Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicholson


Where I got the book: bought retail with a Borders gift card, in a huge rush after the bankruptcy was announced. It had been on my TBR list for a while.

The Great Silence is a snapshot of Britain just after World War I. It covers the period from when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, to late 1920 when the body of the Unknown Soldier was interred in Westminster Abbey. It covers subjects as diverse as shell shock, plastic surgery for horrendous facial wounds, the Paris Peace Conference, birth control, and the recreational use of drugs by a generation who desperately wanted to forget the recent past.

One thing I really liked about this book was the way the lives and memories of ordinary and extraordinary people are tapped to provide juicy little snippets of information that brought me much nearer to the subjects under discussion. I felt that I got a good sense of what a period of intense mental and physical agony did to the psyche of an entire country. I've always loved the novels of that period for what they said and didn't say about the First World War: those four years were so clearly the dividing point between a strictly ordered world of class distinctions and certainty and the modern world of social mobility and experimentation. The Great Silence is a good companion volume for readers with an interest in the period.

It's not a deep work of history: I even found a couple of potential howlers and one definite one (a line suggesting that the Titanic sank in 1902). And yet The Great Silence had the considerable merit of being interesting and readable, and I'm a great supporter of popularizing history. We can always look up the exact facts on Wikipedia. Snort.

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