Mr Selfridge is done, and Downton’s next season is a long way off, leaving us all with a long summer ahead before we can get our fix of pre-war glamour. As it’s now summer holiday season, when at least some of us will either be sitting on beaches or waiting on flights, it’s a good time to start thinking books. Histories don’t often make good beach reading, but these two titles are the exception. Both are lively, gossipy, and incredibly absorbing, and they provide wide-ranging portraits of a very particular time in history, when things were changing at a dizzying, even gleeful pace and few people could really discern the stormclouds gathering on the horizon.
Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge: The book that inspired the series. Now that the season’s over, a lot of us are wondering: how much if that was true? Well, the answer is, not a whole lot. The main details are true—there was a man nam
ed Harry Gordon Selfridge who married a woman named Rose and opened a department store in London. He also gambled and slept around a lot. But nearly everything else was made up for the show (except for Bleriot’s aeroplane being put on display). There was no Agnes or creepy artist with a crush on Rose, Lady Mae was a composite of two other women Harry knew, he didn’t have an affair with a minimally talented showgirl named Ellen Love, and the shop’s ingenious window dresser was an American, not a Frenchman named Henri. Why they changed some of those things I’ll never know. But, if you’re interested in learning a bit more about what actually happed in the life of Harry Selfridge—and believe me, it’s a fascinating story that reads as well as any novel—this is the book to turn to. It not only gives a pretty thorough account of his own rags-to-riches-to-rags tale, it also explores what was happening in society at large throughout his lifetime, providing titillating details of scandals, popular fashions, and the goings-on of the gilded classes.
The Perfect Summer: Written by the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West, this book provides an insider’s look at English society (at all levels) during the long, hot summer of 1911. It was the year England got a new king and queen, the Ballets Russes debuted and caused a bit of a scandal, and the beautiful Lady Diana Manners was launched into Society. Aristocrats sweltered, partied, conducted affairs, and shot grouse while workers flocked to beaches for quick holidays and relief from the heat, went on strike to demand better working conditions and caused a severe food shortage, and seethed at the privileges of the rich. This was England, unwittingly dancing on the edge. Beautifully written, packed with detail, this book should come with an ‘extremely addictive’ warning label.