BOOKS: HISTORY: The Empire Strikes One as Quite Peculiar ; the Half-Century Following the Death of Victoria Is a Tale of British Decline. Luckily, Says Mark Bostridge, A N Wilson Knows How to Spice It Up in the Telling
Bostridge, Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
After the Victorians 1901-1953
By A N Wilson
HUTCHINSON pounds 25
pounds 22.50 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
In the opening paragraphs of his new book, the sequel to his 2002 bestseller, The Victorians, A N Wilson describes the publication, just as the 20th century was dawning, of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. In this epoch-making work, the Oedipal impulse is outlined. Man dreams of sexual intercourse with his mother while entertaining jealous fantasies of killing his father.
Moving quickly on, with barely the flicker of an eyebrow, Wilson proceeds to draw a parallel between Freud's theories and the real- life mother and son relationship of Queen Victoria and Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who became Edward VII on his mother's death in January 1901. 'If he ever had dreams about his mother of the kind believed by Dr Freud to be usual, he did not record them for posterity. Queen Victoria did, however, believe that Bertie ... in effect achieved half of the Oedipal destiny by killing his father, Prince Albert.'
This passage captures very well A N Wilson's approach to the writing of modern British history: the flip, provocative, sometimes saucy, often amusing, aside, buttressed by an impressive depth of reading, with a clever journalistic ability to yoke together seemingly unrelated subjects as a source of further enlightenment. Most of all, After the Victorians, like its predecessor, succeeds very well in showing off its author's talent for weaving pieces of historical ephemera into the framework of a larger narrative. Like a magpie, hopping about, searching for shiny objects, Wilson finds the flotsam and jetsam of history irresistible. Here are a few examples. Circumcision among the professional classes apparently declined as the Empire did. The year 1936 was marked by 'a phenomenal lack of sunshine'. In exile, the former Wilhelm II had to put up with the restaurant in which his sister's husband worked advertising that diners would be served by the ex-Kaiser's brother-in-law.
This is all very enlivening, and the period chosen by Wilson, from the death of Victoria to the accession of Elizabeth II in 1953, needs all the help, in terms of lighter material, that it can get. For this, in contrast to the earlier volume, is essentially the story of a nation in decline. Even Britain's finest hour in 1940 and victory in the Second World War five years later is a climax that all too rapidly falls into the shadows as the extent of the country's uncertain future is revealed.
Wilson doesn't stint in his presentation of Churchill as the man of the hour 'in an almost superhuman mould'; but neither does he withhold the high price of Britain's sacrifice, bankrupt and looking forward to 'increasing decrepitude and senility' with the loss of India and, eventually, of its African empire as well. The book ends with Dean Acheson's (rather overused) adage that Britain had lost an empire and failed to find a role. …