ToddSeavey.com Book Selection of the Month (August 2010): After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World by A.N. Wilson
Before we get to England: I wrote about the Victorian-era goings-on in my own hometown, Norwich, CT, in last month’s Book Selection entry — and I’m still learning things about the Norwich of that era, thanks to Mom. She informs me that Teddy Roosevelt’s second wife, Edith Kermit Carow, was born in Norwich and moved to New York, becoming childhood friends with Roosevelt and eventually bearing him many pillow-fighting, rollerskating children, as well as tending to the White House’s menagerie of pets, which included a badger, a bear, a hyena, snakes, dogs, and more.
Meanwhile, across the ocean, though, an era was ending, with the death of Queen Victoria. Back around the time her era began, incidentally, the old British standards of length and mass were altered — by a fire, oddly enough, since an 1834 conflagration destroyed the Houses of Parliament and took the official physical units used to define length and mass with them, which is not a topic covered in After the Victorians but is so odd I had to mention it.
(Interestingly, though the U.S. has never converted to the metric system, we began defining our units by reference to the metric system in 1893, which means that since that time we’ve unwittingly been using Progressive measurements. Ha ho! But more about the Progressives in next month’s Book Selection entry, which will be about Martin Sklar’s The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism — and maybe something by one Judge Andrew Napolitano while I’m at it.)
And now, seriously, or at least half-seriously, on to After the Victorians: The book is a fun blend of serious, detailed history and utterly trashy, vaguely self-loathing tabloid anecdotes, a tone well suited to looking back upon the wreckage of the British Empire from the perspective of a cynical twenty-first century writer. An important point Wilson makes is one I mentioned in my closing comments after last week’s debate on imperialism at Lolita Bar: The British Empire was primarily an Asian rather than a European empire, if we take the sheer demographic weight of India seriously (on a similar but more petty note, it’s often struck me that with so many speakers of English living in India, it’s not clear that any nation besides India has a right to define what constitutes standard English).
The artificial construct that was the Empire was bound to come apart sooner or later — and the early twentieth century was enamored of trying new things, as Wilson reminds us in sometimes-odd passages like this one: “The flying machines and motor cars of the Edwardian era look like toys built for the amusement of Mr. Toad, but they are harbingers of a new world order. Moreover, the Mr. Toad at the wheel would be unlikely to have owned Toad Hall for more than a generation.” (This passage also reminds me a bit of the poem I wrote in college that enabled me to come in third at a Nuyorican Poets Cafe slam once, a poem that began with the lines “Stork! Stork in a gyrocopter!/ Grim harbinger of the coming age.” Ah, great minds, etc.)
In the process of depicting the Empire unraveling, Wilson treats us to such telling oddities as the despicable D.H. Lawrence writing about his fantasies of gassing to death all of the sick, maimed, and deformed people of the world, to the sound of a softly-playing military band; the sexual license among coal-miners; early pro-sex activists such as Pussy Webbe; and the differing attitudes toward England of brothers Henry and William James, the former of whom once chastised the latter for leaning a ladder against a fence in order to peer over it and gawk at the elephantine form of writer G.K. Chesterton. Henry was also fascinated by Chesterton’s immensity but would never have used the ladder. William, after all, was a pragmatist and in some sense more American (and thus was the future, though we may well look back and say the American Empire, such as it is, outlived England’s by only sixty years or so). Wilson quotes in passing H.G. Wells’ complaint about the prose style of Henry James’ later works: “It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.”
Somewhat like James Burke, author of Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, Wilson delights in pointing out ironic or coincidental historical connections, even while admitting they aren’t the only connections that could be used to trace the sequence of events. He notes, for instance, that Bertrand Russell, arch-logician, not only sparred with a young and more linguistically-contextual Wittgenstein but taught arch-modernist poet T.S. Eliot when Eliot was a young philosophy student and Russell was a visiting professor at Harvard. Who knows how differently twentieth-century culture might have turned out if these men had had just a few conversations with each other that took some other turn?
One of my favorite themes in the past year or two has been the observation that so many allegiances and constellations of political, philosophical, or social ideas that we treat as timeless or inevitable are in fact contingent, recent, and likely temporary, including pseudo-permanent categories beloved by right and left alike. The fact that the Tories were anti-industrialization in the nineteenth century, for instance, is a reminder that environmentalism could easily have become more a conservative than a left-wing phenomenon. And Wilson’s reminder that aristocratically-garbed “founding” lesbian Radclyffe Hall was a Tory until she was charged with obscenity for writing The Well of Loneliness makes one wonder in a sci-fi-like way what might have been (indeed, Grant Morrison used Hall as a conservative-sounding character in the steampunk comic book Sebastian O and rightly so).
Wilson’s description of the impractical economic idea of “distributism,” beloved by Chesterton, and some Catholic paleo types to this day, is another reminder how easily the conservative impulse could have morphed into the great anti-capitalist destroyer of modernity instead of the crude shield against socialism it has generally been. But then, conservatism and even the nature of the aristocracy were being rapidly remolded to suit capitalism’s purposes in the Edwardian period (thank goodness), and soon noble titles were in effect being bought and sold (which, Wilson hastens to add, was really no great break with tradition, since many noble lineages began with the richest man in town, often made rich by some practical activity such as being the harbormaster, declaring himself a permanent landowner).
With everyone panicked about the rapid rise of corporations in the early twentieth century (again, more on that and the Progressives next month), there was a surprising tolerance across the political spectrum for what now sound like blatantly fascistic ideas about subordinating markets and individuals to the state, and people moved freely between fascist and labor parties in search of some solution. Keynes and Mussolini were almost interchangeable for plenty of respectable intellectuals in that era. That makes it all the more baffling, suggests Wilson, that King Edward VIII was so easily pressured into abdicating and later vilified over the issues of divorce, romantic attachment to an American, and mild fascist sympathies, since none of these things were generally considered scandalous or illegal in the decades prior to WWII.
And Edward VIII may have been chummy with his German cousins, but then, almost all the European royals were closely related, and Wilson begins his book with a reminder that World War I had been in part a war between England and Queen Victoria’s own grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Would that such spats could have been resolved at family reunions instead of on battlefields. But again, so much that is treated as inevitable in hindsight was likely chance and contingency, from Franco’s influence on attitudes about fascism and socialism to the inadequacies of the League of Nations.
As World War II breaks out and the end draws nigh for the Empire, Wilson turns his attention for almost an entire chapter to Laurel and Hardy, seeing in them a metaphor for U.S.-British relations generally, particularly a film in which Stan receives a bump on the head that turns him into a more stuffy, aristocratic parody of a British person, a condition of which he is cured at the end before he and Ollie return to America. Of particular concern to the British at the start of the war was whether the U.S. cared enough to intervene, and FDR sought to decide the matter by dispatching one diplomat to tour Europe and decide whether it was worth disrupting U.S. trade with the continent by taking sides, an approach that led one staffer of the British Foreign Office to conclude that Americans “are a strange people and pursue strange methods.”
Wilson makes the case that Churchill, in some sense the real anti-Hitler among the Western Allies, won the war in the sense of defeating the Axis but in the process lost everything he had perceived himself to be fighting for, since he was an ardent imperialist and had to watch as India departed the fold and socialism took over half of Europe. Don’t pity Churchill too much, though: He was ruthless in war and apparently held the disturbing view that peace is likely a bad thing and would breed softness, a view not so unlike the pseudo-Darwinian attitudes by which the Nazis justified treating conquest as a natural and healthy expression of competition that rendered morality irrelevant. Beware those enamored of conflict and violence, especially if they claim to represent human excellence instead of subhuman depravity.
The future Queen Elizabeth II was, Wilson notes, more enamored of Walt Disney movies when she was a child than of conquest, though, and there’s something to be said for that, even if her tastes were a disappointment to her more-Victorian father, King George V. In an important reminder that our political leaders are far stupider and more ignorant than their intellectual apologists normally let on, Wilson also mentions that when Churchill — an agnostic who feared the atom bomb might well end the human race, with no God to intervene on our behalf — was reelected, President Truman cheerily congratulated Elizabeth on her father’s victory in the polls, apparently not knowing that the King and Prime Minister were two different people, and two different institutions. Truman controlled — and had used — nuclear weapons. And, Wilson argues, he likely did so to ensure that the U.S. defeated Japan before Russia did, rather than because the alternative was significantly-longer fighting with Japan.
The U.S. and Russia would dominate the post-WWII world, while England muddled along under a short-lived socialist government that still foisted wartime-style ration cards and the like on a dissatisfied populace. Wilson makes a case for the anarchist, Max Stirner-influenced novelist John Cowper Powys as an important representative of the post-war spirit of resistance to social conformity and socialism alike, the sort of writer who gives one hope that there is almost as much rebel in the British spirit — and thus hope of the UK resisting regulation and taxation in the long run — as there is in the American spirit.
All the same, Wilson notes, countless other British works, including the fantasy The Borrowers, would fill the half-century after the Empire’s end with a tone of lamentation for something beautiful, absurd, diminished, and sadly lost. No wonder British writers, particularly the angry leftist ones, so often sound more bitter and defeated than Americans. Depending on how things go, we may sound that frustrated and nasty eventually, though.