Cindy Brown Ash's Reviews > The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm

The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicolson
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's review
May 07, 2011

really liked it
Read from May 28 to June 04, 2011

Juliet Nicolson, granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, wrote in her introduction that her aim in writing The Perfect Summer was to give the reader a complete experience of England in the summer of 1911 -- a summer when the rumblings of World War I were only on the horizon, like thunder on a sunny day. In my mind, she did achieve her aim. The Perfect Summer is a history with a short time frame but a deep reach, covering all strata of society from King George V and Queen Mary down to the dockworkers, chimney sweeps, and factory girls. The story unfolds chronologically, with details including meteorological readings, prices of various commodities, properties, and comparative incomes (among other things), but so utterly grounded in the experience of her representative figures (Queen Mary; Lady Diana Manners; Leonard Woolf and Rupert Brooke; Ben Tillman of the dockworkers' union and butler Eric Horne, among others) that the data is absorbed as atmosphere to a story rather than as data.

The book would have earned five stars if not for two perhaps nitpicky issues. The first is that Nicolson (who really ought to know better, considering her family heritage) repeatedly asserts that Virginia Stephen (later Woolf) was writing her first novel, mistakenly identified as Night and Day, during the summer of 1911. In fact, Stephen (Woolf) was writing The Voyage Out, which was her actual first novel, though it was known as Melymbrosia during the summer of 1911 and didn't receive its published title till much closer to its publication date of 1915. Night and Day, Woolf's second novel, was written after 1915 and not published till 1919. The other issue is that Nicolson refers to Virginia Stephen's brother as Toby, when in fact his name was Thoby. These are very minor issues, but because Woolf's story is very familiar to me and I spotted these inaccuracies so easily it gives me a little pause as to the accuracy of the rest of her story. But I am moderately familiar with early 20th century English history owing to my familiarity with Woolf's story (and a long-term interest in the history of the English monarchy) and I didn't spot any other glaring inaccuracies, so I would still recommend the book.

Overall, The Perfect Summer was a really enjoyable read, very informative, and unique among history books, and I would definitely recommend.

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