624 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374101985
A. N. Wilson, the English writer and newspaper columnist, has given us a remarkable history of Britain in the 20th Century and a sequel to his earlier book, The Victorians (reviewed by me on August 22nd, 2013 – as I’m sure you knew already) described the rise of empire in the 19th Century; the current volume presents the story of the decline of this selfsame empire. Filled, as it is, with helpful anecdotal support for the main thesis and this makes for pleasurable reading, the main thrust of the work is the analysis of the way in which the pretensions and myths of the Victorian era lingered into the next century and mischievously influenced the events of post-Victorian Britain. Winston Churchill figures prominently in the book, as one would expect: while his public career spanned the first-half of the 20th Century, his worldview was profoundly Victorian – and yet he (ironically, reluctantly) presided over the events of World War II and its aftermath that dismantled the Victorian conceits and ushered Britain into a diminished place in world politics.
Wilson does not miss any of the cultural events that explain or frustrate the decline and this thoroughness adds to the enjoyment of the book. The two volumes of A. N. Wilson’s treatment of empire constitute a fresh way to study the 19th-and-20th-Centuries of Britain. 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. This is a 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, and later trumpets the socialized health plan of the late 1940’s as an act of beneficence beyond the capacities of the US political system (he concedes, however, that without American military force life under Hitler would have been unbearable, consigning the American nation to a kind of necessary evil status; how thoughtful of him).
The first and last chapters of this work convey a different mood than the rest of the work, with 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.