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Great Silence [Paperback]

Juliet Nicolson
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 23 2010
Peace at last, after Lloyd George declared it had been ‘the war to end all wars’, would surely bring relief and a renewed sense of optimism? But this assumption turned out to be deeply misplaced as people began to realise that the men they loved were never coming home. The Great Silence is the story of the pause between 1918 and 1920. A two-minute silence to celebrate those who died was underpinned by a more enduring silence born out of national grief. Those who had danced through settled Edwardian times, now faced a changed world. Some struggled to come to terms with the last four years, while others were anxious to move towards a new future. Change came to women, who were given the vote only five years after Emily Davidson had thrown herself on the ground at Ascot race course, to the poor, determined to tolerate their condition no longer, and to those permanently scarred, mentally and physically, by the conflict. The British Monarchy feared for its survival as monarchies around Europe collapsed and Eric Horne, one time butler to the gentry, found himself working in a way he considered unseemly for a servant of his calibre. Whether it was embraced or rejected, change had arrived as the impact of a tragic war was gradually absorbed. With her trademark focus on daily life, Juliet Nicolson evokes what England was like during this fascinating hinge in history.

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Review

"A small treasure-house of a book from a writer who understands the vital importance of small details." (The Guardian)

“A triumph of balance and organization... Nicolson writes with admirable pace and fluency...a study which comprehends the cultural and the intellectual, the political and the social, and weaves them all into a lively and convincing narrative.” (The Spectator)

“Nicolson has created a compelling impressionistic portrait of a country struggling to make sense of the sacrifices that had been made. Filled with anecdote and human detail, The Great Silence becomes a moving study of Britons finding ways, individually and collectively, to recover from the terrible wounds the war had inflicted.” (Sunday Times)

About the Author

Juliet Nicolson is the author of THE PERFECT SUMMER. She has written for the Daily Telegraph, Vogue, Evening Standard, The Spectator and The Guardian. She has two daughters and lives in Sussex and Kent at Sissinghurst.

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely well written social history... May 4 2010
By Jill Meyer HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
The Great Silence" is Juliet Nicholson's second book, after publishing "The Perfect Summer" in 2007. The first book was a social history of that glorious summer of 1911, the first summer after the ending of the Victorian and Edwardian ages.

With "Silence", Nicholson has returned with a meticulously written view of the two years in England after the end of "The Great War" in 1918. British soldiers returned after demob to their homes but in many cases, their lives would never be the same after four years in the trenches in France. So many men - who had marched gaily off to war in 1914 - had been killed or badly wounded, both in body and in spirit. So many women lost their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers. An entire generation of young men were decimated in the four years of war.

Nicholson writes about all strata of British society, both "above" stairs and "below" stairs. Some of the people she interviewed were children in 1919 and are alive today. She also relied on written histories, both personal and academic. All together, Nicholson takes the reader back to that two year post-war period that saw the beginnings of the "Roaring '20's" with a national obsession for dancing and drinking by all levels of society. She also writes about the toll the "Spanish Flu" had on those at home who caught it from returning soldiers.

Nicholson is a very good and controlled writer. This book is not yet available in the States and I had to order it from Amazon/UK. It is a wonderful look at a very interesting time in British society.
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By Alison S. Coad TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
"The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age," by Juliet Nicolson, covers just two years of British history, from the Armistice of 1918 to Armistice Day of 1920, but it packs a lot of history in that short period of time. About 1/3 of English men between the ages of 20 and 24 were killed or permanently wounded in World War I (which is not as high a percentage as France or Germany, but still), and the world that the survivors returned to was very different from the one they had left. There was scarcely a family in the United Kingdom that had not lost a son, father, brother, husband, and of those who did return, many suffered from what we now called post traumatic stress disorder, then known as "shell shock." There were new industries opened up by the war, including that of plastic surgery (because of the necessity for at least some kind of reconstruction of faces that had been blown apart), and Juliet Nicolson details these and other changes in the world of post-war England. She is the grand-daughter of Vita Sackville-West, a notable aristocrat of the Edwardian era, and so has access to documents and oral histories that others might not be able to attain, but she also chronicles the changes in the lives of the "lower classes" as well, of which there were many. Primarily, however, this book is about the grief of a nation and how it was, and was not, expressed in the collective culture. The famed British "stiff upper lip" resulted in a type of mourning that was silent and hidden, but the shock caused to the culture as a whole by the Great War was such that it couldn't just be ignored or denied, and Nicolson describes some of the ways in which it manifested over those first two years after the end of hostilities. Read more ›
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The book that might have been March 22 2011
By KatCar
Format:Paperback
I opened The Great Silence with great anticipation, looking forward to an entertaining interpretation of the effects of the Great War on British society. Volumes such as Paul Fussell's The Great War and the Modern Memory have proven that this topic can be endlessly fascinating and informative, and Juliet Nicolson certainly had the sources at her disposal to create an equally enjoyable account. But alas, the initial promise of the book made its failure that much more disappointing.
First of all, there is the issue of organization and theme. Nicolson's anecdotes of life after the war, interesting in themselves, are strung together one after the other, with rarely a chronological or thematic link to tie them together. The anecdotes are formed into chapters with vague and misleading titles which do not progress towards the distillation of any theme or thesis. By the end of the book, the reader is left with the sense of having heard a multitude of fascinating voices, but without the guiding hand of an editor to turn the cacophony into purposeful music.
Secondly, there is the issue of sources. Nicolson's material is undoubtedly drawn from a wide variety of sources, and her discussion of the artificial limb and facial reconstruction work after the war is a bright spot of thorough research and discussion. But in other instances, she neglects to provide any context for her information. She relates the tale of Diana Cooper's post-war adventures in great detail, but does not give any indication of how she fit into the broader spectrum of post-war upper-class society.
And finally, there is the question of style. Personally, I found Nicolson's writing to be difficult, her wording full of redundancies and her syntax convoluted. While this is purely a subjective aesthetic concern, it made this reader's experience that much less enjoyable.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  48 reviews
41 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life after the catastrophe July 2 2010
By Jay Dickson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In Virginia Woolf's MRS DALLOWAY, the character of Peter Walsh decides that the few years immediately after the Great War were "somehow very important"; Juliet Nicholson's powerful new cultural history of Great Britain during the period from 1918 to 1920, remind us just how very important that period was. Nicholson's method is to center her study around the lives of thirty-some figures, ranging from royalty and the aristocracy to figures important in the arts and the military, and even the working class. Her style seems initially meandering but as you get the hang of it you see the deeper patterns underneath, as she cleverly structures these figures' lives around the nation's major milestones in articulating the meaning of the War to End All Wars, where one in seven British men of the age of service died. Her choices for her dramatis personae are terrific, and often surprising: we don't hear that much about the Woolfs, Lytton Strachey, or even about her grandparents Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, for example (though those very familiar figures are all in here nonetheless), but rather quite a bit about the great memoirist Vera Brittain and the novelist Winifred Holtby. And most of the stories here have been rarely (if ever) fully told, and yet are of crucial interest to anyone interested in modernism or the InterWar period and here told with great skill: the first graduation of women from Oxford; the sensational glorification by Lowell Thomas of the exploits of T.E. Lawrence after Lawrence's exploits in Arabia and the Middle East but before the publication of THE SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM; the selling and destruction of Devonshire House, which formed the model for the similar fate of Marchmain House in BRIDESHEAD REVISITED; and, most crucial of all, the decision to set two minutes' observation of silence throughout the Empire on Remembrance Day.

There is material here for modernist and twentieth-century scholars to mine for years to come. The book reminded me of nothing so much as the excellent histories of the war itself by Paul Fussell (THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY) and Samuel Hynes (A WAR IMAGINED) from decades previous, which speaks impressively of Nicholson's achievement. There are a few minor errors here and there that I hope will be cleaned up for the US paperback (for example, Katherine Mansfield is described here as a "novelist"), but this well-crafted, beautifully detailed study is exceptionally rich with golden historical and cultural ore. It has been a bit oddly marketed for its publication in the USA (the cover photograph doesn't seem to give you much of a sense of the weightiness of the book's subject), but this fine study should absolutely find its audience among those who study or are captivated by the modernist period.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's The Little Things July 6 2010
By Kurt Harding - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Much history taught in public schools is macro-history, with pupils required to remember names, dates, places, important events and of course, important people. That became the fashion likely because of the constraints of time. There is so much students must learn that concentration on the details is left for specialty classes at University. But what is it that really shapes a nation's destiny and forms it's national character? Well, it's the little things that do that and when you study them you can better understand the trajectory of a country's history.
I happen to enjoy the details of history and so was delighted to read Juliet Nicolson's fine social history of Great Britain covering the two years immediately following the end of WWI. Since wars are massively disruptive, their end generally entails massive social and economic changes for both the victor and the vanquished. Most reasonably well-educated Americans know about the economic and social upheavals that took place in Germany, Russia, and to a lesser extent, Austria-Hungary following the First World War. Fewer know much about the effects of the war on Great Britain with many assuming that as the victor, it emerged relatively unscathed except for its battlefield losses.
Well, in The Great Silence, Nicolson puts the lie to that notion. Using anecdote, she shows how the war affected all classes of British society from the humblest servants all the way up to the royal family. And it did change them all. But it wasn't all negative. There were many great advances not just socially, but also in science and in technology which resulted in a more restless, but ultimately a freer and slightly less class-ridden society. One of the most fascinating chapters in my view is how surgeon Howard Gillies reconstructed the faces of men who had been shattered in the war giving many of them back the opportunity to lead productive lives.
The author often alludes to social changes that many at the time thought presaged the breakdown of morality. Women entering the workforce by the millions, a decrease in church membership and attendance, more open sexuality including that of the homosexual variety, an increase in the use of contraception, an increase in drug and alcohol abuse, and a less kowtowing attitude by the lower classes toward the gentry. There was also a more militant attitude among the working classes; in places that attitude was openly and avowedly Marxist.
I personally don't care much about some of the gentry I am introduced to in this book, but yet what they did and what they thought still mattered a great deal in the Great Britain of that time and so had a bearing on the eventual direction of the country. And not just the political direction but the cultural direction as well.
I like the way Nicolson has chosen to bracket the period she covers between the anger and uncertainty that enveloped the country at war's end and the national catharsis occasioned by the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey. Every segment of society was included in that ceremonial event and it brought king and commoner together, if only briefly, in a way which gave the nation closure and allowed it to move forward.
If you enjoy reading about the minutiae that are the building blocks of the Big Picture, then I highly recommend this well-written and fascinating book.
18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely well written social history... Jan. 29 2010
By Jill Meyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Great Silence" is Juliet Nicholson's second book, after publishing "The Perfect Summer" in 2007. The first book was a social history of that glorious summer of 1911, the first summer after the ending of the Victorian and Edwardian ages.

With "Silence", Nicholson has returned with a meticulously written view of the two years in England after the end of "The Great War" in 1918. British soldiers returned after demob to their homes but in many cases, their lives would never be the same after four years in the trenches in France. So many men - who had marched gaily off to war in 1914 - had been killed or badly wounded, both in body and in spirit. So many women lost their sons, husbands, brothers, and fathers. An entire generation of young men were decimated in the four years of war.

Nicholson writes about all strata of British society, both "above" stairs and "below" stairs. Some of the people she interviewed were children in 1919 and are alive today. She also relied on written histories, both personal and academic. All together, Nicholson takes the reader back to that two year post-war period that saw the beginnings of the "Roaring '20's" with a national obsession for dancing and drinking by all levels of society. She also writes about the toll the "Spanish Flu" had on those at home who caught it from returning soldiers.

Nicholson is a very good and controlled writer. This book is not yet available in the States and I had to order it from Amazon/UK. It is a wonderful look at a very interesting time in British society.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An End And A Beginning June 16 2010
By John D. Cofield - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
When we study history we often jump directly from World War I to the Roaring Twenties, paying little or no attention to the transition period between. Juliet Nicolson's The Great Silence ably chronicles the years 1919-1920 in Britain (with occasional excursions elsewhere). Readers who enjoyed her earlier work The Perfect Summer will be glad to see that Nicolson has followed much the same format here: telling in roughly chronological order the events of the time as experienced by well known and unknown figures of the time.

The 1919-1920 period saw the ending of one world and the beginning of another. Along with the lives of millions of people, World War I destroyed or at least altered much of Europe's political, cultural, and military establishment. Nicolson does an able job chronicling the physical losses felt by so many people in England during and after the war: families who lost sons, husbands, and fathers, and soldiers who were horribly wounded and disfigured. Advances in medical care meant more men survived terrible shattering wounds, but at the price of becoming objects of fear and disgust to many when they returned home missing limbs or parts of their faces. Women found new work opportunities but struggled to deal with men who, even if they were not physically wounded, often suffered what we now call PTSD.

In 1919 and 1920 there were also plenty of hints about the new world that was taking shape. Jazz music was introduced to London ballrooms, and Coco Chanel began her long and celebrated career. New technologies like airplanes and motorcars were becoming more reliable and more common. Relationships between upper, middle, and lower classes were now much more complicated, with strikes even the finest London establishments and many noble households having to cope with a servant shortage. Sexual mores were looser, and campaigns for legalized contraception began.

Nicolson is highly skilled in her ability to depict these many changes through one telling anecdote after another. Many of the characters she uses are well known: The King and Queen, Lawrence of Arabia, Lady Astor, Lady Diana Cooper, and Lady Ottoline Morrell. Others are more obscure, such as Eric Horne, a veteran butler who found himself out of work after fifty years. Whether they were famous or not, Nicolson tells all of their stories with sympathy and perception.

The Great Silence is a fine work of social history. I hope that we will see much more from Nicolson in the future.
20 of 26 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rather Shallow Aug. 4 2010
By mer from MD - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Really darling, the entire book is rather shallow. After reading the NY Times review I was expecting an in depth examination of the human consequences of the Great War, but only one slim chapter was dedicated to those who were maimed or wounded. Additionally, when examining this perspective, Nicholson chose to focus on the surgeons, nurses, and other caregivers, rather than the individuals directly concerned. It was a missed opportunity to learn the thoughts and opinions of those who made the penultimate sacrifice. The rest of the book tends to focus on society names, such as Lady Diana Cooper and her self-pitying moans, the Duke of Portland's issues with his estates and homes, costume parties, etc. When citing the experiences of the common people, Nicholson doesn't provide closure to their stories, but tends to take snippets from their diaries and memoirs, leaving the reader to wonder how the drama ended, i.e., did Billy die of influenza or Margaret see her much loved father again, etc.

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