Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There's a minor but very likeable Peter O'Toole movie, My Favourite Year, in which the wistful narrator pinpoints the showbiz fads and follies of New York in 1954 as his own, private age of gold. Historians, too, often play "my favourite year", but in their case it's not - generally - nostalgia that drives the choice of a hot date so much as the search for a short span that distils the spirit of an age, a place, or a person. Last week, James Shapiro deservedly won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 1599, his pacily expert gallop through the evolving art, life and times of Shakespeare via the lens of a single year. Writers have taken to this task of compression and crystallisation with flair at least since 1849, when Macaulay jump-started his History of England with a virtuoso tour of the state of the nation in 1685.

For purist historians, this is a suspect art whose efforts to build a bright panorama out of snapshots runs the risk of confusing correlation with causality. That caveat aside, the formula can work like a charm. The latest author to conjure up the magic of the pregnant moment is Juliet Nicolson, who in The Perfect Summer (John Murray, £20) limits herself to the five sweltering English months from May to September 1911.

Popular narratives of the long Edwardian afternoon flirt with another historian's bugbear - hindsight. Wisely, Nicolson doesn't exclude our awareness of the deluge that arrived in 1914 as she sweeps across voices and classes to assemble a mosaic of sunlit impressions from the sultry, sensuous - but strike-bound - season when "The hot weather hung... like a brocade curtain".

To be fair, she does hold back on the obvious dramatic ironies, and slips them in with some subtlety. So the mighty White Star liner launched with a splash in Belfast on page 62 will only acquire its "suitably impressive" name (Titanic) on page 260. Above all, she locates the sense of doom and decadence felt at many levels of a nation riddled by "dissatisfaction and unease". Winston Churchill, the usually bumptious Home Secretary in Asquith's Liberal government, watched German designs with alarm and mused on Housman's lines about "Soldiers, marching all to die". Too soon, as we know, they would.

In the absence of suspense, the palette of such a work has to brighten its colours and deepen its textures. This Nicolson does with self-effacing skill. She stitches memoirs and diaries into a vibrant patchwork that can deftly place the halting courtship of Leonard Woolf and Virginia Stephen (whose montage technique in Mrs Dalloway may also have helped shape this book) next to the marriage of London strikers' heroine Mary Macarthur, or cut from the aesthetes' cult of Nijinsky and Diaghilev at Covent Garden to the noxious odours of the new picture-palaces.

To rely so much on published journals at this period risks an "Upstairs, Downstairs" problem. Nicolson doesn't entirely avoid a tilt towards "Society" writ small rather than society at large. In general, she does better by working-class voices - such as that of the great dockers' leader Ben Tillett - than by the jauntily confident, HG Wells-ian suburban culture. She does, however, braid social divisions slyly into the book's pattern as the salons give way to strike meetings. Very gradually, the scenery shifts from Merchant-Ivory to Ken Loach, with every fresh passage lit by radiant detail and finely-judged quotation.

Nicolson notes that a regretful, elegiac mood seized Edwardians who seemed to be strolling in a blaze of glory. Like an eclipse, a twilight aura descended at high noon. This dance "on the edge of an abyss" can still enthrall us because we shudder at the protracted horror ahead. Let's hope that no writer ever judges it a perfect idea to chronicle the blithe New York summer of 2001.