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After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World Hardcover – October 13, 2005
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In 1924, the British Empire Exhibition--"a huge propaganda exercise"--opened in Wembley to celebrate the stability and permanence of the British Empire, which was at its maximum size at that time. Within 25 years, the British would lose their empire and their place in the world, and be reduced to fighting for their economic survival following World War II. After the Victorians covers the years 1901 through 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In this absorbing work, A.N. Wilson tells the tale of his parents' generation, who witnessed the rapid, bewildering transformation from supreme world power to broken nation within their lifetimes. In doing so, he explores a wide variety of topics, including cultural changes, the population shift from rural to urban areas, the changing role of the aristocracy, imperialism (especially in India), the Asiatic roots of World War I, the rise of the suffragists, and the complex relationship between Britain and the U.S., which Wilson describes as being "like a lot of outwardly successful marriages, an abusive relationship, in which Britain was quite decidedly the junior partner."
After the Victorians is not a formal history. Rather than cover this era chronologically, Wilson shifts in time, moving smoothly from one subject to another, alternating between wide-angle views and extreme close-ups. He offers broad coverage of military, cultural, political, and economic themes, as well as revealing portraits of politicians, monarchs, generals, journalists, economists, painters, poets, and scientists. Filled with sharp observations and vivid anecdotes, this imaginative and crisply written "portrait of an age" successfully conveys the conflicted emotions of British subjects forced to deal with the loss of their once-mighty empire. --Shawn Carkonen
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Wilson—an estimable novelist and historian—has written a splendid sequel to The Victorians, describing the vanished world of his "parents' generation" between 1901 and 1953. Wilson eschews a rigidly chronological narrative in favor of unveiling a colorful, quirky "portrait of an age." Encompassing everything from high politics through middlebrow pursuits to low culture, this book displays Wilson's magpie-ish talent for the telling detail, the amusing anecdote and the wry observation to delightful effect. Reading it, one feels—with Wilson—a wistful, admiring pang for these post-Victorians, who were born at the zenith of British power and died just as their great empire slipped away. What they left, argues Wilson, was a heritage of defending a peculiarly British form of liberty; what succeeded them was government by a bureaucratic class of "colourless, pushing people controlling others for the sake of control." The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 provides Wilson with a fittingly elegiac conclusion: This "splendid piece of religio-patriotic pageantry" may have justly celebrated "peace, freedom, prosperity," but it was also a "consoling piece of theatre" that temporarily obscured the reality of America's new dominance. 32 pages of illus. (Nov.)
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This is an excellently researched and documented work that appeals to both sides of the brain, a compelling read with a clean chronological line and an interdisciplinary look at English social and political life. From Laurel and Hardy to the discovery of DNA, Wilson chronicles change on the island itself and in the nation's place on the world stage. Some of this decline, as Wilson interprets it, is discretely laid at the feet of the United States, which in the context of twentieth century world events seemed somewhat odd to me.
The author begins his critique with the death of Queen Victoria, appropriately enough, in 1901 and the accession of her son, Bertie, as he was known, to the throne as Edward VII. [John Adams giving way to George Hamilton, so to speak.] Victoria and the obsequious Disraeli had cultivated a "cult of empire" during the last quarter century of her reign, a heightened popular sense of the old maxim of the sun never setting on the Union Jack. Wilson implies that such a strategy was too much too late. For all practical purposes, by 1901 Britain presided over a commonwealth of nations. The empire, by this time was basically India, and as England's need for India increased this subcontinent was becoming harder and harder to manage.
Later in the work Wilson will debate at some lengths the diplomatic and military options open to England in the Munich era and afterwards. In retrospect, though, the critical decisions about England's future were made in the 1901-1914 time frame. While Theodore Roosevelt in the US and young Winston Churchill in the Admiralty fretted about a global naval arms race, British royalty and high society danced through the last idyllic years prior to the world wars, comforted with the news from the Indian Viceroy Lord Curzon that India was secure along her northern borders and that the British overlords were much loved.
Churchill, attuned to the naval state of affairs, switched the British Navy to oil burning locomotion in 1913, and then discovered that oil from the Middle East was getting harder to come by. The problem was an increasing German presence in the East, perhaps most obvious in the construction of railroad lines and roadways from Berlin to Bagdad. [134 ff] Clearly, England would need its subject India as a counterweight to German expansion eastward. My school day history books never described World War I as a quest for oil, but Wilson provides a compelling argument to think so. With a different energy policy and a more clearheaded Indian policy, England would have had no compelling reason to enter the fray.
The miserable experience of World War I began a tumble of dominoes through Versailles [which did not solve England's Middle East woes], depression, World War II, and the loss of India. Wilson chronicles the impact of each upon British society, including the development of "The Special Relationship" between his nation and the United States. Wilson chooses not Roosevelt and Churchill but Laurel and Hardy as his metaphor [Stan Laurel having been born and educated in England before teaming with Georgia's Oliver Hardy] in a rather touching essay. One reads here the author's suppressed but real emotions about the American displacement from the Empire.
This American motif appears time and time again. Wilson believes that England survived the Great Depression in a more effective and humane fashion than did the United States. Later he trumpets the socialized health plan of the late 1940's as an act of beneficence beyond the capacities of the US political system, and he comes just short of alleging that the US took advantage of British nuclear research to develop atomic weapons. He concedes, however, that without US [and Russian?] military force life under Hitler would have been unbearable, consigning the American nation to a kind of necessary evil status.
Wilson chastens his own country for its management of Indian affairs and the shameful denouement there after World War II. The appointment of Lord Mountbatten to India seems to him particularly despicable. But he notes that England did not have a monopoly on rogues, and he is not worshipful of Gandhi or enthralled by Nehru. He laments the great loss of life during the Indian realignment as a metaphor of just how far England and the rest of the civilized world had fallen in fifty years.
In a sense the first and last chapters of this work convey a different mood than the rest of the work: the first featuring the clotheshorse Bertie and the last the young and charming Princess Elizabeth. That royal succession could be celebrated uninterrupted so soon and so enthusiastically in 1952 after two generations of war and its attendant dictatorial demands upon the citizenry is a strong indication that the mystique and identity of England is not gone. The author knows this, but he mourns the loss of place enjoyed by his country in the 1800's and he is cautious about the future. In the final analysis, like a true Victorian he carries a thinly veiled disgust with the decline of civilization itself, with perhaps the unexpressed regret that much of the desecration was self-inflicted.
Victorians" is a sequel to his bestselling "The Victorians."
Wilson has done a wonderful job of chronicling the long goodbye of British imperial might. We see Britain lose the jewel in the
crown India; be drained of gold and young manhood in two catastrophic world wars; see the empire's sun set in colonies
from Africa to the Middle East. We see a falling off of genius
in literature, the arts, music and governmental leadership.
Wilson jumps from one topic to the next with rapidity which
will be annoying to some readers. This is especially true for those who are not familiar with many of the subjects and topics
covered in the many pages in this book.
As an anglophile and history buff I personally enjoyed the
survey presented by the Welshman who writes so well. This book
is a tour but not an in depth study of the land of Shakespeare.
If you want a better knowledge of the general trends and major
players in England from the death of Victoria in 1901 to the
coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1952 this is a good read.