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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June 13, 2015

1939: The Last Season

I think that my (relatively recent) turn to reading more history stems from my (lifelong) love of reading biographies. I know that the biographies I enjoy most let me sense what a life was like through stories and details:  where the person lived, who they lived with, who they knew, what happened when they went to Paris or to a country house party (I seem to especially like biographies when the subject tends to go to Paris or to uppercrusty country house parties).  It's also true that most of the fiction I read is set in the past {or really set in the present, but written in the past} and the things that happen in these books sometimes glide by without me understanding their significance, and then sending me scurrying to Google or hopefully, eventually, to a good history.

I made a note to look for 1939:  The Last Season after learning about it from Darlene, and all this considered, it was definitely my cup of tea.  I even understand better what the London 'season' was:  the summer months that drew the upper crustiest back to London for what was apparently an annual routine of debutante balls, presentations at Court (a la Lady Rose), horse racing, garden parties at Buckingham Palace, country house weekends, glittering dinner parties, celebrations and cricket matches for Old Etonians, opera and theater, all conducted with rigid social rules, precedents and prejudices. The chapters about how this all unfolds are fascinating enough, and sometimes made me feel like I was hearing either juicy gossip (okay by me) or more often, the bland reality or funny reality behind what feels like such an unreal world (I loved the story of the first bored chaperones who dared to bring their knitting along as they sat for hours through another interminable debutante ball). I always love it when I encounter people in one book that I've read about in others, so reading about the Kennedys during their time in England, or Nancy Astor's political parties was very enjoyable, but there were many new figures to read about and hope to meet again.

But the summer of 1939 was, of course, the months leading to Britain's declaration of war against Germany, and so there's the added sense of unreality of a country preparing, but perhaps not mentally prepared, for a war that would change every aspect of their lives. So the social history is interspersed with chapters about how the government reacted, slowly but then decisively, to Hitler's aggressions, and a dovetailing of the end of the season with the coming of war. The more history I read, the more I realize how little I know beyond the broadest brushstrokes, so I appreciated these chapters as well.

The books covers a lot of ground in 230 pages, and there's a lot of detail that just left me hungry to know more. But it was a perfect book to dip into and out of during a distracting week, and I enjoyed it very much.


Bellezza Mjs said...

I love historical novels, and I'm especially intrigued by the twenties, thirties and forties. Thanks for sharing this!

Also, I hope you'll join in the event Austen in August hosted by Roof Beam Reader? It's all things Austen, and I'd love to share some of her books with your input. I've only read Pride and Prejudice... :(

Lisa said...

This does sound fascinating! It immediately makes me think of the Mitford sisters, some of whom (if I'm remembering right) found the whole deb thing really dull - but weren't allowed to bring knitting ;)

JoAnn said...

I love the sounds of this book! Off to see if my library has it...

Terra said...

I know I would like this book. I too enjoy reading about England and country homes and the season in London. The season in London comes up a lot in books I read, including Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire as local country gentry/upper class must do the season in London.

Thank you for visiting!

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