After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World
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After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World

by A. N. Wilson

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The distinguished historian A.N. Wilson has charted, in vivid detail, Britain's rise to world dominance, a tale of how one small island nation came to be the mightiest, richest country on earth, reigning over much of the globe. Now in his much anticipated sequel to the classic The Victorians, he describes how in little more than a generation Britain's power and


The distinguished historian A.N. Wilson has charted, in vivid detail, Britain's rise to world dominance, a tale of how one small island nation came to be the mightiest, richest country on earth, reigning over much of the globe. Now in his much anticipated sequel to the classic The Victorians, he describes how in little more than a generation Britain's power and influence in the world would virtually dissolve.

In After the Victorians, Wilson presents a panoramic view of an era, stretching from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 to the dawn of the cold war in the early 1950s. He offers riveting accounts of the savagery of World War I and the world-altering upheaval of the Communist Revolution. He explains Britain's role in shaping the destiny of the Middle East. And he casts a bright new light on the World War II years: Britain played a central role in defeating Germany but at a severe cost. The nation would emerge from the war bankrupt and fatally weakened, sidelined from world politics, while America would assume the mantle of dominant world power, facing off against the Soviet Union in the cold war. Wilson's perspective is not confined to the trenches of the battlefield and the halls of parliament: he also examines the parallel story of the beginnings of Modernism-he visits the novelists, philosophers, poets, and painters to see what they reveal about the activities of the politicians, scientists, and generals.

Blending military, political, social, and cultural history of the most dramatic kind, A.N. Wilson offers an absorbing portrait of the decline of one of the world's great powers. The result is a fresh account of the birth pangs of the modern world, as well as a timely analysis of imperialism and its discontents.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[A] fast-moving, vivid, sharp-tongued portrait of Britain in the first half of the twentieth century . . . A book readers will devour with relish.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)

“Cleverly organized, engagingly written, and rich in content.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A magnificent achievement . . . it could hardly be bettered.” —The New Criterion

“A work of affectionate memory . . . fueled by moral passion combined with irrepressible satire.” —The Boston Globe

“[A] vigorous, lively, and winningly eccentric work of synthesis and argumentation.” —The Spectator (London)

“Wilson's narrative skills, eye for an anecdote, and entertaining style should ensure a considerable audience for this lively, provocative, and thoroughly idiosyncratic history.” —The Wilson Quarterly

Walter Olson
A. N. Wilson, the prolific English journalist and author who won applause three years ago with The Victorians, has returned with a second popular history tackling the half-century between Victoria's death in 1901 and the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. As before, he has sought to render "a portrait of an age, rather than a formal history." Cleverly organized, engagingly written and rich in content, After the Victorians proceeds to some utterly wrongheaded conclusions. It is a book to enjoy—when not throwing it across the room.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
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.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Novelist, biographer, historian, Wilson has once again brought his gifts as a man of letters to the study of his country's history, dealing in this case with the United Kingdom from 1900 to 1953. Wilson is above all fascinated by personalities (Winston Churchill) and by what writers (Henry James), poets (T. S. Eliot), popular artists (Noël Coward), and entertainers (Laurel and Hardy) can tell us about the culture and trends of an age, and this work is a brilliantly written, opinionated, kaleidoscopic discourse on the colossal events of the period. If Wilson's judgments on artists are sometimes harsh, his opinions of political figures are often devastatingly right. His defense of the constitutional monarchy is indicative of his love for both liberty and moderation. The theme that dominates the book — insofar as there is one — is nostalgia: aware of all that was wrong with the British Empire, Wilson nevertheless conveys a strong sense of regret at how World War II forced the United Kingdom to leave the future of the globe to the Americans and the Russians. Wilson's ability to see the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 as both "a splendid piece of patriotic pageantry" and "a consoling piece of theatre" is what gives this quite original Cook's tour its bittersweet charm.
Library Journal
Accomplished historian and biographer Wilson (The Victorians) continues his comprehensive study of Britain. This history essentially summarizes and analyzes the first five decades of the 20th century in Britain and its related territories. Wilson is nothing if not thorough, managing to combine political, economic, social, and cultural history in a well-organized manner. The death of Queen Victoria brought to an end the dominance of the United Kingdom. When her wastrel son Edward VII ascended the throne, Britain began its slow but steady decline. Much of the book is dedicated to the events and decisions that led to the loss of much of the British Empire. Interestingly, Wilson positions Winston Churchill as the embodiment of this time period. When Churchill had to convince Franklin Roosevelt to join World War II, Wilson suggests that Churchill knew that this was the beginning of the ascendance of the United States as the dominant world power. Wilson occasionally provides welcome amusing anecdotes, but in general, the book is rather dry. The choice of illustrations is very good, as is the extensive notes section. This thorough study is recommended mostly for scholarly collections. (Index not seen.) [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/05.]-B. Allison Gray, John Jermain Memorial Lib., Sag Harbor, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Empires come and go, though seldom as suddenly and thoroughly as Great Britain's fall from world dominance. Many Britons celebrated Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953 as a sign that all the rationing and shortages and general gloominess of the immediate postwar era were over. Wilson (London, 2003, etc.) will have none of it: The coronation, he writes, was "a consoling piece of theatre, designed to disguise from themselves the fact that the British had . . . lost an empire and failed to find a role." If the collapse of empire seemed swift, it was a long time in coming; Wilson locates the decline in the trenches of WWI, in growing independence movements throughout the colonies, but especially in the backroom diplomatic angling of WWII, when putative allies seem simply to have outfoxed the clever British prime minister. "All Churchill's cherished war plans-to guard and fight for the Eastern Mediterranean, to protect the British Empire by land in the Far East, to liberate Poland, and above all to establish a strong and united postwar Europe-were swept aside at Tehran by Roosevelt and Stalin," Wilson writes. The world surely would have been different had it been otherwise, for, as Wilson argues early on, Britain, though conservative and monarchical, championed the ideals of personal liberty while supposedly revolutionary Russia and Germany destroyed them; though a few tried to assume the roles, Britain spawned no Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin of its own to struggle to keep its empire, and democracy endured. Throughout, Wilson writes appreciatively, and without false sentimentality, of the old England of bicycles and weekend picnics and Agatha Christie. A lucid companion to The Victorians(2003), and a fine work of social history of a world gone by.

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Copyright © 2005 A. N. Wilson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-374-10198-1

Chapter One

Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Kaiser

In 1900 there was published in Vienna one of the most extraordinary and revolutionary texts ever to come from a human brain. Die Traumdeutung (The Interpretation of Dreams) expounded the theory on which all subsequent psychoanalysis was based, even or especially those psychoanalytical theories which reacted most violently against it: namely, that the human mind consists of what might be described as two layers. With the outer layer, of our conscious mind, we reason and form judgements. In reasonable, well-balanced individuals, the pains and sorrows of childhood have been worked through, put behind them. With the unhealthy, however, neurotic or hysterical individuals, there is beneath the surface of life a swirling cauldron of suppressed memories in which lurk the traumas (the Greek word for wounds) of early experiences. Under hypnosis, or in dreams, we re-enter the world of the subconscious and with the care of a helpful analyst we can sometimes revisit the scenes of our early miseries and locate the origins of our psychological difficulties. The author of this world-changing book, Dr Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), was a happily married neurologist, born in the Moravian town of Freiberg, but for most of his life resident in Vienna, hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where his consulting room in Berggasse 19, Vienna IX (from 1931), and his celebrated couch, on which patients lay to recite their sorrows, became a totemic emblem of the century which was to unfold. The need to return to some forgotten, irrational, dark place of our lost past became compelling, personal and collective, as the hysteria of the twentieth century reached its crescendo-point and as Dr Freud, a Jew, though a non-believing one, packed his belongings and took his family to live in London for the last year of his life, following the Anschluss, the joining together of Germany and Austria into a Great Germany, Grossdeutschland. He had already had the honour of having his books burned in Berlin in 1933, and in 1938 they were burned in Vienna.

On the publication of Die Traumdeutung, there were many people who, if not actually tempted to burn the book, must have found its contents shocking.

If Oedipus the King is able to move modern man no less deeply than the Greeks who were Sophocles' contemporaries, the solution can only be that the effect of Greek tragedy does not depend on the contrast between fate and human will, but is to be sought in the distinctive nature of the subject-matter exemplifying this contrast. There must be a voice within us that is ready to acknowledge the compelling force of fate in Oedipus ... His fate moves us only because it could have been our own as well, because at our birth the oracle pronounced the same curse upon us as it did on him. It was perhaps ordained that we should all of us turn our first sexual impulses towards our mother, our first hatred and violent wishes against our father. Our dreams convince us of it. King Oedipus, who killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, is only the fulfilment of our childhood wish. But, more fortunate than he, we have since succeeded, at least insofar as we have not become psychoneurotics, in detaching our sexual impulses from our mothers, and forgetting our jealousy of our fathers.

Dr Freud, further, told his Vienna lecture audiences: 'The dream of having sexual intercourse with the mother is dreamed by many today as it was then, and they recount it with the same indignation and amazement [as Oedipus].

Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, succeeded his mother Queen Victoria upon her death at half-past six in the evening on 22 January 1901, and became King Edward VII. He had waited a long time. 'Most people pray to the Eternal Father,' he had quipped, 'but I am the only one afflicted with an Eternal Mother.' If he ever had dreams about his mother of the kind believed by Dr Freud to be so usual, he did not record them for posterity. Queen Victoria did, however, believe that Bertie, as he was always known in his own family, in effect achieved half of the Oedipal destiny by killing his father, Prince Albert.

An indiscretion with an actress, Nellie Clifden, at the Curragh Camp near Dublin had brought Bertie's name into the newspapers, and his serious German father, embarrassed, angry and distressed, had gone to Cambridge, where Bertie was an undergraduate, to remonstrate with him during a wet evening in November 1861. A bad cold had turned to fever, and within a few weeks the doctors had diagnosed typhoid, almost certainly caused by the drains at Windsor Castle, one of the Prince Consort's obsessions, and hardly to be blamed on poor Bertie. Nevertheless, it was, from the very first moment of her widow's grief, one of the Queen's obsessions that Bertie's 'fall' had caused 'beloved Papa's demise', aged forty-two.

'Poor unhappy Bertie,' wrote the distraught mother a few weeks after Albert died, to Bertie's elder sister, the Crown Princess of Prussia, 'much as I pity I never can or shall look at him without a shudder as you may imagine'. And again: 'If you had seen [your husband] struck down, day by day get worse and finally die, I doubt whether you could bear the sight of the one who was the cause.'

By the time he inherited his kingdom, Edward VII was fifty-nine years old; at 67 inches high, he weighed 225 pounds. In some outward terms, he was not an obvious case of a man who bore any resentment of his upbringing by parents who had clearly deplored in equal measure his limitations of intellect and his lack of morals. For example, at a public dinner, when mentioning his father, he had burst into tears.

The speed with which he dismantled any physical reminders of his parents, however, tells its own story. In Windsor Castle, and in Buckingham Palace, the new monarch walked about cheerfully with a cigar stuck between his lips, Caesar, his long-haired white fox terrier, trotting at his heels, his hat still on his head as he cleared out and destroyed his father's and mother's memory. In these rooms, where smoking had always been forbidden, the obese, bronchitic king coughed, puffed smoke and gave orders that hundreds of 'rubbishy old coloured photographs' be destroyed. Busts and statues of John Brown, his mother's faithful Highlander, were smashed; the papers of the Munshi, Queen Victoria's beloved Indian servant, were burned. The huge collection of relics of the Prince Consort, undisturbed since his untimely death forty years earlier, was sent to the muniment room in Windsor's Round Tower. While getting rid of his parents' old rubbish, he also took the opportunity to extend the telephone networks, install new bathrooms and lavatories, and to convert coach houses into garages for the cars of his nouveaux riches friends. 'Alas!' Queen Alexandra wrote to Edward VII's sister, now the Empress Frederick, in Berlin. 'During my absence, Bertie has had all your beloved Mother's rooms dismantled and all her precious things removed.'

The most significant of the new king's anti-parental gestures was his decision to close Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and make it, jointly, a Royal Naval College for young cadets and a convalescent home for retired officers. There is an apocryphal story told at Osborne of a visitor coming down the drive in the 1920s and seeing twenty or thirty elderly gentlemen of military or naval deportment, some in bath chairs and covered with plaid rugs, some strolling on the lawn. The visitor was waggishly told: 'Those are the Prince Consort's illegitimate children!' It would not be funny if, instead of referring to the priggishly monogamous Albert, the joker had claimed the old gentlemen to be children of the notoriously lecherous Edward VII. What the joke points up is the fact that the Prince Consort's real children were no longer there in the Italian palazzo which he had so lovingly built in the 1840s. It was where the distraught queen had spent the greater part of her long widowhood, and it was where she had died.

As the old queen lay dying in January 1901, Henry James, wisest of commentators, had written from his London club, the Reform, to American friends:

I feel as if her death will have consequences in and for this country that no man can foresee. The Prince of Wales is an arch-vulgarian (don't repeat this from me); the wretched little 'Yorks' are less than nothing; the Queen's magnificent duration had held things magnificently - beneficently - together and prevented all sorts of accidents. Her death, in short, will let loose incalculable forces for possible ill. I am very pessimistic.

To another American, when the queen had actually died, he wrote:

We grovel before fat Edward - E. The Caresser, as he is privately named ... But I mourn the safe and motherly old middle-class queen, who held the nation warm under the fold of her big, hideous, Scotch-plaid shawl and whose duration had been so extraordinarily convenient and beneficent. I fear her death much more than I should have expected; she was a sustaining symbol - and the wild waters are upon us now.

James bids his compatriots to mourn Victoria, 'for she was always nice to us'. His novelistic antennae caught, as political commentary might have failed to do, the vulnerability of the most powerful nation upon Earth, at the apogee of its pre-eminence.

From the perspective of over one hundred years, we look back to the early years of the twentieth century and see the Edwardian world through the mayhem of slaughters and revolutions which followed. Knowing what is to come will influence two quite different approaches. 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 in the troubled situation in the Empire, the terrible living conditions of the urban poor, the twin growth of nationalism and military technology, a terrifying howl of ancestral voices prophesying war. Both those opposing polarities will focus some of their thoughts upon the monarchy. After all, 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. Some readers of history will continue to see that upturning of thrones to be, in the Cromwellian phrase, a cruel necessity. Others will 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.

Those who lean towards the latter view, as I do myself, need to be clear in their minds what they are saying. While it might be true that the evolved monarchical system and a liberalized aristocracy in Britain undoubtedly did help to maintain a rule of law, a continuity with stabler days, in a way that revolutionary wars did not, it would be absurd to suggest that the monarchs themselves had very much to do with it. Faced with the military or economic disasters which befell some other European countries, it is unlikely that any of the four British monarchs of the first half of the twentieth century would have been able to withstand the rise of a British Lenin or a British Mussolini. It was often what they did not do, rather than what they did, which strengthened the monarchs' roles. The notion that beneath a deceptive appearance there lurked profound political acumen in the monarchs who reigned from 1901 to 1952, in Edward, George, Edward or George, is to be resisted. It is to overlook the truth of what Henry James intuited as he witnessed the passing of Victoria, the removal of 'a sustaining symbol'. This is not to say that Edward VII, who was personally amiable, did not have some aptitude for oiling diplomacy. His chief virtue, politically, however, was that he allowed that side of things, almost exclusively, to be handled by professional politicians.

'He subscribes to his cripples, rewards his sailors, reviews his soldiers and opens bridges, bazaars, hospitals and railway tunnels with enviable sweetness,' said Mrs Asquith, the wife of his Liberal prime minister. Lord Fisher said of him: 'He wasn't clever, but he always did the right thing, which is better than brains.' No one would have said this of the king's Prussian nephew Willy.

If genial, self-indulgent and in many respects well-adjusted Edward VII would have been a disappointing subject for a psychoanalyst, the same could not be said for his nephew, the German Emperor Wilhelm II. Nor is this simply a matter of interest to doctors or to royal obsessives. It is now generally recognized that the Kaiser, an autocratic ruler with immense power over his 68 million subjects, was governed in his foreign policy by the profound psychological complexity of his attitude to his mother. There is first the very matter of his birth, in 1858, to Queen Victoria's eldest child - herself named Victoria - and Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia. Princess Victoria insisted upon English doctors, and only English doctors, being present at the birth, which took place in Berlin. She always blamed herself for the fact that his arm was deformed, apparently as a result of clumsy midwifery. For the first few years of his life she was in denial about the withered arm, and throughout his youth she feared that it would warp his manliness or his independence. When he was eight and a half his tutor, Hinzpeter, was instructed by Princess Victoria to make sure that the disabled little boy could retain his balance on a horse. In Hinzpeter's words:

The tutor, using a moral authority over his pupil that had now become absolute, set the weeping prince on his horse without stirrups and compelled him to go through the various paces. He fell off continually: every time, despite his prayers and tears, he was lifted up and set upon its back again. After weeks of torture, the difficult feat was accomplished: he had got his balance.

Princess Victoria's anxiety for the moral and intellectual development of her son was no less demanding. She hero-worshipped her father Prince Albert, whose liberal politics were greatly at odds with the autocratic militarism of the Prussian Junkers. She abominated Bismarck, who rallied the conservative and militaristic elements of the country, with triumphant effect, to unify the German states under Prussia and with their victory over France in 1870 to create the unified Reich of modern Germany. Wilhelm was just twelve when Germany was born - the existence of the Reich was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles as a triumphant gesture at the end of the Franco-Prussian war - and just thirty when in June 1888 his father, who had only been Emperor for ninety-nine days, died of throat cancer.

Vicky was quite as savage and violent towards her son the future Kaiser as Queen Victoria had been to Bertie. When the teachers at the horrible gymnasium at Kassel, which the boy was compelled to attend, humiliated and criticized him, Vicky redoubled their attacks by letter. 'I am so sorry to hear that you are so bad at your mathematics & so behindhand compared with other boys! I fear you fancy yourself far more perfect in many things than you really are, and you will have to find out by experience how little you really do know ...' But it is one thing to find out from experience and another to hear no praise from a parent, no positive response to any effort.

Willy responded with heart-rending letters from the gymnasium about his somewhat disturbing dreams:

I dreamt last night that I was walking with you & another lady ... you were discussing who had the finest hands, whereupon the lady produced a most ungraceful hand, declaring it was the prettiest and turned us her back. I in my rage broke her parasol; but you put your dear arm round my waist, led me aside, pulled your glove off ... & showed me your dear beautiful hand which I instantly covered with kisses.


Excerpted from AFTER THE VICTORIANS by A. N. WILSON Copyright © 2005 by A. N. Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

A. N. Wilson, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, holds a prominent position as a writer and journalist. He is the author of many critically acclaimed works, including The Victorians, Paul, and My Name is Legion.

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