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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age » User review

Lest we forget, lest we forget

  • Sep 19, 2010
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As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, I think it's pretty much indisputable now that it, and not the second war that followed, was the watershed event of the bloody and unmourned twentieth century. Just as significant as -- and ultimately longer-lasting than -- the political changes that grew out of the war were the social changes that reshaped life in Britain and on the continent. Although we Americans experienced some of these changes, we were (blessedly) largely sheltered from the particular changes caused by the destruction of nearly a whole generation of young men. For years after the armistice, Juliet Nicolson writes in this great book, the fact of enormous national and personal loss colored every aspect of life in Britain. For American readers, "The Great Silence" is a powerful, revealing, and ultimately very moving look at the consequences of war and death, not only on "society," but more to the point, on individual men, women, and children.

My initial assumption was that "The Great Silence" would be something like The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain 1918-1939, the classic study of life in Britain between the wars by Robert Graves (who, as it happens, shows up several times in this book). In fact, "The Great Silence" is more narrowly focused in several senses. For one thing, the scope of the book lies mostly between 1918 and 1920 -- or, more precisely, between Armistice Day and the interment of the Unknown Warrior on the second anniversary of the armistice. But more importantly, instead of writing about trends and social movements, or getting mired in statistical or polling data, the author tells her story almost entirely through the eyes of specific people and their stories. What "The Great Silence" ended up reminding me of, far more than "The Long Week-End," was Walter Lord's Day of Infamy: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor (not an obvious comparison, perhaps, but one that came to me because I've read and re-read Lord's book many times).

But while it's one thing to recount a discrete event like Pearl Harbor through the eyes of the participants, it's something much bigger and (I imagine) more difficult to survey an entire era, across places and social conditions, the same way. Juliet Nicolson has done a remarkable job. Her narrative moves with ease between the high and mighty on one hand and the maimed, destitute, and broken on the other, telling each story with grace and sympathy. In these pages, the Duke of Devonshire and Lady Diana Manners, for instance, share attention with maid Doris Scovell, pioneering and heroic plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, and three-year-old Pam Parish. It's kind of a pontillistic way of telling a story, and indeed I see some reviewers complaining that the author has missed "the big picture."

I would argue the individual stories ARE "the big picture." In fact, because the narrative here is so intensely personal, the sense of grief and loss, of deprivation and pain, can affect the reader as well. Events that were cathartic in their time, like the dedication of the Cenotaph or the interment of the Unknown Warrior mentioned before, can be cathartic for the reader too. But at the same time, "The Great Silence" contains, and ends on, notes of optimism and hope that lift the mood tremendously. They keep this from being a depressing book -- even for modern readers aware of what lies less than two decades ahead. It's an impressive emotional balance.

I should comment, finally, on the jacket design and subtitle chosen (presumably) by Juliet Nicolson's American publisher. When I was sitting with this book on my lap, my wife asked me why I was "reading such a girly book." Indeed, the purple color of the book jacket, the swirling cursive typeface, and the cover image of three young women in pastel dresses are all oddly out of place for this book. If anything, they suggest a romance novel. While my own imagined cover design -- featuring the powerful portrait "Grief" by Hugh Cecil, reproduced and discussed in the book -- might be TOO bleak, I notice the original UK edition of "The Great Silence" features a much more somber photo. It also subtitles the book "Living in the Shadow of the Great War," which I think is more accurate than "Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age," which I think does a disservice to the scope of this book.

So read it with the dust jacket off if you want. But I definitely encourage students of history or social movements, Anglophiles, or just fans of moving stories well told, to read "The Great Silence." It would also be a powerful reminder to those tempted to glorify war, militarism, and "national greatness" of the huge and largely unforeseen costs of blithely sending young men into battle.

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More The Great Silence: Britain fro... reviews
review by . July 02, 2010
This book is an excellent companion to this author's previous work "The Perfect Summer", which tells of life in England in the last years before the tragedy of the war. Here we are told the tales of what occurred to people in the aftermath of that conflict, and on to the second anniversary of the Armistice on Novemger 11, 1920, when the body of Britain's Unknown Soldier was entombed in Westminster Abbey.    We are given glimpses of the lives of many people, from the highest levels …
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Andrew S. Rogers ()
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Queen Mary's diary and the recollections of an under-chauffeur to the Portuguese ambassador are two of the disparate sources Nicholson (The Perfect Summer) uses in her anecdotal account of the period between the end of WWI on November 11, 1918, and the burial of an unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey two years later. Vividly portraying the horrors of trench warfare and the misery of the bereaved and wounded, she uses the metaphor of the great silence—two minutes of stillness commemorating the armistice—to explore Britons' attempts to cope with the growing despair generated by broken promises and false hopes. Industrial unrest, advances in women's rights, increasing drug use, and the new craze of jazz reveal, says Nicolson, the clamor of the nation's progress through grief. Her sometimes affecting pastiche of Britain's post-WWI mood is marred by the absence of source notes, disconnected vignettes, and minor inaccuracies, such as the origins of the word barmy (which relates to beer's froth, not to the Barming Hospital at Maidstone) and the postwar fashion for men's wristwatches. 37 b&w photos.(June)
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ISBN-10: 0802119441
ISBN-13: 978-0802119445
Author: Juliet Nicolson
Genre: History
Publisher: Grove Press
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