The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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July 12, 2010

The Great Silence

Even though I love to read biographies and memoirs, I'm not especially drawn to reading history. But there is a certain type of history book that appeals to me, which I guess I could describe as a social-cultural-narrative history of a particular period or event, usually in the 19th or early 20th century. Often a book like this gives us a lot of detail and color about the people and places involved in its topic, which is (subjectively) appealing to me.

I just finished reading Juliet Nicolson's book The Great Silence:  Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age, and I thought it was wonderful. This book is a perfect example of what I was trying to describe above. The Great Silence was the first observance (in November 1919) of two minutes of silence in memory of the British soldiers who died in World War I. Working in chronological order, from November 18 (the signing of the Armistice) to November 1920 (a ceremony marking the burial of Britain's Unknown Solider at Westminster Abbey) Nicolson - the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and the daughter of Nigel Nicolson - laces together a long series of anecdotes about many different aspects of British daily life during this period, as people struggle with grief and lives change as society and culture change.

I found the cover of the U.S. edition -- with a photograph of three women in pretty, flowery dresses --fascinating.  It must have been meant to be ironic, and it doesn't prepare you for what you read in the first chapter or two. They are horrifying, with descriptions of the battlefields in France and statistics about the devastating casualties.

Nearly ten million dead soldiers and sailors and airmen had died in the conflict, three quarters of a million from Britain. A further twelve and a half million had been wounded; nearly one and three quarter millions of these were British. ... An estimated 30 per cent of all men aged between 20 and 2  in 1911 were now dead. There were no figures for the fiancees, girlfriends, mothers, children, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends for whom life had changed for ever.
It's a very effective and moving way to set the stage for what comes next, as Nicolson looks at everything from strikes and financial hardships, to memorials and a pioneering plastic surgeon operating in a 'Face Hospital,' to music, poetry, and fashion.  She presents a lot of detail and information, but in a way that's very readable. One of the ways she accomplishes this to link together stories about real people, some well-known...

Back in England, a chocolate shop on Richmond Bridge run by a Belgian lady had been closed for the duration of the war, but one day Leonard Woolf, who described himself without no apology as 'an addict of chocolate cream bars,' walked past the door with his wife Virginia and noticed to his pleasure that the shop was open once again. He and Virginia each bought three bars, carried them home and ate them 'silently almost reverently.'
...and others not (for example, some of the vignettes focus on  proper English butler who can't find a job after the war). All in all, the book was very readable, and very, very interesting, and I enjoyed it very much.


Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I think this sounds fantastic! I love this time period and love your review -- very insightful!

Joan Hunter Dunn said...

Oh I saw this in a book shop and was intrigued by it. Your review intrigues me even more. I may just purchase.

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