Nov 9, 2010

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

As the title tells us, The Great Silence: Living in the Shadow of the Great War is a social history of the years that followed the 1918 Armistice. Its main focus is on how people coped with the seemingly insurmountable losses they had suffered, and eventually found a way of resuming their lives. After something as devastating as WW1, it seemed impossible that life would ever go back to normal, and as often happens in these cases, it proved necessary to find a new way to define “normal life”. Juliet Nicolson particularly focuses on Armistice Day itself, on the Peace Parade that marked the one year anniversary of the end of the war, and on the funeral service for the Unknown Soldier that took place in 1920, and for which a single body was brought back from the battlefields of France to symbolise the thousands that had never been recovered. Through the stories of both ordinary people and historical figures, Nicolson gives us an account of the personal side of all these events.

The Great Silence is very much the kind of social history I tend to devour, and for this reason I knew from the start was inclined to like it regardless of whatever flaws it might have. Although these turned out to be many, this was exactly what happened. I find the early twentieth-century almost as fascinating as the Victorian era, and as such I appreciated the opportunity to immerse myself in the period. I loved the personal approach Nicolson uses, and even liked her flair for what can only be described as historical gossip; I loved the emphasis on the social changes that followed the Great War and on the transition into the ‘roaring 20’s’; I enjoyed learning more about the devastating Spanish flu, about the Interwar literary scene, and about now-forgotten episodes such as the heartbreaking story of the Skye shipwreck (two hundred soldiers who had survived the war lost their lives a mere twenty meters from land. How horrible is that?). Overall, there was plenty to love in this book.

However, The Great Silence somewhat overlaps with another social history book I read this year, Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out, and as I don’t think the two books are even in the same league the inevitable mental comparison did not favour it at all. Possibly I’m saying this because Virginia Nicholson is a writer whose sensibility is much closer to my own, but I found Juliet Nicolson’s approach disappointingly superficial at times. As I was saying before, I did for the most part enjoy her forays into historical gossip; but at the same time, when I come across a passage such as the following,
Men were not the only lustful offenders. A laundress, Ellen Henson, had become pregnant three times during her husband’s absence at the front. Mr Henson stopped giving his adulterous wife any money and removed the children from her custody.
...I cannot help but wish it had been treated as more than a scandalous tidbit. Surely there’s a lot more to explore here? Not to mention that I don’t think wartime affairs were mainly motivated by what she calls “lust”. The Great Silence is sadly not nearly as complex as I hoped when it comes to gender, class, or glbtq issues (‘No one minded, much’ anymore? Really?). Add to this remarks about the “growing insolence of the servant class”, or pearls of wisdom such as “drugs were only part of a growing promiscuity spreading across all classes of society”, and as I’m sure you can imagine I was pretty annoyed at times. I’ll take my history without overtones of moral disapproval, thank you very much.

The Great Silence seems to be a book with a bit of a tendency to idealise the social structure of the pre-war past, but despite this and all my other “buts” – and they are not small “buts” – I’m still glad I read it. Nicolson has an eye for detail, writes very readable and often moving prose, and captures the mood of the period exquisitely. If you’re interested in the early twentieth-century, you too are likely to enjoy this – just bear in mind that it’s not exactly an in-depth analysis, and brace yourself for some eye-roll inducing remarks. Despite all the things that irked me, I still look forward to picking up Nicolson’s Edwardian social history, The Perfect Summer: Dancing Into Shadow in 1911.

Interesting bits:
Walking through the rain on 11 November 1918, with some fellow Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses, Vera [Britain] slowly registered that the streets were brightly lit for the first time in four years. Her joylessness grew with the same speed as the elation that surrounded her. No adored brother and no longed-for fiancĂ©e were here to celebrate with her; there was therefore nothing to celebrate. That evening, finding it impossible to recapture ‘the lost youth that the war had stolen’, she too realised for the first time ‘with all that full realisation meant’, that the world had altered irrevocably and that ‘the dead were dead and would never return.’

Many of the most extreme of war wounded cases had not come back to their own homes at all. They were hidden away in institutions, allowed out occasionally to take the air, objects of fascination and pity, to be stared at and then hastily ignored by the able-minded going about their business. ‘Don’t look,’ John Leigh Pemberton’s mother would caution her young son as they walked along the front at Westgate-on-Sea, passing the gas-blinded soldiers.

In one gentleman’s club, where men professed themselves uninterested in buying the book [Marie Stopes’ Married Love], the demand for the library copy was so huge that members were restricted to one hour of reading before being asked to hand the book on. Marie Stopes received five hundred letters a day consulting her on all aorts of personal problems: just under half of them were from men. The open language she used when discussing the pleasure of a healthy sexual relationship was successful in its intention to ‘electrify’. Married Love sold two thousand copies in the first two weeks after publication and was reprinted seven times that year.
(Have you posted about this book too? If so, let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)


  1. I've got Perfect Summer on my shelves and this one on my wishlist. Like you, I love reading about this period. Historical gossip is always interesting but better without moral judgements!

  2. I liked Blackout by Connie Willis so much for many of the same reasons, because it showed how ordinarily people coped in WWII. The glbtq quote does indeed sound suspicious. I wonder about her sources.

  3. Sakura: Exactly! She does seem to favour the Edwardian period, so hopefully The Perfect Summer will be free of remarks like that.

    Jill: I was reading other reviews online and she has been criticised exactly for not listing sources. It's definitely more of a popular book than a serious history, but still enjoyable in many ways. PS: Speaking of Willis, I got Doomsday Book today! I can't wait to start it :D

  4. It does sounds like a book that I would enjoy reading, if for the time period only and to reflect on all things that people at the time encountered and dealt with. However, in the one passage you selected, I agree -- I would be a bit saddened to see that certain items were for salacious gossip only, and not as a potential chance to dive further into the detail to see if there is much more substance to it than just a philandering wife. Social classes were such an integral part of this time (as it can sometimes be today), but in this particular time, there's much more behind the curtain. One can only read a fiction novel, The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton to get a glimpse of social structure, no? A shame that although this one certainly was a good read, it could have been such a much more powerful read. I think I'd like to read it as well, though -- many thanks for putting this on my radar, as always!

  5. Wow, it does sound like the author is attempting to moralize some of the complex situations that went on during that time, and I am not sure if I would like that. I have been interested in Singled Out, though, and think that if these two books deal with a lot of the same subject matter, I might skip this one. The overall arch tone and judgmental attitude of this book would annoy me, I think, and since you had a great experience with Singled Out, I think that is the book I will try. Thanks for being so honest about this book, flaws and all.

  6. Sounds intriguing, especially with Armistice Day this week. It's my first year in the UK so it has been interesting experiencing another country's holidays. The author's moral judgments aside, it sounds like a topic I would be interested in.

  7. If I decide to read about that fascinating time period, I'll look for Singled Out.

  8. I was watching Downton Abbey on Sunday and during the last scenes WW1 was announced and I wondered how their lives would all change so dramatically. I found myself quite fascinated as I saw servants signing up for the war. I am intrigued by this book, and to see how their lives changed, as it was such a big turning point in history.

  9. Sounds interesting. I need a book to get me interested in this time period. Too bad she doesn't explore more about war-time affairs and the why of might help people understand who feel they would never make those choices. But I guess she didn't have any interest in understanding (or thought it could be boiled down to lust)
    When was the book published?

  10. Coffee and a Book Chick: House of Mirth! I've been mentally making a list of classics to read next year, and that's so going to be on it. I completely agree with everything you said!

    Zibilee: Yes, if you only read one Singled Out is definitely the one to go with!

    Kristi: Being new to the UK myself, I've also been interested in the Remembrance Day ceremonies - that's actually part of why I decided to do some themed reading this week.

    Kathy: Definitely do!

    Vivienne: So that's what the series is about! I've seen plenty of people discuss it on Twitter but I really didn't know much beyond the fact that it was a TV series. I'm definitely curious now.

    Amy: The book is from 2009, which to me made her dismissive tone all the more surprising! I thought A Stranger in the House by Julie Summers did a good job of exploring why there were so many wartime affairs, but it was about the Second World War. I wish she'd write a book about the first! I'm sure people's motivations varied largely from case to case, but calling it all "lust" just seems so lazy to me.

  11. Curious if you read this one for class or just because? Post-WWI is a fascinating era for me as well--especially as I also love the writing that comes out of the period. So much change and world-shaking in a short period of time.

    Sorry this one lacked the depth you were hoping for, but guess it's promising that you'll still pick up another by her!

  12. Trish, it was just because - or rather, because of Remembrance Day. I don't think the book is solid enough to ever be included in a syllabus to be honest. But as I love the period (and yes, the literature too!) I'd still say it was worth it. Kind of like watching a not too in-depth but still informative documentary, I guess :P

  13. At the risk of sounding over-confident -- you will not regret reading The House of Mirth. It's a heartbreaking story, though, so do be prepared for it. But absolutely brilliant and stunning.

  14. I kind of like the idea of gossipy history actually, even though it's not quite professional, it could be fun... I studied some history in university and although I'm always meaning to read more on my own time, I never seem to do so very often, although now thanks to you I have a longer list of history books to try!

  15. If I had of seen this book face out at the library, the cover would totally have caught my attention.

    Disappointing that it wasn't quite as good as you expected. I might have to go and look for Singled Out even though I don't normally read a lot of non-fiction.

  16. "The insolence of the servant class" -- really? She wrote that without any irony? Those kinds of things can really strain my relationship with an author. Nevertheless, this book does sound very interesting to me. I enjoy historical books that delve into the psychological mood of a time period.

  17. This sounds quite interesting and readable; sorry to hear it didn't live up to expectations. I've not really read many social histories, but I do think I'd enjoy them. Maybe I should start with The Great Silence, before my expectations get too high!

  18. Absolutely my era too. I don't have this book, but I do have Singled Out waiting for me to read, so that's good news. I've also got my eye on Juliet Gardiner's recent book about the thirties - too expensive at present because it's in hardback, but I will definitely get the paperback when it comes out.

  19. Definitely sounds like a book you would like, but man oh man sounds like some awful big buts. I LOVED this line "I’ll take my history without overtones of moral disapproval, thank you very much". Definitely sounds like the book falls far short of what it could have been.

  20. Coffee and a Book Chick: After Ethan Frome, I expect nothing less than heartbreak from Wharton :P But I do think I'll love it all the same.

    Carolyn: Overall I did like the gossip-y approach as well - if only she had avoided the tut-tutting!

    Marg: Isn't that a wonderful cover? It immediately caught my eye. And do read Singled Out! Another bonus is that it'll give you a huge reading list of literature from the period.

    Stephanie: I think she was trying to speak from the point of view of the upper class at the time, but the fact that she repeatedly picked the perspective of those who were privileged without considering the other side really began to irk me after a while.

    Erin: That's actually a really good idea - I suspect I'd have liked this one more if I'd read it before Singled Out.

    litlove: Singled Out is just brilliant! As for Gardiner, I think Jenny from Jenny's Books said she read it and it was more political and economic history than social, which was disappointing to hear. But I'd still like to take a look sometime.

    Amy: I try to avoid the snark, but sometimes it can't be helped ;)

  21. Oh those remarks would drive me mental:P
    "growing insolence of the servant class”"...what??!

    And yes, I think I would have been annoyed too with her dismissal of that woman's case as merely gossip.

    Still, glad you found there were still things to enjoy from reading the book :)

  22. If you want a big tome about the spanish flu pandemic, try The Great Influenza. It is very sciencey but really interesting.

  23. Hellooooooooooo! Here I am, visiting book blogs and now wanting very much to lay on my bed and read away the evening, which... well, I just may do that :-)

    It is unfair, but I find it VERY disappointing when a non-fiction book has such a fabulous premise but inevitably suffers by not living up to its promise. I felt that way about Ladies of the Grand Tour, which was about women who traveled in the Georgian era. So much fodder! So little substance. Argh!

  24. PS- Maybe over this coming summer, you and I can read a Studs Terkel book together about the Great Depression. I think we would both really enjoy Hard Times.

  25. Valentina: Yeah, I know... there was just so much begging to be explored that wasn't.

    Melanie: I definitely don't mind sciencey! Thank you so much for the recommendation.

    Aarti: That's always quite a let down, yes :\ Speaking of women travellers, I was recently given a book called Victorian Women Travellers that seems really promising! We'll see how it goes. And I'd love to read Hard Times with you in the summer!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.