It is to A. N. Wilson’s credit as a historian that he steadfastly resists the temptation to craft his story backwards from the ending. When considering the time period in question—the years 1900-1950—it is impossible to forget the layer upon layer of human tragedy that distinguish it as the bloodiest in human history. It would be hard to resist the temptation—a temptation which many historians apparently do find irresistible—to present an attitude of historical orthogenesis, to assume that the processes of history were inevitable, and to assume that effect was always irrevocably attached to cause. That’s not how history works, in any event not while we’re living it. The first half of the previous century was nothing if not confusing, to those who lived through it as well as those alive now who study it. Any attempt to cast light on the multitude of mistakes and convoluted contretemps faces the challenge of giving the reader history in its raw, unprocessed form, shorn of myth or stereotype—a discomforting experience for those accustomed to the more readily-digested elaboration of historical pageantry.
After the Victorians executes an especially tricky high-wire act in that Wilson manages to keep the tone engaging and almost intimately cordial without compromising anything in the way of authority. The result is akin to a series of lectures from a wily, occasionally meandering but incredibly well-versed professor, given to the occasional rambling metaphorical digression (such as his somewhat strained extended metaphor comparing Laurel & Hardy to the US / UK “Special Relationship”) but otherwise conveying an extraordinarily deep understanding both of his subject matter and his readers’ patience. The prose itself possesses all the tics you might expect from an actual lecturer—Wilson frequently confuses paradox with garden-variety irony, for instance—but overall the effect is extremely gratifying, an encyclopedic treatment that for all its depth sacrifices nothing in readability.
After the Victorians
The Decline of Britain in the World
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The narrative begins, as one could infer from the title, with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, and proceeds onwards to record an ever-diminishing cavalcade of royal non-entities. Insomuch as the British people are still remarkably infatuated with their royalty, the Windsor family in the first half of the last century did very little to earn this affection. Wilson chronicles a train of relatively milquetoast Georges and Edwards, stopping only to linger at the minor tragedy of Edward VIII before finishing, with appropriate symmetry, with the coronation of another strong female monarch who would reign for over half a century, Elizabeth II. Although, as I said, he is careful to present history in media res without any of the inevitability that often creeps into accounts of the period, he is not above the occasional ironic aside or observation in hindsight. It is hard to disagree when, at various points in the book, he draws no uncertain connection between the weakness of the monarchy in this period and the simultaneously unremarkable nature of British national character and politics in the period prior to and between the two World Wars.
But in the absence of a strong monarch, Wilson leaves no room for doubt as to the identity of this book’s protagonist. Although it’s a slightly less axiomatic phrase, a better title for the book would perhaps have been The Churchillians. From the beginning of the era until after it’s close (Churchill survived until 1965, and was politically active until right up to his death), his career seemed to define the national character. Although he was often (and often deservedly so) on the losing end of electoral politics, he manages to reappear throughout the book like a British Zelig. From his early career as a member of the wartime cabinet under Lloyd George (a stint as the First Lord of the Admiralty under which he commanded the disastrous Gallipoli excursion); as the executive in charge of the establishment of Iraq as a national entity in 1921 (and we all know how well that turned out); through the ‘20s and his role as Councilor of the Exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s conservative government (and, rest assured, he was as good an economist as he was a military commander); he always managed to find himself near the seat of power before being ousted in the 1930s, the so-called “wilderness years” both for Churchill and Britain, reeling from the disastrous effects of the Great Depression. Given the absolute unremarkability of his career to then, the fact that he would be called back in 1940 to serve as Prime Minister is almost, from an American point of view, inconceivable. One supposes that he was elected under the principle that any one man could only bungle so many times before finally succeeding, by simple virtue of statistical probability.
But the man had finally found his moment. Just as the country itself had muddled through the first decades of the twentieth century, they found each other in a singularly spectacular moment of heroism and deft statesmanship. Although we’re not supposed to like the “Great Man” stories in history anymore, you can’t ignore the heady tone of admiration that bleeds through Wilson’s words. In this respect, Churchill seems to occupy a similar place in the British imagination as Lincoln does in the American mind. Certainly, you can’t relate their adventures without a critical examination of their numerous errors and lapses, but even with the requisite caveats (such as the fact that Churchill nearly lost the Battle of Britain before it was started by committing English planes to an ill-conceived defense of France which was thankfully abandoned after cooler heads prevailed) he remains a larger-than-life figure on the canvas of history. For Winston, the Victorian generation that preceded Churchill’s own represents the zero point from which British history in the 20th century recedes; and Churchill himself, for all his many concessions to modernity, is the last avatar of that peculiar breed of Englishman. Although he is quick to place Churchill’s achievements in the context of their time and to catalog the man’s many faults, it is not without a sense of grudging duty on his part as a historian. It’s clear that he simply has more fun writing about Churchill than the many drab, doomed or deranged figures that flock throughout the misbegotten period.
However, there is something slightly less than dutiful in Winston’s summation of the British Empire’s speedy dismantling at the end of World War II. Although as a conscientious historian he takes great pains to isolate the monstrous error of British dominion in Ireland, India, South Africa and the Middle East, he nonetheless manages to express his very English regret and disgust at the summary briskness with which the post-War world forced England to divest herself of her colonial properties. The attitude is similar to that of a patient who understands the necessity of his medicine but resents the circumstances on which it is forced upon him. There was little doubt, from the state of England’s financial ruin during and immediately after the war, that the massive infrastructure of colonial rule would fall by the wayside as soon as possible, but rather than place the blame for the unsatisfactory partitioning of India and Pakistan squarely on the shoulders of Clement Attlee’s postwar Socialist government, he spends a great deal of time detailing America’s open conspiracy to leverage the destruction of the British Empire through their generous wartime aid packages. While it can’t be disputed that it was in America’s—and the world’s—interest for the Empire to be disestablished, the sorry way they went about doing so is their own damn fault, and we’re reaping the dividends to this day, in India and Pakistan as well as Israel and Palestine, not to mention Ireland (the partition of which preceded the rest of the Empire, but established the same short-sighted and disastrous pattern as the later divestments, all of which created more problems than were solved).
But even with all that Wilson still manages to end on something of a cheery note, drawing a straight line between the spirit of enlightened social enrichment that motivated the Victorians and the long-lasting domestic achievements of Attlee’s government. Although he is quick to point out the multitude of instances wherein the nationalizing programs for health care, education and housing went awry, Wilson leaves the reader with no doubt that they were ultimately far more efficacious than not, and succeeded in instilling the principle that a philanthropically-minded government exists to serve its citizens. This notion has been more or less accepted in Britain ever since, with some variations. Despite Margaret Thatcher’s harsh conservatism, during the 1980s she could do little more than chip away at the edifice of the pejoratively-labeled “welfare state”, replacing the Victorian spirit of generosity that Wilson lauds with the Victorian spirit of hard-hearted self reliance. Strangely enough for a Conservative, Churchill himself offered a repudiation of Thatcher’s philosophy as far back as 1909:
I do not agree with those who say that every man must look after himself, and that intervention by the state will be fatal to self-reliance, his foresight and his thrift It is a mistake to suppose that thrift is caused only by fear: it springs from hope as well as fear. Where there is no hope, there will be no thrift.
If, as Christopher Hitchens asserts in his review of the volume for The Atlantic, a sequel is inevitable (I agree that the nature of the project practically begs furtherance), it will be interesting to see just how Wilson illustrates the conflict between the modern era’s two contradictory philosophical platforms, both presumably (and paradoxically) inherited from the same generation of Victorians—social responsibility and self-reliance. Given the failure of Communism, the conflict between these two market-based creeds is the major economic narrative of our time, both in England and the remainder of the industrialized West. Certainly, anyone who finishes After the Victorians, despite the book’s intimidating heft, will find themselves wishing for just another few chapters, to see how all that shakes out.