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 enjoywhen not throwing it across the room.
The New York Times
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.
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.
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.
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.
“[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