'The Great Silence': Britain's mourning and recovery in the wake of World War I
A review of "The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn on the Jazz Age" by author Juliet Nicolson, a psychological portrait of a country in mourning — Britain, which struggled with death, disability and economic turmoil in the wake of World War I.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age'
by Juliet Nicolson
Grove Press, 302 pp., $25
On Nov. 11, 1918, war in Europe finally ended. For England, the 2.5 million dead or injured was not the only loss to be counted. Gone, too, were Victorian certainties and the confidence of an empire. The millions of soldiers and sailors who returned faced a society struggling with unemployment, disability and grief.
In "The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age," Juliet Nicolson recalls this tender aftermath through personal stories that, piled on top of each other, show a nation that was both traumatized and resilient. The book's title, taken from an observance established in 1919, also alludes to the silent sorrow that shaped the country in the wake of war.
The story begins with the English propensity for "carrying on," which meant repressing their emotional distress as the boys came home. The nation's wartime leader gallantly welcomed returnees back to "a land fit for heroes." The ancient stained-glass windows that had been removed for safekeeping once again shot colors of light through Canterbury Cathedral.
The stiff-upper-lip, back-to-business approach obscured a deep malaise. Like many of her subjects, Queen Mary had seen her hair grow gray while suppressing the natural instinct to weep at the loss of life during the war. After her own young son, an epileptic, died unexpectedly in January 1919, her diary entry noted only that she "missed the dear child very much indeed."
Meanwhile, the vast number of severely injured was impossible to ignore. Magazine ads touted cane wheelchairs, and tin masks were devised to cover faces demolished by explosives. Doctors coined the term "a thousand-yard stare" to describe the vacant look of the shellshocked.
For Nicolson, granddaughter of the poet best known as Virginia Woolf's lover, Vita Sackville-West, "The Great Silence" is a logical follow-up to her earlier look at the Edwardian age, "The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm." In contrast, the postwar period she describes is both more cynical and will feel more familiar to contemporary readers. Women wore shorter dresses and spoke their minds, dissatisfied workers vented their spleens through strikes and new power at the ballot box, and the class system crumbled under the weight of shared grief.
As for household help, Nicolson sums up the situation in her upper-crust British way: "Not only had staff become disillusioned with the demands placed on their time by a life in service, but the caliber of the employer had plummeted too."
Some found diversion in drugs, others in entertainment. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, an all-white ensemble that performed black soul music, fueled a dance craze and the night clubs to go with them, if not the licentious behavior that traditionalists saw pervading their broken society.
But diversion did not bring relief. Still craving some collective expression of the loss of life and innocence it had endured, the country turned to an idea proposed by an Australian: the Great Silence. At 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1919, everyone in England paused for two minutes to honor its dead.
A year later, on Armistice Day 1920, the packed streets of London went quiet again as a ceremonial carriage brought an unknown soldier to his final resting place in Westminster Abbey. (America, Nicolson notes, was the only war ally that was "too busy" to pause that day.)
A pearl of anecdotal history, "The Great Silence" is a satisfying companion to major studies of World War I and its aftermath. Its psychological profile of a country in mourning is imperfect and patchwork.
Yet, as Nicolson proceeds through the familiar stages of grief — denial, anger and acceptance — she gives you a deeper understanding of not only this brief period, but also how war's sacrifices don't end after the fighting stops.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures." She lives in Portland, OR.