The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm reads rather like a glimpse into the lives of the passengers on the HMS Titanic. As a matter of fact, toward the end of the narrative, Elinor Glyn, one of Ms. Nicolson’s cast of characters, thinks to start a new life in New York and very nearly books passage on the pride of the White Star Line. Her sister goes without her, and survives the journey.
Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, erstwhile lover of Virginia Woolf, and Harold Nicolson, and I imagine that, as such, she has rather more than usual access to the folkways and mores of upper class Britain in the summer of 1911.
Here she quotes Lady Ottoline Morrell, a friend of her grandmother’s, when
an uneasy feeling over took her as she watched the Asquiths and Horners basking in the sunshine and peace and beauty of this lovely English garden and smoking cigarettes and scheming, planning, doubting, criticizing.
She felt that there was a nearby voice whispering, Your dreams and efforts are but as the smoke of your cigarettes. None of them could hope to capture and hold the precious, elusive evanescence of an English summer’s day forever.
Several sections are given over to the lower classes, including some memorable strikes, but these feel as if they were written more from research than from insider insights. It is her vignettes of the likes of the Churchills, Lady Diana Manners, and other familiar members of the hoi polloi in England before the Great War that give this book its charm. Not to mention its cautionary tales.