Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson

In The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson sets out to describe the two years following the Armistice in the terms of the cyclical sequence of emotions that accompany grief and mourning.  In chapters headed Wound, Shock, Denial, Release, Resignation and so on, she draws on personal and establishment archives, diaries and letters to bring us the authentic voices of the times.  The social and political uncertainty, and sometimes unrest, of the era is also clearly narrated.  Through this dense and detailed account, forgotten stories of this period are retrieved and celebrated.

As in her previous book, the highly enjoyable A Perfect Summer, Nicolson draws on the writings of the celebrated and eminent, and also on those of the obscure, so we get a range of voices and opinions from the most powerful - the King and Queen - to the least, in the form of the memories of those who were small children at the time.  Often Nicolson uses key figures - T E Lawrence and Nancy Astor are good examples - to exemplify the ways in which a wounded society sought to repair and rehabilitate itself through establishing heroes and forcing change.  She also retells some of the stories of hope from the period, particularly the story of Harold Gillies, a plastic surgeon who did pioneering work to repair soldier's damaged faces; Gillies's cousin Archie McIndoe started the more famous Guinea Pig Club after the second world war, drawing on the techniques and approaches Gillies had established, which included using artists such as Kathleen Scott and Henry Tonks, Professor of the Slade, to help draw and model reconstructed faces. She is also very good on the position of women, who had achieved the vote and could get an Oxford degree, but were being encouraged back to the home to make way for returning war heroes in need of jobs.

Nicolson has created a narrative of this two year period in which the shock and grief of the first World War are gradually accommodated and accepted, and in which the possibilities of hope for the future began to be permissible. Her last chapter, which describes the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920, suggests that this funeral helped to heal the scars of the war, and her ending, which quotes Winifred Holtby, exuberantly in love with life, suggests an open doorway to a new world.  However, she does not overstate her case; the ongoing problems left by the war are recognised, as is dissent from the establishment view of the meaning of the war and its value.

In A Perfect Summer, Nicolson had the advantage of diaries and letters which were maintained throughout the period of her narrative, giving her a continuous set of voices to draw on.  In this book, voices appear only briefly, or disappear altogether, often because the writer has died.  This can be seen as a disadvantage in narrative continuity and maintenance of an argument, but is perhaps an advantage in depicting the uncertainty of the times she describes, the suddenness of loss, the fragmentation of identity suffered by so many.  It also helps remind the reader that the cycle of mourning is not a machine that runs in order; some people will be stuck forever in Denial, which some will move backwards and forwards through painful emotional states before reaching the promised land of Acceptance. The discontinuity of voices also speaks of the social divisions between those who sought to restore a pre-war society and those who sought the opportunity for change.  This book is, understandably, much less humorous than its predecessor,but it brings into the light a period heavily overshadowed by the war and the Twenties, and is a careful, nuanced account of the people who lived through this interval between times of more revolutionary change.

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