Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Lament for a Lost Past; Books: A.N. Wilson Has Written a History of the First Half of the 20th Century That Perfectly Captures the Era

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Lament for a Lost Past; Books: A.N. Wilson Has Written a History of the First Half of the 20th Century That Perfectly Captures the Era

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL BURLEIGH

After the Victorians by A.N. Wilson (Hutchinson [pounds sterling]25)

WILSON is a historian and novelist of such industry and fluency that it may repay thinking about what is distinctive about how he writes history. His always readable After the Victorians provides a splendid occasion for this task, since it contains several explicit pointers to how he conceives of the subject.

Although Britain in the half-century between the death of Victoria and the accession of Elizabeth II is his primary focus, Wilson's is never a provincial perspective. The reader quickly finds himself consuming insights derived from the US, the Indian subcontinent, Russia, Germany and the Middle East, all of which Wilson alights upon in his powerful narrative.

He is also convinced that on many occasions, a novelist or poet can express something essentially true about the age, which is why this book abounds with sensitive portraits of the major literary figures: Henry James, George Orwell, Anthony Powell and John Cowper Powys among them.

While many professional historians have become "unmusical" about religion, especially if their own creed is Marxism, the author of God's Funeral - one of the best books ever written on religious doubt - gives as much attention to the traditional faith as he does to such newer credulities as science.

He is not afraid to work by poetic association, so that rather than labouring a "methodology" or imposing some theoretical straitjacket, Wilson follows wherever his thoughts take him, exploring such things as crossword puzzles, murder mysteries and Thomas the Tank Engine.

Wilson eschews the sub-Weberian refusal to make explicit moral judgments, which has become the preferred posture of academic historians whose implicit judgments adorn every page they publish. A generation of Bloomsbury artistes are described as "the silly generation", while the wartime dictators are dismissed as gangsters running "brigand states" in a manner reminiscent of the despairing aristocrat Reck-Malleczewen.

All modern politicians, except Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan, are dispatched as colourless nonentities; by contrast, Wilson finds nice things to say about Edward VIII, the murderer Dr Crippen and Harold Davidson, the errant Rector of Stiffkey, who caused a sex scandal involving teenage girls and was mauled to death while appearing with Freddie the lion at Skegness amusement park. …

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