- After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 609 pp.
An Empire Lost
Like its predecessor, The Victorians, this book is a portrait of an age, rather than a formal history. It takes the story of Britain and her place in the world, from 1901 to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Though it is as long a book as the last one, I am even more conscious as I finish it of the omissions. Yet, enough is enough, and a volume must be light enough to hold without the aid of a lectern.” Thus modestly begins A.N. Wilson’s After the Victorians, a thoughtful, character-driven study that examines the question of how the British Empire which, at the turn of the century, controlled some twenty percent of the world’s land mass and nearly a quarter of its population, witnessed an almost total loss of power and influence in a scant fifty years.
To be sure Wilson is a distinguished intellectual and his work is to be taken seriously. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has written nineteen novels, columns for both the London Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph, and fourteen works of nonfiction including critically received biographies on Tolstoy, Milton, C. S. Lewis, and Saint Paul. But, as he suggests, this is certainly not history in its turgid traditional sense for the writing is crisp and refreshingly lively as Wilson, now the storyteller, wryly relates a seemingly endless stream of historical anecdotes all-the-while demonstrating an uncanny talent for imparting detail.
Wilson correctly suggests that from the perspective of over one hundred years, we tend to look back to the early years of the twentieth century and see the British Edwardian world through the mayhem of slaughters and revolutions which followed. Further that the luxury of knowing what is to come, will directly influence the approach with which one might examine the era. Some will look back on the period before the First World War as a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, of long afternoons and country house parties. Others will see a troubled situation in the Empire: the terrible living conditions of the urban poor, the twin growth of nationalism and military technology, and a terrifying howl of ancestral voices prophesying war. Yet both of these opposing polarities will focus some of their thoughts upon the monarchy. After all, Wilson opines, “it was in the aim of ridding the world of the tyrannies and injustices with which a monarchical system is associated that the revolutions in Russia, Germany, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, were to be driven forward.”
Against this philosophical background, Wilson stakes out his personal position, noting that while “Some readers of history will continue to see that upturning of thrones to be, in the Cromwellian phrase, a cruel necessity. Others [including Wilson himself] note that in the years when other countries of the world had their civil wars, their Gulags, their Dachaus and their Kristallnachts, it was the conservative, monarchical, aristocratic Britain which maintained a political ideal of personal freedom, not merely for its own citizens, but also for foreign refugees to its shores and those in other lands who fought for freedom.”
Maybe…but while this all encompassing statement is not altogether without some measure of truth, it is this same unabashed pro-British posturing that – if there is to indeed be criticism – one might find fault. This is particularly true when Wilson contemplates the Second World War and all but ignores the financial, logistical, and military contributions of Crown Dominions such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Too, with respect to the United States, Wilson makes little effort to hide his distain for the “special relationship” that existed between Washington and London, and while begrudgingly noting that “Britain could not have won the war without America’s help…,” he quickly adds, “…but this help inevitably led the larger and the richer of the two nations to emerge from the war stronger.”
Nevertheless, Wilson paints a splendid portrait of an age and, some fifty years after the epoch of Victoria, he ends the story on the occasion of Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation when, despite the fact that British India was gone, that the British Middle East was in turmoil, and that British Africa was merely waiting for independence, Coronation Day gave the British and what was left of the Empire an opportunity to celebrate. Still, as Wilson notes: “Her coronation service was in part a splendid piece of religio-patriotic pageantry to celebrate great things which deserved celebration: peace, freedom, prosperity. In part, however, it can now be seen as a consoling piece of theatre, designed to disguise from themselves the fact that the British had indeed, as Dean Acheson so accurately remarked nearly a decade later, lost an empire and failed to find a role.”
In the final analysis, After the Victorians emerges as an ambitious piece of scholarship that reflects no small measure of nostalgia for a bygone age. Still, it is highly recommended as a wonderful social history and a worthy companion piece to Wilson’s earlier history The Victorians.