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AFTER THE VICTORIANS THE DECLINE OF BRITAIN IN THE WORLD
By A. N. WILSON
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX Copyright © 2005 A. N. Wilson
All right reserved.
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.
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