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Classic review: The Perfect Summer

Calling all Anglophiles: This glimpse of a splendid moment in Edwardian history makes perfect summer reading.

By Yvonne Zipp / June 6, 2010

The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm By Juliet Nicolson Grove/Atlantic 304 pp., $15

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on May 25, 2007.] With The Perfect Summer, her sparkling social history about Edwardian society on the brink of World War I, Juliet Nicolson has created the perfect beach reading for Anglophiles.

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Nicolson draws together the lives of the pedigreed, talented, and desperate as they live through the heat wave of 1911, when temperatures in London reached 100 degrees F. for the first time. Home Secretary Winston Churchill was expecting the birth of his second child, Virginia Woolf was writing her first book, butler Eric Horne was turning his diary into a bestselling tell-all, and the soon-to-be Queen Mary was anxiously awaiting an unwelcome promotion. Dock and factory workers, tired of desperately scrabbling for a living, went on strike for better pay, leading to talk of famine.

Meanwhile, Edwardian gentry – who made up 1 percent of the population yet owned 60 percent of the land – struggled to stave off boredom. Using a wealth of letters and journals, Nicolson uses her breezy yet informative style to draw readers back to a memorable era.

It was "one of those specially remembered summers, from which one evolves a consistent impression of commingled happiness," remembered the poet Siegfried Sassoon. "Sitting under the Irish yew, we seemed to have forgotten that there was such a thing as the future." Grade: A

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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