The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson is nonfiction about, well, the time after the First World War. I took this month’s theme very literally!
I bought this book because I’d read a previous work by the author, The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, which I wrote about in this 2011 post. At that time, I was doing research for a fiction project set just before World War One and looking forward to reading her next book. However, shortly thereafter, I abandoned that particular project and moved this book into the TBR, where it has languished until this year. This year, sadly, is perfect for reading about postwar angst because there are rather more resonances than one might at first think between 2022 and 1919: conflict and upheavals in economies and labor; a pandemic, which in 1919 also overlapped with the mass destruction and death of the terrible war; and the realization that surviving a time of great upheaval does not mean everyone can go back to how things were before the war began. (We all know there’s always turmoil somewhere, right?)
Nicolson’s description of the two minutes of silence on November 11, 1919 struck me.
“At precisely 11.00 a.m. all movement stopped.
In that silence many prayed that the meaning of death would somehow be revealed. But some questioned whether such understanding would give them relief from unhappiness. No one who had lost someone in the war (and it was estimated that three million people had lost someone close) was immune from grief. Many tried not to give in to it, believing that acknowledgement of the intensity of their feelings would lead them to the verge of collapse. Some found that after the initial shock a state of denial was in itself a comfort.”
This book, like its predecessor, is essentially an armchair trip back in time, giving an overview from above but also diving down closer to examine individual experiences, from several points of view. (Content warning for period-typical racism in quotations, particularly in the chapter “Release.”) You don’t need prior in-depth knowledge of World War One or the period following to understand and enjoy this book, and I feel it’s a good starting point if you’re interested in social change and recovery, or just history in general. There’s a detailed bibliography that I’d like to have a deeper look at. Overall, this book is a great addition to my collection of World War One reference materials.
Another point of interest: the author is the granddaughter of writer Vita Sackville-West and diplomat Harold Nicolson, who was a small part of the English delegation for the Paris Peace Conference; it seems likely this helped her to obtain access to material that gave interesting insights into some elite Britons of this time period.