . [There are] many glittering pieces in Nicolson’s book.” —Thomas Mallon, New York Times Book Review

“Juliet Nicolson has written an elegiac and atmospheric account of England in the summer of 1911. . . . Wry and unexpectedly informative. . . . A cast of interesting characters. . . . Lively accounts of aristocratic house parties. . . . Vivid passages about the rural poor.” —Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

“A beautifully written and engrossing piece of social history. . . . The Perfect Summeris a splendid example of literary pointillism: fascinating details adding up to an incisive portrait.” —Martin Rubin, Wall Street Journal

“An evocative, gossipy . . . profoundly moving description of five sunbaked months in the middle of 1911. . . . Wickedly enjoyable that makes up the bulk of her book. . . . Pour yourself some champagne and revel in the sybaritic trivia that Ms. Nicolson lays out so invitingly before us.” —Andrew Stuttaford, New York Sun

“Sparkling social history. . . . Witty, dishy, and smart, this book is perfect for summer reading. A.” —Entertainment Weekly

“Detail makes Juliet Nicolson’s portrait of a single Edwardian year such a fascinating read . . . I felt transported into what Nicolson felicitously describes as ‘one of the high sunlit meadows of English history.’” —Antonia Fraser, The Mail on Sunday

“Rich and marvelously researched.” —Barry Humphries, Sunday Telegraph

“A peach of a book . . . full of good things, sparkling, elegant, and often funny.” —Jane Ridley, Literary Review (UK)

“Brilliant . . . lucid, entertaining, and fascinating.” —William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart and Restless

“Stunning . . . utterly compelling.” —Joanna Lumley

“Juliet Nicolson’s rich storytelling gifts rivet us with the sights, colors, and feelings of a bygone era . . . drawing on material from intimate and rarely seen sources and narrated through the eyes of a series of exceptional individuals . . . The Perfect Summer is a vividly rendered glimpse of the twilight of the Edwardian era.” —Goodreads.com

“Juliet Nicolson transports us back to the enchanted and enchanting summer of 1911. She guides us through its four months in company with some of the most delightful people imaginable. It is a wonderful and poignant tour that proved to be a farewell appearance to their world.” —David Fromkin, author of Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?

“Buried deep within this deliciously evocative book, there is a single story that involves a grand country house and a Lord, a man, not his wife, a cry of celebratory sexuality. This story alone makes the volume’s purchase price worthwhile. And there are hundreds more like it. Juliet Nicolson has fashioned for us a treasure-trove, doubly perfect for winter.” —Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

“From the pre-coronation jitters of Queen Mary to the wit of Mrs. Patrick Cambell—‘does it really matter what these affectionate people do in the bedroom, as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses?’—Juliet Nicolson has written a fast-paced commemorative of the social antics of the English upper class as well as the financial woes of dock workers and household servants during the abnormally hot summer of 1911. A highly entertaining and knowledgeable introduction to a world that was changed forever by World War I.” —Hannah Pakula, author of An Uncommon Woman—The Empress Frederick: Daughter of Queen Victoria, Wife of the Crown Prince of Prussia, Mother of Kaiser Wilhelm

“Edward VII had died the previous year, and England was peeking out from under the Victorian hem. . . . Nicolson captures it all, down to the frantic silliness and boredom of the upper classes; she has woven the details of those last days before the Great War into an unforgettable literary history.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

The Perfect Summer was a best-seller in England, and it’s easy to see why. Bathed in the soft glow of nostalgia, it is a love letter to a lost past that luxuriates in the pleasures of what is presented as a simpler, more stable time. . . . The Perfect Summer offers an intimate portrait of England’s elite that spares no details of their dress, manners, and social habits.” —Douglas Smith, The Seattle Times

“Juliet Nicolson, daughter of Nigel and granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, gives a bravura performance with this piece of writing about ‘that sunlit season’ . . . when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change. . . . It is a stunning piece of social history. . . . What makes Juliet Nicolson’s work outstanding are the portraits it renders of how both the high and the low lived at this turning point in English history.” —Michael D. Langan, The Buffalo News

“Nicolson beautifully captures this fever pitch, when . . . it was as if time was running out. . . . The Perfect Summer transcends national boundaries: Readers don’t have to be British to appreciate her talent. Through rich sensory detail and captivating language, Nicolson’s prose has the power to transport anyone into 1911 England.” —Caroline Bleeke, The Harvard Book Review

“With her sparkling social history about Edwardian society on the brink of World War I, Juliet Nicolson has created the perfect beach reading for Anglophiles. . . . Using a wealth of letters and journals, Nicolson uses her breezy yet informative style to draw readers back to a memorable era.” —Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor

“Juliet Nicolson offers a charming bit of social history about how the rich enjoyed themselves that final hot summer before World War I.” —Chicago Tribune

“Juliet Nicolson’s brief, pre-World War I narrative reads much like a memoir, and through a prism of nostalgia tempered with suggestions of political turbulence and sexual dalliance, her book succeeds, ultimately emerging as a snapshot of a culture in transition. . . . provides ample food for thought, for the book is briskly written, entertaining, and certainly brings a refreshing perspective to period studies.” —Brett Woods, California Literary Review

“A real eye for telling details . . . Where Nicolson is especially good . . . is with the royals and the aristocracy, whose country estates, salons, entertainments and affairs—discreet and indiscreet—she describes with accuracy and humor. . . . There’s great fun for the reader on every page of The Perfect Summer, a book brimming with delectable information and little-known facts.” —Tony Lewis, Providence Journal


The August 2007 Daily Mail Book Club Choice
Christian Science Monitor Best Books of 2007


The Summer of 1911

The only drawback of an English summer is that it lasts so short a time.

Country Life, 1 May 1911

On the first day of May 1911 temperatures throughout England began to rise, and everyone agreed that the world was becoming exceedingly beautiful. The cold weather of April had held back the flowering of many of the spring bulbs, and with the warmth of the first week of summer there had been a sudden burst of growth. The verges of the country lanes were frothing with cow parsley while late primroses still dotted the roadside banks. Top-hatted men strolling in the London parks had decided it was warm enough to abandon their scarves. Straw-bonneted women had gathered up country bluebells to sell in wilting bunches on street corners in the smarter parts of London, and window boxes were already spilling over with scarlet geraniums and marguerites.

Tiny pink flowers covered the branches that would later produce crab apples, while the ocean of white blossoms produced by other fruit trees had prompted Country Life to declare that “few people can remember any parallel to its profusion.” England was plump with promise.

The unaccustomed warmth coincided with the lifting of official Court mourning, a relief after the constraints of the preceding black-edged year: Edward VII had died in the spring of 1910. A few months before his death the poet Wilfrid Blunt had watched him take his seat in the Royal Box at Covent Garden. The King reached for “his opera glasses to survey the glittering women,” and Blunt saw “a man who looked, I thought, extremely genial and satisfied with his position in the scheme of the world.” But on 6 May Edward fell suddenly and severely ill with bronchitis and “smoker’s throat.” He managed, between puffs on a final cigar, to take in the news that his horse Witch of Air had won the 4.15 p.m. at Kempton Park, and died later the same day, moments before midnight, at the age of 68.

London went into a temporary but immediate state of gloom. A Jermyn Street grocer filled his window with the famous black Bradenham hams. A society hostess sewed black ribbons onto her daughter’s underwear. Crowds outside the gates of Buckingham Palace were delirious with shock. There was a Lying-in-State at Westminster Hall, and on 20 May Margot Asquith, the wife of the Prime Minister, stood on a red carpet outside the door of the medieval Hall waiting for the funeral procession of eight visiting kings and an emperor, on its way from the Palace. At the door of the Hall the Archbishop of Canterbury received the dead King’s widow first, followed by her son George. Soon afterwards the King’s brother the Duke of Connaught arrived with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Margot Asquith observed the Kaiser with his “observant eyes and immobile carriage,” and could not help thinking “what a terrifying result a bomb thrown from Big Ben would have had upon that assemblage.”

Society had breathed a sigh of relief when, days after Edward’s funeral, the new King and Queen announced that Royal Ascot would not, as had been expected, be cancelled. The race meeting of 1910 had been a surprisingly beautiful if sombre occasion. Gazing down from the stands above the racecourse, the Countess of Fingall thought that all the large black feathered hats made it look at first glance as if “an immense flight of crows had just settled,” but as she continued to watch the crowd move in monochrome synchronicity she concluded that “when you came close to them, never in their lives had the beautiful women looked more lovely.”

In certain circles, those that had formed the inner court of Edward VII, some anxiety persisted about whether the new King was quite up to the job. This man now ruled over the four hundred million subjects of the British Empire. Short and red-faced, he seemed a distant and nervous figure, and was accompanied in his new role by an unsmiling, aloof and—let it be acknowledged only in a whisper—less beautiful woman than his glittering mother, the Dowager Queen, Alexandra. That day there was much hushed talk on the racecourse and in the packed stands that had witnessed some of Edward VII’s most spectacular sporting triumphs. Conversations about change predominated. Lillie Langtry, one of the dead King’s first mistresses, was ruined by debt; Alice Keppel, one of his most recent mistresses, had fled to China. The grieving widowed Queen refused to move out of Buckingham Palace to make way for her son. For some it seemed as if a world had come to an end. People “anticipate a good deal of change,” George Cornwallis-West, stepfather of Winston Churchill, wrote to his daughter, and some alarmed race-goers even questioned whether the unshakeable confidence of upper-class Edwardian England had disappeared forever. With withering sarcasm they spoke of “a sweeter simpler reign.”

Although the Age of Edward was over, among the privileged, with their servants, their houses, their money and the convenient rigidity of the class system, there was an unspoken determination that a supremely enjoyable way of life should not alter, as the crown shifted from one head to another. Hopeful that the momentum generated by Edward would remain powerful enough to ensure their untroubled existence, by May of 1911 the aristocracy was looking forward to a glorious summer dominated by the Coronation of George V and filled with an unprecedented number of parties.

Mrs Hwfa (pronounced Hoofa) Williams, wife of the manager of Sandown racecourse (Sandown had been Hwfa’s brother’s estate, the racecourse Hwfa’s idea), a committed socialite and an impressively dedicated social climber, was keeping notes for a book for which she had already chosen the title: It Was Such Fun. Mrs Hwfa (she was always referred to by her husband’s Christian name rather than her own) seldom ran short of material. “The London Season was always strenuous,” she wrote, with no reason to expect that 1911’s would be any different. And though she was well into her sixties, her sense of fun guaranteed her an invitation to every smart party of the season. Her engagement diary confirmed her popularity: “Throughout the week practically every night people were at a dinner party, or a ball or the theatre or opera,” she wrote. “I do not say we were busy in the daytime but there was always something to do and combined with a succession of late nights, the end of the week inevitably found me exhausted.”

Osbert Sitwell had a particular affection for Mrs Hwfa, observing that “at every dance to which she went, she was surrounded by a crowd of young men, waiting for her arrival, and they always addressed her as Madam.” Sitwell knew how much effort she had to put into these parties: Mrs Hwfa was extremely deaf. “It is not easy,” he sympathised, “for someone afflicted with deafness to be amusing; it calls for unceasing alertness which must be a great tax on energy.” Sometimes, he noticed, she lost her way, and with only the odd word to guide her did not always guess correctly when trying to assume an expression suitable for the moment. She would hazard “a smile for the whimsical, a laugh for the witty, a striking look of interest for the dealer in the dramatic, a tear for those who wore their heart on their sleeve.” One small comfort was the knowledge that the Dowager Queen herself, Alexandra, suffered from a similar disability.

In line with Mrs Williams’s expectations, The Times Court Circular on 1 May 1911 overflowed with announcements for the coming months, including balls and weddings, race meetings and Royal investitures. Mrs Cornwallis-West was planning a spectacular Shakespeare Costume Ball. Under the patronage of Lady Ripon, Diaghilev was to bring his Russian dancers to Covent Garden to make their English debut in June. Over the last few years militant suffragettes, led by Mrs Pankhurst, had been campaigning for the vote for women and lobbying the Government with varying degrees of aggressive persuasion. But the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, had pledged to address their demands immediately after the summer recess, so they had promised to lay down their window-smashing bricks and hold a truce for the Coronation summer. And members of the House of Lords were hoping that they would defeat the Liberal Government’s proposed bill for a Parliament Act that would if passed place significant restrictions on their voting powers.

To avoid being crushed by boredom the privileged classes who made up one per cent of the population and owned sixty per cent of the country would go to impressive lengths. According to Lucy Masterman, the observant wife of a Liberal minister, the upper class consisted of “an aggregation of clever, agreeable, often loveable people trying with desperate seriousness to make something of a life spared the effort of wage earning.” Men sat about for much of the day in their clubs; ladies spent the early part of the morning in consultation with the cook over the dinner menu, followed by a shopping expedition to the new ‘department stores’ Selfridges and Whiteley’s (which boasted a staff of 6,000) or a dress fitting at Lady Duff Gordon’s fashionable Mayfair salon which traded under the name “Madame Lucille.” A meeting on a Tuesday with a friend involved in the same charitable cause and an amusing diversion to the gallery of Sir Francis Jeune’s divorce court on a Thursday helped to while away the hours. In spare moments they wrote anonymous letters to The Lady, a magazine which offered them detailed advice on servant management, home decoration, wigs, superfluous nasal hair, and flatulence control.

And yet the upper classes were still bored. Osbert Sitwell’s sister Edith, aged 23, watched her parents’ friends at play and saw them with the contempt of youth as “semi animate persons like an unpleasant form of vegetation or like dolls confected out of cheap satin, with here and there buttons fastened on their faces in imitation of eyes.” Semi-animate they might be, but most of these dolls mustered the energy to fill the empty spaces in their lives. Bridge was a passion, played not just at home but in the new women’s clubs, including the Army and Navy in Cork Street and The Empress in Dover Street. Carriages came to the house in the afternoon, the driver having earlier in the day dropped off small white cards (stiff for gentlemen, flimsy for ladies) at selected addresses to give advance notice of their employer’s intended visits. Since the house telephone was often positioned in a frustratingly public hallway, a call in person was imperative if any urgent society scandal were to be passed on discreetly. Other people’s love lives were endlessly fascinating (that May Lady Cunard was caught in flagrante with a man not her husband). Cinq-à-sept appointments—the late afternoon and early evening hours allocated for sex—thrived under the complicit though theoretically unseeing gaze of the servants. The servants’ hall, it was said, was privy to more secrets than Asquith’s Cabinet. The actress Mrs Patrick Campbell was reassuring. “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do in the bedroom,” she asked, “as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses?”

The fashions of the time positively invited flirtation and dalliance. For grander evening occasions married women displayed erotically low-cut décolletage, and the innovative French couturier Paul Poiret had recently brought his sheer evening gown “La Vague” across the Channel. The dress fell straight from the bosom to swirl seductively and wave-like round the body, allowing a tantalising glimpse of the natural feminine curves beneath. A new form of underwear, the brassi’re, permitted the full form of the body to be defined more clearly.

Dinner parties, eight-course affairs with handwritten menus that might be inscribed on the shiny surface of a water-lily leaf or on the sail of a miniature boat, were so elaborate that they became a triumph of presentation and slick teamwork between the cook and the butler. People still spoke of the summer when Mr Hector Baltazzi was so overcome by winning the Derby that he instructed his chef to float a pearl in every plate of watercress soup served at dinner that night. At 10 p.m. carriages would arrive to carry their bejewelled occupants to one of the great Mayfair residences—Devonshire House, perhaps, or Londonderry House or Spencer House—where the grand staircase leading to the ballroom would be wound around with thick garlands of lilies, the musky-sweet scent filling the candlelit space. Dance music was usually provided by a band, but the rich, golden voice of Enrico Caruso had started to resound from crimson enamel horns, the huge metal tropical flowers of a thousand gramophones. New dances accompanied the new music, and couples took to the floor in the turkey trot, the bunny-hug and the chicken scramble.

No one referred to “weekends.” The term was considered “common” or, in the current vogue term, “canaille.” The rich would leave London not on a Friday but for a “Saturday-to-Monday.” On Saturday “The Noah’s Ark,” a huge domed trunk containing enough clothes for six changes a day, would be loaded into the car or, for more distant destinations, a train and transported to country houses belonging to families whose names would have been familiar to Shakespeare. The Northumberlands welcomed their guests to Alnwick, the Salisburys to Hatfield, and the Warwicks to Warwick Castle. Between arrival on Saturday and departure on Monday morning, a sequence of pleasures would unfold. There were tennis parties and croquet matches, bicycle rides followed by picnic lunches, their charm enhanced by white lacy parasols and juicy strawberries and flutes of champagne packed in wicker baskets. During long lazy afternoons in hammocks that summer of 1911 the pampered guests looked forward to reading aloud from the caricaturist and wit Max Beerbohm’s just-published romance Zuleika Dobson, a love story about a group of young men fated to die as a consequence of misplaced idealism. E.M. Forster, whose own novel Howards End had been a bestseller only the year before, found in Beerbohm’s story “a beauty unattainable by serious literature.” Maurice Baring, another young novelist, described how in the afternoons the gilded youth “moved in muslin and straw hats and yellow roses on the lawns of gardens designed by Le Nôtre, delicious with ripe peaches on old brick walls, with the smell of verbena and sweet geranium; and stately with large avenues, artificial lakes and white temples.”

At dinner the placement in the dining room upstairs would be mirrored in the servants’ hall below, the resident butler taking the head of the table with the highest-ranking visiting lady’s maid on his right. After dinner, in the upstairs drawing rooms, small tables lit with lamps in shades of tightly wrapped dark red silk would be laid for bridge or the whist-drives at which Lady Diana Manners, who was making her debut at Court that summer, excelled. Turkish and Egyptian cigarettes would be set out in little boxes. Maurice Baring remembered how they sometimes “bicycled in the warm night past ghostly cornfields by the light of a large full moon” before retiring upstairs, where much silent and furtive corridor-creeping between one double bedroom and another took place. In the morning, a convenient hour before the required appearance, fully dressed, at breakfast, a bell would be rung and the creeping went on again, in reverse.

Some of the rich and privileged were not enjoying themselves at the beginning of that summer. Lady Ida Sitwell could not rouse herself to join in at all. Her life was one of total indolence, as she tried to fill “the blank stretch between hour and hour.” Staying in bed all day was convenient because, as her daughter observed, “there was nothing to do if she got up.” Edith was full of contempt for her mother, a woman so wildly extravagant that her husband had to limit the cash available to her. She claimed Lady Ida was kept so short of money that she would be sent out to pawn her mother’s false teeth in exchange for a bottle of whisky that would make the hours in bed pass a little more quickly.

The eighth Earl of Sandwich had enough time on his hands to become inordinately distressed by his female guests’ habit of lunching with their hats on. At one of his lunch parties the ladies had scarcely begun to enjoy their sole meuni’re when the opera star Dame Nellie Melba, the guest of honour that day, was taken aback to see the butler, sporting a smart bowler above his black suit, approach Lord Sandwich carrying a tweed cap on his silver tray. In vengeful silence Lord Sandwich lifted the cap to his head and pulled it down over his eyebrows, glowering fiercely round the room.

Sir Herbert Tree found himself challenged by boredom. Visiting his local post office to buy a stamp, he waited while the clerk behind the counter produced a sheet containing a gross of identical sticky squares featuring the King’s head. There was a long period in which no word was spoken: Sir Herbert could not make up his mind which stamp to buy. Finally he arrived at a decision, and the clerk’s face remained impassive as with some dexterity he retrieved Sir Herbert’s choice. He had plumped for the one in the very centre of the sheet.

The odd dissenter was heard, but in general there were good reasons for those outside the life of unchanging aristocratic privilege to feel equally joyful at being alive in 1911. Recently returned to England after six and a half years in the civil service in Ceylon, Leonard Woolf detected “a sweeping away of formalities and barriers” which he found “new and exhilarating.” There was a mood of energy and innovation. The motor car had become a more familiar sight at least in the big cities, although the spectacle of a daring young woman, Vita Sackville-West, at the wheel of her elegant De Dion Bouton (known as “Green Archie”) with its electric ignition and water-cooled engine, speeding down her local High Street in Sevenoaks, was enough to bring people running to their doorways to stare.

The car gave its driver a position of power, raising, as Osbert Sitwell noticed, “the rich and even the humble lorry driver to a new and god-like level.” That spring, Rolls-Royce had commissioned Charles Robinson Sykes to design a new mascot for the bonnet of the car, and his elegant winged figure leaning bravely into the facing wind in her body-clinging gown was named, “The Spirit of Ecstasy.” Sykes’s inspiration was the lovely Miss Eleanor Velasco Thornton, whose liaison with Lord Montagu, a leading enthusiast among the collectors of Rolls-Royce cars, had remained a secret for a decade.

Men who until recently had only been able to take their sweethearts on a bicycle made for two were now flying down country lanes in a state of speed-induced sensuality. Osbert Sitwell described “their hair blown back from their temples, features sculptured by the wind, bodies and limbs shaped and carved by it continually under their clothes so that they enjoyed a new physical sensation, comparable to swimming except here the element was speed not water.” Young people had never been so unchaperoned, and “no other generation had been able to speed into the sunset.”

In Vita Sackville-West’s novel The Edwardians, set during the first eleven years of the twentieth century, the mistress of the Duke of Chevron returns exhilarated from a drive. “What I like better than anything is driving in that racing motor of yours,” she says to her lover, “then I feel we may be dashed to death at any moment.” Just as speed had never been so invigorating, so the lack of responsibility had never provided such intoxication.

And yet there were dangers involved on the roads. Not all cars had windscreens; their engines blew up, their tyres exploded; and inexperienced drivers took to the wheel with gusto. Pedestrians were still unused to this mechanical hazard. The Metropolitan Police Statistics for accidents caused by vehicles in London in 1909 were published in 1911. There had been 3,488 accidents recorded involving motor-cars and motor cycles, 2,220 for trams, 1,343 for motor omnibuses, 304 for horse-drawn omnibuses and 6,033 for other horse-drawn vehicles. Of these accidents, 303 were fatal. In the middle of June F.E. Smith, MP, lawyer, and close friend of the Home Secretary Winston Churchill, found himself late for dinner. As he drove along beside the banks of the Thames, on the approach to the House of Commons, his car hit a man who was crossing Westminster Bridge. The man had not, according to The Times, been paying full attention to the road, but looking up at the clock on the tower that housed the Westminster bell, Big Ben. He was killed instantly. Later in the summer the Prime Minister, Henry Asquith, was being driven in his official car to London from Berkshire when his car collided with a young woman riding her bicycle; she was critically injured.

Change for this generation was rapid. The novelist H.G. Wells thought Queen Victoria had “like a great paperweight sat on men’s minds and when she was removed their ideas began to blow about all over the place haphazardly.” The Edwardians were the beneficiaries of this exciting and ever-shifting wind. In London new lines were being opened on the underground train system every few years. In 1906, to prove its safety and reliability, a man with a wooden leg had been invited as the inaugural passenger on the first moving underground staircase, on the Bakerloo line. The “escalator” had proved such a success that a larger version was ready for use at Earl’s Court by May of 1911, for the Festival of Empire. An immense ship, said to be as tall as the highest skyscraper in New York and “practically unsinkable,” was nearing completion in the Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolfe. The first journey by air over the Channel had taken place two years earlier. Moving films, after the first blurry jerky days, were becoming both an increasingly sophisticated art form and, screened in conjunction with the topical news films, a hugely popular form of entertainment. A visit to the cinema became a valuable source of information about current affairs. Over-busy theatre lovers, including the Queen, enjoyed the new service offered by the post office: special headphones that provided a live link from private homes to many of the shows and operas on the West End stage. Cornflakes and tea bags had arrived on breakfast tables.

The fixity of the nineteenth century had vanished, yet change brought with it a mixture of excitement and anxiety. The rapidly increasing military and naval power of Germany and the continuing debate between the Unionists and those who supported Home Rule in Ireland were England’s predominant off-shore concerns that summer, and the strength of the internal unrest that began to find expression took many by surprise. The vast labour force of industrial England was flexing its muscles, on the verge of reaching full political maturity. The profound despair felt among the poor of the country remained unvoiced no longer, and strike action marked the whole summer of 1911. Even domestic servants were beginning to question their long-accepted role.

Many of the very poor sent their children abroad, after replying to daily newspaper advertisements that seemed to offer the next generation better opportunities. The sum required to separate child from parent, perhaps forever, was a quarter of the average annual wage of a farm labourer. Dr Barnado’s advised that “£10 a head for the outfit and for travelling” would be a good investment for a “guaranteed good home in Canada, for the benefit of the Empire.” Children were evacuated as if to escape a war that had not been declared.

However, many people in England were united in their national preoccupation with the weather. They hoped that the beautiful early summer days would last at least until the Coronation. One woman, however, was doubtful whether even the sunshine could dispel her mood of anxiety. From her bedroom window at the top of the Mall she could hear the hammering of wooden stands being knocked into place in preparation for the unveiling of the memorial to Queen Victoria in two weeks’ time. Queen Mary was not looking forward to the months ahead.

Reading Group Guide

1. What is the paradox in the title of Nicolson’s book? “It was a summer when, as the Countess of Fingall put it, ‘We danced on the edge of an abyss.’ There was a sense of urgency about the summer. Socialites crammed in their gaiety as intensively as the poor made their grievances apparent. It was as if time was running out” (p. 2). Talk about examples of the sense of urgency—and the lack of it. This life on the edge had one expression in Vita Sackville-West: “Why worry? Why not enjoy the present? . . . We may all be dead tomorrow, or there be a war or an earthquake”I think one never enjoys life so much as when it becomes dangerous” (p. 88). Is this attitude usually or always associated with those of privilege? Can you think of exceptions?

2. In a country with a reputation for being straight-laced, this book pulls the curtains apart for some delightful aberrant behavior. Talk about some of the high jinks, discovered and undiscovered. (Remember those gapping curtains and the ignored 6:00 a.m. warning bell.)

3. How does Juliet Nicolson’s voice affect our understanding of this post-Edwardian summer? Does her living at Sissinghurst lend undeniable authority to stories of her ancestors’ world? Do you detect a sympathetic delight in her tales of Diana Manners and the Corrupt Coterie? (see pp. 88-89).

4. Do you sense any nostalgia for those days of 1911, even with all the class rigidity and vast gap between rich and poor? What is it the writer—and reader—might miss in latter-day England? At the same time, do the “rumblings” reflect a democratic trend for the better? After the coronation of George V, “Lady Ottoline returned home to Bedford Square, ‘utterly exhausted by that puppet show,’ declaring further that ‘It was hateful and I am more Republican than ever’” (p. 117). Do you feel ambivalence about the past as opposed to the present? What are sticking points for you?

5. “Cornflakes and teabags had arrived on breakfast tables” (p. 15). Are you surprised the United States plays such a minimal role in Nicolson’s England of 1911? Can you recall any Americans who appear in these stories?

6. Does The Perfect Summer give you the idea that events of years following might have gone another direction? What might have made a difference?

7. Tina Brown says that Juliet Nicolson has invented a new kind of social history. What is it that feels fresh? Can you think of other books, even historical novels, that use research and detail in ways Nicolson does?

8. Do you feel Nicolson provides enough information about the coming cataclysm in Europe? Or is it more effective to leave the reader with the unsuspecting majority in the summer of 1911? Does her understated foreshadowing create a balance of suspense and momentum?

9. How does the weather become a central character? What begins as a blithe, even perfect summer, becomes catastrophic for crops and perhaps tempers. Do you think the strikes were provoked by the miseries of people that summer? “To the young novelist D. H. Lawrence, from the Midlands, London seemed like ‘some hoary massive underworld, a hoary ponderous inferno. The traffic flows through the rigid grey streets like the rivers of hell through the banks of rocky ash’” (p. 127). What other responses do you recall to this record-breaking heat of 1911? In contrast, the Royals seem to have found ways of coping. According to the Mistress of the Robes, as she accompanied the King and Queen to Ireland: “The yacht was too delicious after the heat in the train, though even that was quite bearable with fans and lumps of ice” (p. 127). What helps you to understand this oppressive heat? Widespread summer blackouts? Other experiences?

10. One aspect of this perfect summer is Siegfried Sassoon’s memory: “Sitting under the Irish yew, we seemed to have forgotten that there was such a thing as the future” (p. 135). Sassoon could play cricket, write poems, and walk among the tea roses, tree peonies, and lavender, and drink iced coffee and claret cup between tennis games. His biggest problem was beginning to sort out his sexual proclivity. But his coachman’s son, John, saw the drudgery, poor sanitation, and disease behind the romanticized view of life in the country. (see p. 138). Are these discrepancies exacerbated by industrialization and the flight of the young from the land? Rider Haggard said, “Nature, in my opinion, only appeals to the truly educated” (p. 139). Do you agree?

11. Do you emerge from this book with a clear idea of what it is to be English”at least in 1911? Is there still a coherent norm at the time of the book? Are there vestiges of this world today among the English you know or read about?

12. What do we learn about the royal family, especially in the transition from Edward VII to George V? Does Queen Mary come alive for you? What are we told about the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII)? Are there intimations of 1936?

13. The Winston Churchill of these pages may be different from the elder statesman you know better. “At thirty-six, Winston Churchill was the youngest Home Secretary since Robert Peel nearly a hundred years earlier. Eloquent, inexhaustible, and a radical risk-taker, Winston was a man both personally and professionally in full flight” (p. 41). Violet Asquith, daughter of the prime minister, “found him striking not only in his ‘magnificent and effortless use of language’ but for his impressive and ambitious arrogance. ‘We are all worms,’ he said, ‘but I do believe I am a glow worm’” (pp. 41-42). Not surprisingly, he was often resented for his self-absorption. (Do you find that people of mission often are?) At the Coronation, Rudyard Kipling noted that “Churchill, full of all his own self-importance and showiness, seemed like an obscene paper back French novel in the Bodleian” (p. 115). What are pieces of Churchill history that humanize him? What about his relationship with his legendary mother, Jennie Jerome? And his marriage? And fatherhood—the Winston who couldn’t wait to go build sandcastles with his family on the coast of Kent?

14. As a public person, Winston was invited by the Kaiser (first cousin of George V) to visit Germany. Sir Edward Grey, foreign minister and lodger with the Churchills in Eccleston Square, realized that Winston was “exhilarated by the air of crisis and high events” in these days (p. 57). How did the establishment of The Other Club reflect his character? Churchill and F. E. Smith could go hammer and tong in the House of Commons and then repair to The Other Club for serious drinking, dining, repartee, and friendship. What did each give the other that was irreplaceable?

15. Is the Rudyard Kipling of the book the one you recognize from his writings? What is his reputation at the time?

16. When Eric Horne, the butler, takes the stage (pp. 148-154), do you find it a tonic after the hothouse aristocrats? What are the talents that both appeal to his employers and sustain him personally? What are some astonishing examples of the upper class use and abuse of servants? Are your Masterpiece Theater ideas of upstairs-downstairs lives confirmed?

17. Change was both inevitable and necessary in this world, as some saw it. Virginia Stephens (later Woolf) wrote about the ripples among domestic servants: “The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow The Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature” (p. 156). Do you think Virginia Stephens was being optimistic or at least observing through the prism of her liberal Bloomsbury set? Is she at least prescient?

18. How is it that new members of the House of Lords included the writers J. M.Barrie, Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Hardy?

19. What are the reforms of the National Insurance Act proposed by Lloyd George? Why is it so controversial? (see pp. 173-174).

20. What kind of person is Ben Tillett? How would you explain his influence? (see pp. 180 ff.) Do you find him a compelling figure?

21. Talk about the power of women in 1911. For the high-born, what are the privileges and where are the closed doors? What are the conditions for poor women in the work place and at home? (see pp. 198 ff.). Who was Mary Macarthur?

22. In late July in England, drought scorched the earth and no birds sang. Rumblings on the docks and threats of German aggression added to England’s woes. What provokes Lloyd George to thunder, “I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure” (p. 171). What are the ensuing consequences for the military and the infrastructure?

23. What is the impact of Diaghilev’s bringing les Ballets Russes to London? Rupert Brooke made fifteen trips to see it, and actress Ellen Terry thought the Russian Ballet had elevated dance to its “primal nobility” (p. 121). What qualities in the dance, particularly in the sublime Nijinsky, appealed to restless intellectuals? Do you find it ironic that the same society that had condemned Oscar Wilde very few years ago now wined and dined Diaghilev and his dancers?

24. What kinds of technology were making inroads? Automobiles? Airplanes? Wouldn’t you have liked to see a test run for aerial mail delivery with “a postman in full Royal Mail uniform and cap clinging on precariously behind the pilot as they wobbled through the sky”? (p. 223). Motion pictures? What else? How was the arrival of electricity, for instance, a mixed blessing for the working class?

25. Incidental and entertaining intelligence romps through the pages. What, for instance, was the origin of the term “the Loo”? (p. 80).

26. Appearances of many characters, including bit players in this book, make it seem a glittering world. Who were some of your favorites? Which ones surprised you? One thinks of A. A. Milne, John Singer Sergeant, Nellie Melba, Caruso, Escoffier, the whole Bloomsbury crowd . . . and on and on. From the world of the Sitwells to the young singer and finally soldier, Brian Calkin, who closes the book, we are immersed in a world both somewhat familiar and still new to us.

27. How is the Titanic an emblem for events in the book, technological advance, aristocratic privilege, and supreme confidence? Does its proposed maiden voyage in April of 1912 after the Perfect Summer make us think also of the Perfect Storm?

Suggestions for further reading:
The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley; The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West; Howards End by E. M. Forster; The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield; The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley; The Proud Tower by Barbara W. Tuchman; Queen Mary by James Pope-Hennessy; Nijinsky by Richard Buckle