Elevate Difference

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age

The Great Silence starts out with a story that is never fun to tell—the story of a war—the First World War. Nicolson writes of a part of life that divides humans like no other, but also remedies that story with one that is incomparable in drawing us together—that of music. Everything in between is categorized under feelings such as, hopelessness, anger, honesty, and acceptance, to name a few.

The year of 1918 gave birth to a day that was supposed to represent a temporary suspension of hostilities by mutual agreement—a truce—for this is what Armistice means. Armistice Day, however, served more as a bandaid in the lives of millions of Britain’s inhabitants. Hostilities would fester for a lifetime for those who would never see their husbands, brothers, or fathers again. It also offered little consolation to returning soldiers who saw the end of the war, but were marked by it forever with their injuries and disfigurements.

Nicolson seems to pull back the curtain on that time making the reader feel as if they are in the midst of the goings on of these lives forever touched by the war. No one was spared of the atrocities, from the ordinary to the famous, such as, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, who found time to write of Armistice Day while at a trip to the dentist.

The war and its residual effects would give rise to many unprecedented events, such as women’s right to vote (with certain restrictions), the increased blurring of class lines, and a music that would therapeutically liberate a people’s mental constraints. Not even the world of fashion was spared when French couturier Coco Chanel introduced innovative fashions that complemented androgyny while retaining femininity, thanks in part, to this jazz music. It seemed that the high hopes of winning the war and/or returning from it unbroken placed on the success of the war in the beginning came crashing down along with the nation’s morality (according to what the powers that be believed), due to its failure in both. Jazz music only served to divide the morale with its primitive elements wreaking havoc on the virginal principles of good people.

Nicolson weaves such a thorough and engaging social history that makes the reader feel personally privy to a time when many of our grandparents were not even a thought. Nicolson’s ability to tell a story complemented by first-hand accounts and access to the diaries of Queen Mary give the reader a virtual experience of what it was like to experience a time long gone, but not forgotten.

Written by: Olupero R. Aiyenimelo, July 22nd 2010