A period to which I’d never given much thought, and one which is glossed over in the main, is that immediately after the end of World War One. There’s a great deal of writing, both fiction and non-fiction about the Great War and the rich vein of the Roaring Twenties has been thoroughly mined by novelists. But the period from 1918 to 1920 is rather neglected. I, like many I suspect, assumed that it was a time of great joy with troops coming back from the trenches and that, even if life was never to be just as it was before hostilities began, at least it would be getting back to a kind of normality.
However, The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson’s meticulously researched but incredibly readable account of this period – from the Armistice of 1918 to the burial of the unknown soldier in Westminster Abbey in 1920 – dispels those illusions, outlining the difficulties experienced by returning soldiers and those who’d remained at home. Many soldiers had suffered terrible injuries and there were many more suffering from the psychological impact of the conflict, unemployment was raging (4 million returning soldiers and 3 million redundant munitions workers), the Spanish Flu epidemic killed many and the country was in a state of flux – people had seen a different world and were demanding universal suffrage and they didn’t want to go back to domestic service. It was not time of great celebration but of grief and slow recovery. I found this book absolutely fascinating, especially the description of Harold Gillies work with badly disfigured servicemen and can also highly recommend Juliet’s previous book The Perfect Summer, taking a snapshot of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, in a world soon to change completely. Her most recent book is Abdication, a novel set at the time of the abdication of Edward VIII and that is waiting on my TBR pile.
After The Great Silence, I happened upon The Year After by Martin Davies. I love the cover – so evocative and styish and by the time I’d seen that it was about Tom Allen, demobbed and returning from France in 1919 and returning to the country home of an aristocratic family he’d known since boyhood and that secrets were about to be uncovered, I was sold. In some ways nothing has changed, the familiar traditions of a grand country house at Christmas are still there but there’s an all-pervading sense of loss, both of people and the untouchable happiness that the family had enjoyed. A darker episode from that last summer of 1914 has haunted Tom and after a chance meeting in Germany he’s curious to discover the truth of that tragedy. Davies’ descriptions of frosty mornings on the moor and of heavy summer days are wonderfully evocative and he writes beautifully without sacrificing story for style. Do try this, it’s one of my favourite books of the year.