The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

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by Juliet Nicolson

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Juliet Nicolson pieces together colorful personalities, historic moments, and intimate details to create a social history of the two years following the Great War in Britain. Not since Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer have we seen an account that so vividly captures a nation’s psyche at a particular moment in history.
The euphoria of Armistice…  See more details below


Juliet Nicolson pieces together colorful personalities, historic moments, and intimate details to create a social history of the two years following the Great War in Britain. Not since Nicolson’s The Perfect Summer have we seen an account that so vividly captures a nation’s psyche at a particular moment in history.
The euphoria of Armistice Day 1918 vaporizes to reveal the carnage that war has left in its wake. But from Britain’s despair emerges new life. For veterans with faces demolished in the trenches, surgeon Harold Gillies brings hope with his miraculous skin-grafting procedure. Women win the vote, skirt hems leap, and Brits forget their troubles at packed dance halls. The remains of a nameless soldier are laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey. “The Great Silence,” observed in memory of the countless dead, halts citizens in silent reverence.
Nicolson crafts her narrative using a lively cast of characters: from an aging butler to a pair of newlyweds, from the Prince of Wales to T.E. Lawrence, the real-life Lawrence of Arabia. The Great Silence depicts a nation fighting the forces that threaten to tear it apart and discovering the common bonds that hold it together.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Queen Mary’s diary and the recollections of an under-chauffeur to the Portuguese ambassador are two of the disparate sources Nicholson (The Perfect Summer) uses in her anecdotal account of the period between the end of WWI on November 11, 1918, and the burial of an unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey two years later. Vividly portraying the horrors of trench warfare and the misery of the bereaved and wounded, she uses the metaphor of the “great silence”—two minutes of stillness commemorating the armistice—to explore Britons’ attempts to cope with the “growing despair generated by broken promises and false hopes.” Industrial unrest, advances in women’s rights, increasing drug use, and “the new craze of jazz” reveal, says Nicolson, the clamor of the nation’s progress through grief. Her sometimes affecting pastiche of Britain’s post-WWI mood is marred by the absence of source notes, disconnected vignettes, and minor inaccuracies, such as the origins of the word “barmy” (which relates to beer’s froth, not to the Barming Hospital at Maidstone) and the postwar fashion for men’s wristwatches. 37 b&w photos. (June)
From the Publisher

“Wonderfully vivid…When we study history we…tend to overlook the transitional periods. Juliet Nicolson has, in a short time, become the voice of these critical gaps in the fabric of British history…In another splendid work of social history, Nicolson focuses on the years between 1918 and 1920. At once grand and intimate, Nicolson takes on a captivating journey.”—The Daily Beast

“[Nicolson has] a strong narrative, an empathic interest in characters under stress and a gift for the telling moment. The large historical shifts are here, but the small scenes steal the show…eloquent.”—Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier (Charleston)

“[A] vivid account of the aftermath of the carnage we glamorize as the Great War…[Nicolson] excels at ferreting out revealing details…[she offers] some wonderful vignettes. And the final pages of The Great Silence, which document Britain’s official tribute to the dead, are magnificent.”—Miranda Seymour, The New York Times Book Review

“Nicolson’s anecdotal history describes with facts and feeling the two years of silence and emptiness that followed the joyless armistice...a moving account…When the unknown British soldier was buried with solemn pomp in Westminster Abbey, some found the ritual stagy, sentimental, and hypocritical but most found it healing and hopeful. Nicolson ends her history with a long and loving re-creation of this collective expression of grief and gratitude. It may make you cry.”—Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

“This is social history at its very best, as Nicolson fascinatingly describes the fast-changing lives of everyday men and women in Britain from 1918 to 1920…Colorful characters abound in Nicolson’s historically insightful and utterly absorbing narrative.”—Chuck Leddy, Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“A pearl of anecdotal history, The Great Silence is a satisfying companion to major studies of World War I and its aftermath…as Nicolson proceeds through the familiar stages of grief—denial, anger and acceptance—she gives you a deeper understanding of not only this brief period, but also how war’s sacrifices don’t end after the fighting stops.”—Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Seattle Times

“Vividly [portrays] the horrors of trench warfare and the misery of the bereaved and wounded.”—Publishers Weekly

"[Nicolson’s] approach is anecdotal and eclectic, drawing freely on contemporary diaries, letters and memoirs to create an impressionistic picture of the lull preceding the Roaring ‘20s…Nicolson is at her most effective when describing the nation’s search for a fitting public expression of its abiding sense of grief…[she] observes with poignant understatement.”—Elizabeth Lowry, The Wall Street Journal

“If, instead of looking at the great sweep of history, you take just two years, and you find out the small, everyday things that people of all stations in life were doing—the king and his manservant, the prime minister and the postman—you can convey a sense of the past that no conventional history can offer…the method enables [Nicolson] to take us into places that even people who think they know something about the period did not know existed…This is a small treasure-house of a book from a writer who understands the vital importance of small details.”—Francis Beckett, The Guardian

“Terribly moving…so full of feeling and intelligence and interest: the densely detailed, whelmingly sad story of a country with a broken heart.”—Sam Leith, The Daily Mail (UK)

“This masterful book collects random details and somehow manages to orchestrate them into a symphony. Nicolson is particularly brilliant at plucking out the significant detail within the apparently ephemeral…The Great Silence works beautifully as a mosaic of a country at a particular time, artfully constructed from all these extraordinary details plucked from far and wide…a book that contains so much that is truly poignant or fascinating or thoughtful. Nicolson’s concluding description of the final great silence—in Westminster Abbey, at the burial of the coffin of the Unknown Soldier—is piercingly beautiful.”—Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday (UK)

“Nicolson writes with such admirable pace and fluency that it would be easy to suppose that this book had been effortlessly scribbled down. It is, on the contrary, a triumph of balance and organization; a study which comprehends the cultural and the intellectual, the political and the social, and weaves them all into a lively and convincing narrative.”—Philip Ziegler, The Spectator

“Juliet Nicolson’s second book of social history confirms her as one of those writers—particularly unusual among social historians—who can spin straw into gold…Nicolson’s magpie delight in the richness of her material goes a long way to offering the reader an intoxicating peep-show of postwar society.”—Virginia Nicholson, Eastern Daily Press

“An excellent book…quite a story and a worldwide lesson of horror.”—Women on the Web

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Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

Juliet Nicolson is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and the daughter of Nigel Nicolson. She lives in London and Sissinghurst, Kent. She is the author of the bestseller The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm.

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The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Grady1GH More than 1 year ago
Juliet Nicholson has that rare ability to recreate an historic period, making it so real that we feel as though we are living it. The theme of this perfectly written book is the effect that World War I had on England, more specifically the silence that fell over this island nation after the destruction of a huge majority of the men of England. But it is far more than the agony of dealing with the deaths of almost a million young men and older soldiers. This is a book about survival and how England coped with attempting to find a plane of recovery. Nicholson's writing is filled with references to speeches and poems and writings that dealt with the sorrow: 'This book aims to discover what happened to that peaceful pre-war society after the intervening gash of war years and the death or injury of more than two and a half million men. How had society changed and how were people adapting or failing to adapt to that change. In 1920 the journalist Philip Gibbs wrote of "fits of profound depression alternating with a restless desire for pleasure" I want to know what kind of sound was made by the hinge that linked those two sensibilities.' What follows is a careful examination of people's responses to the devastation economically, physically, psychologically, and spiritually to that time, a time not unlike a post-apocalyptic period when death had become so common a concept that many of the populace embraced the wildness of the Roaring 20s that stepped across the Atlantic from the United States to escape its dominion. How does a country bereft of men find the continuation of family and reproduction of children? The Suffragettes moved into power in all forms of the country's business because of the need to fill the gaping holes left from the loss of manpower. Nicholson documents specific items and periods and movements that resulted from the aftermath of the Great War and even provides photographs of the ruins that stained the lives of all the inhabitants of England. 'Fighting and death had only been a part of it. The delayed response to sights and sounds, the mutilation, the hammering of guns experienced by those returning was just beginning. Would any of them recover? Would any of them find a lasting peace? Would a healing silence ever come to them, as they lay awake at night, trying to forget? This is a book about the pause that followed the cataclysm; the interval between the falling silent of the guns and the roaring of the 1920s.' Nicholson has the gift to make reportage into a novel. Her chapters are name Shock, Denial, Hopelessness, Dreaming, Surviving, Hope, Acceptance: 11 November 1920 etc - and in separating the various realms of response of the nation she offers us individual reports as well as surveys of groups of people and classes and how England was forever changed. It is a beautifully written document, one that carries far more power than most books about that period, and one that is especially potent at this time when we are all so surrounded by wars around the globe. A powerful and informative book. Grady Harp
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
izzieJL More than 1 year ago
I am into reading about this time in history so this was very good for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The subject matter for this book was a great idea. I have read a lot about the First World War but not much has been written about the time immediately following the war. When the author writes about the working class and returning solders it's a good read. When the author writes about the upper classes I became disinterested. I really don't care that Lord so and so had to sell one of his estates or the problems of finding good domestic help.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago