Mark Bostridge begins his account of England in 1914 with the story of the murder of a five-year-old boy named William Starchfield, the son of a poor seamstress from east London. His body was found one bitterly cold January afternoon on the train at Dalston. Nine months later, 18-year-old George Cecil, an officer in the Grenadier Guards and grandson of the former prime minister Lord Salisbury, was declared missing, presumed dead, three weeks after he crossed to France with the British Expeditionary Force. The agony of Cecil’s aristocratic mother, Violet, desperately searching for her son’s body, was every bit as painful as the anguish endured by the mother of Starchfield.
Bostridge debunks the idea of prewar England as a lost Eden and the myth of the long, hot summer of L P Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. The weather, he observes, was very average that summer (the record-breaking summer, in fact, was 1911). And the months before war broke out were