The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm

by Juliet Nicolson


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The Perfect Summer chronicles a glorious English summer a century ago, when the world was on the cusp of irrevocable change. Through the tight lens of four months, Juliet Nicolson’s rich storytelling gifts rivet us with the sights, colors, and feelings of a bygone era. That summer of 1911 a new king was crowned and the aristocracy was at play, bounding from one house party to the next. But perfection was not for all. Cracks in the social fabric were showing. The country was brought to a standstill by industrial strikes. Temperatures rose steadily to more than 100 degrees; by August deaths from heatstroke were too many for newspapers to report. Drawing on material from intimate and rarely seen sources and narrated through the eyes of a series of exceptional individuals—among them a debutante, a choirboy, a politician, a trade unionist, a butler, and the queen—The Perfect Summer is a vividly rendered glimpse of the twilight of the Edwardian era.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802143679
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 05/13/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 805,593
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

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The Summer of 1911

The only drawback of an English summer is that it lasts so short a time.

Country Life, 1 May 1911

On the first day of May 1911 temperatures throughout England began to rise, and everyone agreed that the world was becoming exceedingly beautiful. The cold weather of April had held back the flowering of many of the spring bulbs, and with the warmth of the first week of summer there had been a sudden burst of growth. The verges of the country lanes were frothing with cow parsley while late primroses still dotted the roadside banks. Top-hatted men strolling in the London parks had decided it was warm enough to abandon their scarves. Straw-bonneted women had gathered up country bluebells to sell in wilting bunches on street corners in the smarter parts of London, and window boxes were already spilling over with scarlet geraniums and marguerites. Tiny pink flowers covered the branches that would later produce crab apples, while the ocean of white blossoms produced by other fruit trees had prompted Country Life to declare that 'few people can remember any parallel to its profusion.' England was plump with promise.

The unaccustomed warmth coincided with the lifting of official Court mourning, a relief after the constraints of the preceding black-edged year: Edward VII had died in the spring of 1910. A few months before his death the poet Wilfrid Blunt had watched him take his seat in the Royal Box at Covent Garden. The King reached for 'his opera glasses to survey the glittering women', and Blunt saw 'a man who looked, I thought, extremely genial and satisfied with his position in the scheme of the world.' But on 6 May Edward fell suddenly and severely ill with bronchitis and 'smoker's throat'. He managed, between puffs on a final cigar, to take in the news that his horse Witch of Air had won the 4.15 p.m. at Kempton Park, and died later the same day, moments before midnight, at the age of 68.

London went into a temporary but immediate state of gloom. A Jermyn Street grocer filled his window with the famous black Bradenham hams. A society hostess sewed black ribbons onto her daughter's underwear. Crowds outside the gates of Buckingham Palace were delirious with shock. There was a Lying-in-State at Westminster Hall, and on 20 May Margot Asquith, the wife of the Prime Minister, stood on a red carpet outside the door of the medieval Hall waiting for the funeral procession of eight visiting kings and an emperor, on its way from the Palace. At the door of the Hall the Archbishop of Canterbury received the dead King's widow first, followed by her son George. Soon afterwards the King's brother the Duke of Connaught arrived with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Margot Asquith observed the Kaiser with his 'observant eyes and immobile carriage', and could not help thinking 'what a terrifying result a bomb thrown from Big Ben would have had upon that assemblage.'

Society had breathed a sigh of relief when, days after Edward's funeral, the new King and Queen announced that Royal Ascot would not, as had been expected, be cancelled. The race meeting of 1910 had been a surprisingly beautiful if sombre occasion. Gazing down from the stands above the racecourse, the Countess of Fingall thought that all the large black feathered hats made it look at first glance as if 'an immense flight of crows had just settled', but as she continued to watch the crowd move in monochrome synchronicity she concluded that 'when you came close to them, never in their lives had the beautiful women looked more lovely.'

In certain circles, those that had formed the inner court of Edward VII, some anxiety persisted about whether the new King was quite up to the job. This man now ruled over the four hundred million subjects of the British Empire. Short and red-faced, he seemed a distant and nervous figure, and was accompanied in his new role by an unsmiling, aloof and – let it be acknowledged only in a whisper – less beautiful woman than his glittering mother, the Dowager Queen, Alexandra. That day there was much hushed talk on the racecourse and in the packed stands that had witnessed some of Edward VII's most spectacular sporting triumphs. Conversations about change predominated. Lillie Langtry, one of the dead King's first mistresses, was ruined by debt; Alice Keppel, one of his most recent mistresses, had fled to China. The grieving widowed Queen refused to move out of Buckingham Palace to make way for her son. For some it seemed as if a world had come to an end. People 'anticipate a good deal of change', George Cornwallis-West, stepfather of Winston Churchill, wrote to his daughter, and some alarmed race-goers even questioned whether the unshakeable confidence of upper-class Edwardian England had disappeared forever. With withering sarcasm they spoke of 'a sweeter simpler reign'.

Although the Age of Edward was over, among the privileged, with their servants, their houses, their money and the convenient rigidity of the class system, there was an unspoken determination that a supremely enjoyable way of life should not alter, as the crown shifted from one head to another. Hopeful that the momentum generated by Edward would remain powerful enough to ensure their untroubled existence, by May of 1911 the aristocracy was looking forward to a glorious summer dominated by the Coronation of George V and filled with an unprecedented number of parties.

Mrs Hwfa (pronounced Hoofa) Williams, wife of the manager of Sandown racecourse (Sandown had been Hwfa's brother's estate, the racecourse Hwfa's idea), a committed socialite and an impressively dedicated social climber, was keeping notes for a book for which she had already chosen the title: It Was Such Fun. Mrs Hwfa (she was always referred to by her husband's Christian name rather than her own) seldom ran short of material. 'The London Season was always strenuous,' she wrote, with no reason to expect that 1911's would be any different. And though she was well into her sixties, her sense of fun guaranteed her an invitation to every smart party of the season. Her engagement diary confirmed her popularity: 'Throughout the week practically every night people were at a dinner party, or a ball or the theatre or opera,' she wrote. 'I do not say we were busy in the daytime but there was always something to do and combined with a succession of late nights, the end of the week inevitably found me exhausted.'

Osbert Sitwell had a particular affection for Mrs Hwfa, observing that 'at every dance to which she went, she was surrounded by a crowd of young men, waiting for her arrival, and they always addressed her as Madam.' Sitwell knew how much effort she had to put into these parties: Mrs Hwfa was extremely deaf. 'It is not easy', he sympathised, 'for someone afflicted with deafness to be amusing; it calls for unceasing alertness which must be a great tax on energy.' Sometimes, he noticed, she lost her way, and with only the odd word to guide her did not always guess correctly when trying to assume an expression suitable for the moment. She would hazard 'a smile for the whimsical, a laugh for the witty, a striking look of interest for the dealer in the dramatic, a tear for those who wore their heart on their sleeve.' One small comfort was the knowledge that the Dowager Queen herself, Alexandra, suffered from a similar disability.

In line with Mrs Williams's expectations, The Times Court Circular on 1 May 1911 overflowed with announcements for the coming months, including balls and weddings, race meetings and Royal investitures. Mrs Cornwallis-West was planning a spectacular Shakespeare Costume Ball. Under the patronage of Lady Ripon, Diaghilev was to bring his Russian dancers to Covent Garden to make their English debut in June. Over the last few years militant suffragettes, led by Mrs Pankhurst, had been campaigning for the vote for women and lobbying the Government with varying degrees of aggressive persuasion. But the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, had pledged to address their demands immediately after the summer recess, so they had promised to lay down their window-smashing bricks and hold a truce for the Coronation summer. And members of the House of Lords were hoping that they would defeat the Liberal Government's proposed bill for a Parliament Act that would if passed place significant restrictions on their voting powers.

To avoid being crushed by boredom the privileged classes who made up one per cent of the population and owned sixty per cent of the country would go to impressive lengths. According to Lucy Masterman, the observant wife of a Liberal minister, the upper class consisted of 'an aggregation of clever, agreeable, often loveable people trying with desperate seriousness to make something of a life spared the effort of wage earning.' Men sat about for much of the day in their clubs; ladies spent the early part of the morning in consultation with the cook over the dinner menu, followed by a shopping expedition to the new 'department stores' Selfridges and Whiteley's (which boasted a staff of 6,000) or a dress fitting at Lady Duff Gordon's fashionable Mayfair salon which traded under the name 'Madame Lucille'. A meeting on a Tuesday with a friend involved in the same charitable cause and an amusing diversion to the gallery of Sir Francis Jeune's divorce court on a Thursday helped to while away the hours. In spare moments they wrote anonymous letters to The Lady, a magazine which offered them detailed advice on servant management, home decoration, wigs, superfluous nasal hair, and flatulence control.

And yet the upper classes were still bored. Osbert Sitwell's sister Edith, aged 23, watched her parents' friends at play and saw them with the contempt of youth as 'semi animate persons like an unpleasant form of vegetation or like dolls confected out of cheap satin, with here and there buttons fastened on their faces in imitation of eyes.' Semi-animate they might be, but most of these dolls mustered the energy to fill the empty spaces in their lives. Bridge was a passion, played not just at home but in the new women's clubs, including the Army and Navy in Cork Street and The Empress in Dover Street. Carriages came to the house in the afternoon, the driver having earlier in the day dropped off small white cards (stiff for gentlemen, flimsy for ladies) at selected addresses to give advance notice of their employer's intended visits. Since the house telephone was often positioned in a frustratingly public hallway, a call in person was imperative if any urgent society scandal were to be passed on discreetly. Other people's love lives were endlessly fascinating (that May Lady Cunard was caught in flagrante with a man not her husband). Cinq-à-sept appointments – the late afternoon and early evening hours allocated for sex – thrived under the complicit though theoretically unseeing gaze of the servants. The servants' hall, it was said, was privy to more secrets than Asquith's Cabinet. The actress Mrs Patrick Campbell was reassuring. 'Does it really matter what these affectionate people do in the bedroom,' she asked, 'as long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses?'

The fashions of the time positively invited flirtation and dalliance. For grander evening occasions married women displayed erotically low-cut décolletage, and the innovative French couturier Paul Poiret had recently brought his sheer evening gown 'La Vague' across the Channel. The dress fell straight from the bosom to swirl seductively and wave-like round the body, allowing a tantalising glimpse of the natural feminine curves beneath. A new form of underwear, the brassière, permitted the full form of the body to be defined more clearly.

Dinner parties, eight-course affairs with handwritten menus that might be inscribed on the shiny surface of a water-lily leaf or on the sail of a miniature boat, were so elaborate that they became a triumph of presentation and slick teamwork between the cook and the butler. People still spoke of the summer when Mr Hector Baltazzi was so overcome by winning the Derby that he instructed his chef to float a pearl in every plate of watercress soup served at dinner that night. At 10 p.m. carriages would arrive to carry their bejewelled occupants to one of the great Mayfair residences – Devonshire House, perhaps, or Londonderry House or Spencer House – where the grand staircase leading to the ballroom would be wound around with thick garlands of lilies, the musky-sweet scent filling the candlelit space. Dance music was usually provided by a band, but the rich, golden voice of Enrico Caruso had started to resound from crimson enamel horns, the huge metal tropical flowers of a thousand gramophones. New dances accompanied the new music, and couples took to the floor in the turkey trot, the bunny-hug and the chicken scramble.

No one referred to 'weekends'. The term was considered 'common' or, in the current vogue term, 'canaille'. The rich would leave London not on a Friday but for a 'Saturday-to-Monday'. On Saturday 'The Noah's Ark', a huge domed trunk containing enough clothes for six changes a day, would be loaded into the car or, for more distant destinations, a train and transported to country houses belonging to families whose names would have been familiar to Shakespeare. The Northumberlands welcomed their guests to Alnwick, the Salisburys to Hatfield, and the Warwicks to Warwick Castle. Between arrival on Saturday and departure on Monday morning, a sequence of pleasures would unfold. There were tennis parties and croquet matches, bicycle rides followed by picnic lunches, their charm enhanced by white lacy parasols and juicy strawberries and flutes of champagne packed in wicker baskets. During long lazy afternoons in hammocks that summer of 1911 the pampered guests looked forward to reading aloud from the caricaturist and wit Max Beerbohm's just-published romance Zuleika Dobson, a love story about a group of young men fated to die as a consequence of misplaced idealism. E.M. Forster, whose own novel Howards End had been a bestseller only the year before, found in Beerbohm's story 'a beauty unattainable by serious literature'. Maurice Baring, another young novelist, described how in the afternoons the gilded youth 'moved in muslin and straw hats and yellow roses on the lawns of gardens designed by Le Nôtre, delicious with ripe peaches on old brick walls, with the smell of verbena and sweet geranium; and stately with large avenues, artificial lakes and white temples.'

At dinner the placement in the dining room upstairs would be mirrored in the servants' hall below, the resident butler taking the head of the table with the highest-ranking visiting lady's maid on his right. After dinner, in the upstairs drawing rooms, small tables lit with lamps in shades of tightly wrapped dark red silk would be laid for bridge or the whist- drives at which Lady Diana Manners, who was making her debut at Court that summer, excelled. Turkish and Egyptian cigarettes would be set out in little boxes. Maurice Baring remembered how they sometimes 'bicycled in the warm night past ghostly cornfields by the light of a large full moon' before retiring upstairs, where much silent and furtive corridor-creeping between one double bedroom and another took place. In the morning, a convenient hour before the required appearance, fully dressed, at breakfast, a bell would be rung and the creeping went on again, in reverse.

Some of the rich and privileged were not enjoying themselves at the beginning of that summer. Lady Ida Sitwell could not rouse herself to join in at all. Her life was one of total indolence, as she tried to fill 'the blank stretch between hour and hour'. Staying in bed all day was convenient because, as her daughter observed, 'there was nothing to do if she got up.' Edith was full of contempt for her mother, a woman so wildly extravagant that her husband had to limit the cash available to her. She claimed Lady Ida was kept so short of money that she would be sent out to pawn her mother's false teeth in exchange for a bottle of whisky that would make the hours in bed pass a little more quickly.

The eighth Earl of Sandwich had enough time on his hands to become inordinately distressed by his female guests' habit of lunching with their hats on. At one of his lunch parties the ladies had scarcely begun to enjoy their sole meunière when the opera star Dame Nellie Melba, the guest of honour that day, was taken aback to see the butler, sporting a smart bowler above his black suit, approach Lord Sandwich carrying a tweed cap on his silver tray. In vengeful silence Lord Sandwich lifted the cap to his head and pulled it down over his eyebrows, glowering fiercely round the room.

Sir Herbert Tree found himself challenged by boredom. Visiting his local post office to buy a stamp, he waited while the clerk behind the counter produced a sheet containing a gross of identical sticky squares featuring the King's head. There was a long period in which no word was spoken: Sir Herbert could not make up his mind which stamp to buy. Finally he arrived at a decision, and the clerk's face remained impassive as with some dexterity he retrieved Sir Herbert's choice. He had plumped for the one in the very centre of the sheet.


Excerpted from "The Perfect Summer"
by .
Copyright © 2006 Juliet Nicolson.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents

1 The Summer of 1911,
2 Early May,
3 Late May,
4 Early June,
5 Late June,
6 Early July,
7 Late July,
8 Early August,
9 Late August,
10 Early September,
Dramatis personae,

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