A particular date in history can be pivotal, but that doesn’t mean everything changes at once. Although the guns stopped at precisely the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the carnage of the previous years continued to resonate through a relieved but partially numbed world, the vibrations of the thunderous war echoing through the sudden void. The charnel house couldn’t morph directly into the Jazz Age, and Juliet Nicolson’s “The Great Silence” explores the liminal period between them.
Ms. Nicolson structures her book around three successive Nov. 11s:
“This is a book about silence, the silence that followed the ‘incessant thunder’ of the four years and four months of the First World War. At the heart of the book are three specific November days in which silence predominated: the day the guns fell silent in 1918; the day the two-minute silence, then known as the Great Silence, was first observed in 1919; and, a year later, the day when in 1920 the Unknown Soldier was lowered into silence beneath the floor of Westminster Abbey.
“But this book is also about a more general silence - the silence of grief - that crept into every corner of life during the two years that followed the Armistice of 1918. In one way, this is a book about the relief that is brought about by the absence of noise: silence as balm, as a time for reflection and contemplation. But it is also about another kind of silence, the silence of isolation and fear, of the failure and the terror of attempting to articulate misery. It is a book about the silence of denial and of emptiness.”
Each of those three bleak November days was in its own way cathartic, yet the bitterness of loss and of desolation that lingered throughout the period still had enormous staying power. Ms. Nicolson’s emphasis on those three days - and her descriptions of them - are the best parts of her book. Particularly the middle one, which is perhaps the least remembered of the three and yet is as poignant as the other two, both for those who were there and for today’s readers. She certainly explores the sadness, expressed and latent, that colored the existence of those who had come through the war but had lost so many and so much forever.
Ms. Nicolson’s “That Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm,” published three years ago, also demonstrated her ability to choose interesting corners of history to illuminate. However, the freshness that characterized that book is sadly lacking in this new project. I use the word project deliberately because there is a definite sense of the cart coming before the horse with this second effort.
Born into, and raised in, a publishing family, Ms. Nicolson has taken the obvious route of capitalizing on that earlier success, adopting a similar method of telling her story through personalities and vignettes. The trouble is that this time, an unmistakable air of claustrophobia has permeated the text. The story of Lowell Thomas and how he publicized T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) has been told so many times in the past - why include it here except as padding?
Too many of the other stories here also are shopworn. Ms. Nicolson isn’t always accurate, either: Where does she get the idea that Michael Arlen (of “Green Hat” fame) was an Armenian Jew? Armenian famously, but Jewish? She also seems determined to continue her singular quest, begun in “The Perfect Summer,” to paint Queen Mary as a demonstrative and feeling woman, in contrast to almost every other portrait of her.
Worse still is the arrant snobbery. Many of the characters who strut and fret their hour on these pages have grand titles: Dukes and duchesses, their progeny and sundry lords and ladies abound. The Mitfords are a fascinating family, but the story of Tom Mitford’s boarding school obsession with food is so generic that one can only conclude that such boilerplate was included because it was given the author by the grace and favor of the last surviving Mitford sibling, the dowager Duchess of Devonshire.
Then there is the particular snobbery of the author’s own ancestry, made worse by her coyness. Describing Sir Edwin Lutyens’ submission of his design for the World War I memorial, “The Cenotaph,” in London’s Whitehall, the main point of Ms. Nicolson’s account seems to reside in her punch line:
“The design was delivered to the Prime Minister’s office that afternoon. It was identical to the one already hanging on the green silk wall of Lady Sackville’s Mayfair bedroom.”
What Ms. Nicolson doesn’t bother to disclose is that this “ebullient society hostess” is in fact her own great-grandmother, although she is careful to mention “Lady Sackville’s daughter, Vita Sackville-West” - perhaps to point cognoscenti toward the connection. Indeed, those familiar with the Nicolson-Sackville West saga will recognize that some of the names of humble folk with whom the author has chosen to leaven her diet of titled and other society figures (or Bloomsbury, also part of the family web) are not just, as she mentions, Kentish people but family retainers.
There’s a definite smell of “Upstairs, Downstairs” here, but those below stairs sure don’t get equal time. Funnily enough, one of the plebes who manages a look in is none other than Arthur “Tommy” Atkins, sometime underchauffeur to the Marquis de Soveral and soldier in the London Irish Rifles. Also father of the marvelous English actress Dame Eileen Atkins, who was - no kidding - one of the creators of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” There’s just too much of a hothouse atmosphere about “The Great Silence,” making it all too often cloying and at times downright stifling.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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