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As a social and economic phase of English life the ‘Edwardian age’ had a longer span than the ten years of Edward VII’s reign. It began, roughly speaking, with Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee in 1887 and ended with the outbreak of the first world war in August 1914. Although a far from static period, it was characterised throughout by a jingoistic pride in British world power, then at its apogee, by a growing materialism and hedonism, and, despite an uneasy questioning of the social and political bases on which the Victorian age had rested, by an enduring belief in progress and Britain’s power in the future. The war was to change that prevailing mood forever, accelerating social, political and anti-religious tendencies and sapping the economic strength which underlay national confidence.
The sunny months of 1911 are chosen, in this deftly written volume, to capture the essence of that talented and glittering page of our history — a good choice, for those increasingly sultry weeks, during which the papers tired of reporting deaths from heat stroke, freak thunderstorms or holiday accidents, were the backdrop for momentous and spectacular events: the coronation of the new king; the sensational descent of the Ballets Russes on London, where, in the words of the impresario Diaghilev, it ‘conquered the whole world’; the passing of the National Insurance Act, forerunner of Britain’s welfare state; the dockers’ and railwaymen’s strike which raised fears of revolution and came close to halting the country’s economic life; the climax of the long-running constitutional crisis, when the House of Lords was finally stripped of its power of veto; and Britain and her Entente partner, France, on the brink of war with Germany over Morocco.
Juliet Nicolson does not pretend to offer a close political analysis, but rather a thoroughly entertaining portrait of the period, full of memorable detail. The cast of players is large and flamboyant — characteristics of most notable Edward-ians, whether literary and artistic lions, society hostesses or national leaders. Prominent are F. E. Smith, Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George, to us, today, brilliant figures, but to many older people then, brought up to a graver and grander High Victorian public world, caddish and flashy.
In her atmospheric month-by-month account, the author includes episodes of lesser importance but ones which highlight the preoccupations of the time, such as the debut in May of the celebrated society beauty Diana Manners, combining the assurance of old aristocracy with that of a ‘new woman’, ahead of her time in flouting conventions, darling of the press and the music hall.
Typically Edwardian, too, were the gypsy-like wanderings, described here, of the artist Augustus John and his entourage through the summer countryside, feeding the agreeable fantasy life of a society, which, from a safe position of respectability, romanticised the bohemian and the vagabond, in the same way that it romanticised as repositories of seasoned wisdom impoverished rural labourers in a declining agricultural industry.
The huge pre-war crowds drawn by the hot weather to the seaside, the start of the grouse season and the dashing young men in their dangerously driven new limousines give an impression of a summer devoted to pleasure, but as the author points out, happiness was unevenly spread. The book’s title is ironical — it does not tell a ‘golden age before the deluge’ story, though much of the glamour that has contributed to the myth is here. The extreme opulence of the rich was in stark contrast with the miseries of the poorest citizens. The women chain-makers of Cradely Heath, for example, worked through the heat in hellish conditions:
Babies wrapped in filthy makeshift hammocks were hung from the ceiling while slightly older children lurked among the dangerous embers spilling on to the floor at their mothers’ feet. Sweat poured down the women’s arms and legs and flying sparks continually burned through their clothes and on to their flesh.
Even among the ‘Upper Ten Thousand’, despite ‘the convenient rigidity of the class system’, all was not contentment, let alone fun. In contrast with Diana Manners’ confident antics, the author, who has used the royal archives, presents the new Queen Mary’s selfconscious shyness in her unfamiliar role, her awkward relations with her mother-in-law Alexandra, more regal and better-looking than her plain-faced successor. Alexandra’s unwillingness to leave Buckingham Palace made that trap of an establishment still more intimidating, with its ‘200,000 electric light bulbs, dozens of servants, 12 personal postmen doing their rounds inside the palace, a private police force and six florists’.
Disagreeable, too, if more trivial, were the agonies, that September, of the popular novelist Elinor Glyn, kept on a string and finally rejected by her lover, the imperious Lord Curzon; more so, the anxieties of the youthful poet Siegfried Sassoon, unlucky to discover his homosexuality in an era still overshadowed by Oscar Wilde’s disgrace; he sought the advice of Edward Carpenter, fearless defender, in home-made tweed plus-fours, of the sexually ‘intermediate’; Sassoon, however, lost his nerve about being associated with this eccentric proselytiser and continued to fester in his private unhappiness.
The sources cited at the end of this attractive book provide a helpful guide for the many readers who will be prompted to explore further. To these I am inclined to add H. G. Wells’s novel, The New Machiavelli, published in 1911, the best commentary on British politics in its time.
The photographs in The Perfect Summer are a delight — among them an Ingres-like nude study of Lady Diana Manners gazing into a looking-glass; a walrus of a channel-swimmer, Mr T. W. Burgess, surging naked (except for goggles) through the briny; and, most evocative of all, a snapshot of three large, strident society ladies on a country house terrace, wearing huge hats surmounted by ostrich feathers: superior and stylish — archetypical Edwardians, in fact.