After the Victorians

By A. N. Wilson

When A. N. Wilson, author of The Victorians, titles his new history of England and the British Empire from 1901 to 1953 After the Victorians, he’s making a point. The Victorian period, while maybe not a Golden Age, is still the historical standard, defining England and its Empire. What came after has to be seen as a falling off.

In the first place, the Victorian anxiety over losing the Empire became reality. This was inevitable, especially after paying for two World Wars, but perhaps not as clear a sign of progress as some think. Wilson is an eloquent apologist for empire, not because empire is always a good thing, but because, with the benefit of hindsight, it was better than the alternatives that moved in to fill the void. “In other parts of Europe political solutions, collectivist or corporatist, would be attempted which quickly became far more authoritarian, and certainly more murderous, than the apparently indefensible systems of empire and oligarchy which were in place at the beginning of the century.” British rule in India may have had its Amritsars, but these were only “bloody interludes in a general story of containment and good order. The numbers slain are tiny compared with the numbers of those slaughtered by Indians and Pakistanis when they achieved their yearned-for independence.” Above all, it was when the state ceased to be controlled by imperial authority that ethnicity and religious allegiance took on a new importance for defining a nation. Once power devolved upon the People, the question of who the People were became significant. A monarchy had helped defuse these tensions. “No Hohenzollern or Habsburg autocrat,” Wilson notes, “brought about killings on the scale of of the populist Hitler.”

As for what came after the Victorians, Wilson has three answers: the vulgarians, the Americans, and the bureaucrats.

Empire corrupted England with prosperity, leading to the rise of a nouveau riche class of snobby materialists and capitalists unrestrained by Victorian standards of noblesse oblige. Chief among these was Edward VII himself, “the vulgarian to end all nouveau riche vulgarians.” Only a little lower down the ladder were those titans of the British press, the “appalling vulgarians” Northcliffe and Beaverbrook. But again Wilson stresses how bad the alternatives were, and how countries where bullying businessmen ran the press (as well as much of the government) were obviously better places to live than those “where the Press was successfully bridled and stamped upon.”

America, “a large, rich, patient nation” waiting in the wings, inherited Britain’s imperial position through a process Wilson describes as sometimes shaking the branches and sometimes waiting for the ripe fruit to fall of its own accord. One thing it was not was a passing of the torch. The United States was not an inheritor but a rival, with John Bull’s loss being Uncle Sam’s gain. The Special Relationship was, “like a lot of outwardly successful marriages,” an “abusive” one, in which Britain’s role was to be “quite decidedly the junior partner.”

Finally, there are the bureaucrats. With Labour’s victory after the Second World War the managerial class, “colourless, pushing people controlling others for the sake of control,” takes over. The resulting gloom is a political drabness and greyness identified as Atlee’s Britain, where England’s new masters are not the Bolsheviks or the working class but the paper pushers.

Luckily, Wilson isn’t intent on hammering a Tory interpretation of history. He does give credit to the Atlee government for such bureaucratic achievements as the national health service. And his approach is biographical and anecdotal rather than coherent and systematic anyway, proceeding by picking up subjects and personalities that interest him as he goes along. Of course the figure of Churchill, the last Victorian, is central, bestriding these years like a colossus, but the most rewarding parts of the book are to be found in its fresh perspective on subjects like the abdication of Edward VIII (unfair, in Wilson’s opinion, and he was not a fascist), or when Wilson champions now mostly-forgotten names like the novelists Anthony Powell and John Cowper Powys (“surely the greatest English novelist of his generation”), and the artists Stanley Spencer and William Nicholson.

But while it makes for an easy, occasionally provocative read, this is, in the end, a long book that fails to rise above the crowd of general histories we already have on the period.

Review first published March 4, 2006. “Virginia Woolf’s prose was as beautiful as her face.” This from one of England’s most esteemed historians and literary critics. It’s almost pathetic.


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