The Empire Falters, 1900-1919

Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf famously wrote that in December 1910 there was a fundamental change in human nature. A startling remark, prompted perhaps by the dizzying pace of change in the period that led up to World War I. For Woolf, as well as many upper-class Britons, the political, economic, and social stability of the long Victorian era was crumbling.  (Will we be able to look back and pinpoint a similar demarcation in our own times? There’s lots of resonances with our own times in the books below.)

In Britain, industrialization, with the accompanying push for trade unions, was changing the relationships among the classes. Members of Parliament fought over an historic bill that would limit the power of the House of Lords and debated Home Rule for Ireland. Trusted servants were publishing exposés of their employers’ private lives and militant suffragists had taken to the streets. Motor cars, planes, and expanded railway connections had begun to change people’s lives in fundamental ways. In the political sphere, Russia and the European powers were engaged in an arms race that was supposed to guarantee peace but really ensured that armies were at the brink of war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s expansionist adventures and rhetoric, especially his vow to achieve naval supremacy over England, was a threat that spoke directly to the hearts of British Empire builders. Woolf’s perceptive comment recognized that, at least for the British, times were changing in irreversible and unexpected ways.

Perfect SummerJuliet Nicolson, in her book The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just before the Storm, uses the events of that unusually hot, dry season—almost the chronological center point of the era–to provide a snapshot of British life. A year after the death of King Edward VII, the festive coronation of King George V and Queen Mary led off the summer with an historic display of ceremony, royalty, and fashion for the delight of the lower classes. Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe arrived in London and the upper classes fell in love with the supple and sexually charged star Nijinsky; some saw their favorite ballets multiple times. Fabulous country house parties with eight-course dinners–all made possible by armadas of poorly paid servants–provided entertainment and a semblance of activity for the moneyed classes.

But there was more to that summer than conspicuous consumption. The unusually hot, dry weather created tinderbox conditions in the fields and on the streets of the cities. Farmers struggled to find grazing for cattle, trade union organizers and suffragists called for strikes that brought hundreds of thousands into the streets and brought some of the dreadful factory working conditions to public notice. Nicolson puts a personal face on all these events, following a diverse cast of historical figures, among them politicians such as Winston Churchill, writers such as Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke, nobility such as Lady Diana Manners, and union organizers such as Ben Tillett. Her witty and absorbing chronicle catches England on the cusp of the war that would change, if not human nature, then so much else.

Howards EndMany novelists have written about class relationships in the Edwardian period, but possibly none more brilliantly than E. M. Forster in Howards End, published in 1910, a story of three families and the house named Howards End, which draws them together. The upper class Wilcoxes, who have made their fortune in business, are all about “telegrams and anger,” while the middle class Schlegel sisters live for music, literature, and cultured conversation with friends. Leonard Bast, an unhappy insurance clerk, is accidentally drawn into their orbit with dire results. When Mrs. Wilcox bequeaths Howards End to Margaret Schlegel, Forster uses the bequest to expose the gulf among his characters’ values. Beautifully written, witty, and filled with great characterization and sense of the times, Howards End is a wonderful portrait of the contradictions of Edwardian England. The film version, made in 1992, is faithful to the novel and highly recommended.

king kaiser tsarQueen Victoria’s children and grandchildren married into many of the royal families of Europe, creating a far-reaching network of relationships that influenced political alliances. Catrine Clay, in King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War writes about George V of England, Wilhelm II of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas of Russia, first cousins whose tangled relationships contributed to the causes of World War I.  Clay focuses on their personalities and the childhood experiences that shaped them and sheds light on their behavior as rulers. George was the younger brother who never expected to inherit the throne until his older brother Eddy’s unexpected death. Wilhelm and Nicholas were bound to the British royal family through their mothers, although the militaristic Wilhelm and his mother disagreed violently on politics. Tsar Nicholas, who married Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, was ill-equipped by temperament to navigate the violent changes of the Russian Revolution. It’s an enlightening story of how these three cousins affected the course of world history.


AliceI saw an article the other day about the various artists who have illustrated Alice in Wonderland. Sir John Tenniel drew the classic illustrations and even though they hold a sacred place in our hearts, I loved some of the others. Would we have the same feelings about Alice if we had always read it with different illustrations? Here’s a link to Maria Popova’s wonderful “Brain Pickings” blog so you can see some of them.  They range from Salvador Dali to Yayoi Kusama and beyond. My copy of Alice is very old and falling apart; I suspect it was my mother’s.

I loved the poems in Alice and memorized several of them when I was young. I often recite them to myself when I can’t sleep. (It doesn’t help.) The Walrus and the Carpenter was (and is) a favorite, as is the one that begins, “They told me you had been to her and mentioned me to him; she gave me good character but said I could not swim.” And of course the “Jabberwocky“, where the neologisms are so evocative:  “my beamish boy,” the “frumious Bandersnatch,” and “as in uffish thought he stood.” I often feel like I have moments of “uffish thought.”

But the Lewis Carroll poem that holds a special place for me is The Hunting of the Snark, not part of the Alice books, but separately published. As a child it mystified me and it was only by reading it over and over as I grew up that I was able to make sense of the story. I have the Ralph Steadman edition with his grotesquely hilarious drawings. If you don’t know the story of this long poem, it’s about a ship with a strange crew that searches for the fabled Snark. I’ve never read an annotated edition, but I’m sure that it tracks the political issues of Carroll’s day and Victorians would recognize the people and the situations. The search for the Snark is futile, and the last line sums it up: “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” How many of us have searched for Snarks but found Boojums instead?

There’s a refrain in the poem about how diligently the crew searched and I think it can be used to sum up any fraught political era, so I reproduce it here.

They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

I thought the part about charming the Snark “with smiles and soap” quite apt for now or maybe “masks and soap” would be better. 

Julian Grenfell

Great War Modern MemoryLitHub marked Wednesday as the day when Julian Grenfell, the British poet and soldier in the First World War, was shot. He died 13 days later and the following day, his poem, Into Battle, was published in the London Times. I was startled to see the note about Grenfell, which was accompanied by a picture of him in uniform.  I was startled because he’s not someone you hear about often.

Years ago I became interested in the social and literary history of England in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  I began by reading The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell, about how the poems, novels, diaries, and letters of that time reflected and encouraged far-reaching societal changes. Fussell’s book is penetrating, insightful, and heartrending all at once. Hooked on the subject, I then moved on to Children of the Sun: A Narrative of “Decadence” in England After 1918, by Martin Green, which is where I encountered Julian Grenfell. Poor Julian Grenfell. He was a victim of English upper-class idealism about the war: the belief that it was glorious to send one’s son off to die for one’s country and that the war would soon be over anyway, so no worries. The truth was quite different. The fascinating Nicholas Mosley biography, Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of His Death, which I read next, tells how his mother and her social set–“The Souls”–encouraged him to go off to glorious battle. Approximately 750,000 British soldiers were killed and over 1.5 million were wounded in World War I. The trench warfare in France, which is where Grenfell fought and died, was horrific, inflicting psychological damage on the soldiers who managed to survive. The idea of dying a glorious death for one’s country met an inglorious death.

Grenfell’s poem was not included in the LitHub note, so I looked it up. You can read it here

You may have seen the film made from Vera Brittan’s classic memoir Testament of Youth.  As haunting as that movie is, the book is even more powerful. Brittain calls her riveting account “the smashing up of my own youth.” In 1914, at the end of her first year at Oxford, she was engaged to a soldier. Desperate to assist the war effort, she volunteered as a nurse and after rigorous and exhausting training, served at hospitals in Malta and France, where she experienced firsthand the devastation of trench warfare on the Western Front. She lost her fiance, her brother, and her innocence as well. I found it completely absorbing and even cathartic when I read it twenty-five years ago.

These are all older titles, some more easily available than others. I will write again soon about this period, with links to newer, more popular fiction and nonfiction.



Emma Straub and Domestic Fiction

Some additions to my last two posts

Decipherment Linear BRegarding my previous post “A Way With Words,” I was reminded by a friend that John Chadwick worked with Michael Ventris on the unraveling of Linear B and after Ventris’s death, he wrote The Decipherment of Linear B, the book that introduced the general public to their achievement. I haven’t read Chadwick’s book, which first came out in 1958 and then in a second edition in 1990, but now I’m curious to see if it mentions Alice Kober.

Hag SeedI was also thinking some more about my recent post “Shakespeare in Our Time,” particularly Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest, titled Hag-Seed. As always with Atwood, she does something unexpected with the story. It’s not just a retelling of The Tempest, but a story about a teacher using a production of the play as a way to settle old scores. The setting is a prison. It’s a puzzle within a puzzle; quite clever and very entertaining.

That reminded me that a few years ago I saw a film version of Henry IV Part I and II by the Donmar Warehouse with an all-female cast, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. In the film, the play was performed for an audience in a women’s prison. It was unforgettable. If you don’t remember the plot, it’s about Prince Hal, heir to the throne (he will eventually be Henry V), who is more interested in sowing wild oats with the dissolute Falstaff than learning how to be king. He assures his father that he will rise to the occasion when the time comes. (That doesn’t go over too well.) As you can imagine, this tale of sin and redemption resonated with the women prisoners. They were electrified by the play, making the experience memorable for everyone involved, including the audience for the film. Since Shakespeare’s plays were originally produced with all-male casts, this production could be considered a re-writing of theatre history.

A Way With Words

typewriterI don’t know about you, but I receive many emails every day about cultural events and programs that are available free for listening or streaming. Of course, I want to enjoy them all, but at the same time I’m trying desperately to get away from seated activities. If I wore my Fitbit I’m sure a frowny face would show up on the dial at the end of the day.

Despite that resolution, this morning I found the public radio show and podcast A Way with Words, an hour-long program about language that’s like a mashup of Car Talk and Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me. What could be better? And there’s an archive going back to 2007. I’m in. The hosts are Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, a journalist and a lexicographer, respectively. The website has a great feature: synopses of each show, even links to each segment of each show. That way you can pick and choose episodes, or even portions of episodes, that sound interesting to you. I learned about the expressions, “Want an egg in your beer?” and “lie bumps.” Pretty cool.

There are lots of books about language that I’ve enjoyed reading, some of them quite entertaining as well as informative.

I’m a big fan of Guy Deutscher’s books, especially The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest InventionI’ve always been interested in how languages change over time. Deutscher takes this topic seriously but leavens it with cleverness and humor. He upended many of my assumptions. I also read his book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, another fascinating topic that he elucidates with humor.

In a slightly different vein, I loved The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox. In 1900, archaeologist Arthur Evans, excavating in Crete at the ancient site of the Minoan civilization, unearthed a group of clay tablets written in a language hitherto unknown. The language became known as Linear B. It bore no relationship to any other known ancient language as far as linguists could tell and it dated to a thousand years before classical Greece. The race was on to decipher it! How could someone possibly make a start at deciphering a language about which nothing was known? That’s what I wanted to know. If you’ve read elsewhere about Linear B, the solution is usually credited to Michael Ventris, a brilliant architect, classicist, and philologist. However, what’s not usually mentioned, is that Ventris’ solution depended on the painstaking work done by Alice Kober, a college professor in Brooklyn who worked on the text for many years, and brought to light many of the structural issues that allowed Ventris to finish the task shortly after Kober’s death in 1950. Kober rarely receives the credit she deserves. The story of how she began to solve the puzzle of LInear B is a linguistic thriller, entertaining and enlightening in equal parts.




Shakespeare in our time

ShakespeareYesterday I listened to one of the Shakespeare Unlimited podcasts from the Folger Shakespeare Library called Shakespeare and Solace. The hosts asked people to send in their favorite lines from Shakespeare, the ones that they return to over and over. Derek Jacobi recited Sonnet 30, which is quite dark and rather appropriate for this time. It’s easy to pick out, at the surface level, some of the things we are dealing with, but it’s the whole sonnet that offers a timeless description of loss and regret and the consolations of  love that come from friends and family.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.


My own favorite Shakespeare quotes come from Richard II, the play about the failed king who is overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV. The writing is beautiful throughout the play, but I love the line “For heaven’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings” spoken by Richard at a low point in his fortunes. I’m sure it’s hard to appreciate out of context, but I love the rhythm of it as well as how well it characterizes Richard’s state of mind. This is the play that also has those wonderful lines “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,” spoken by John of Gaunt; to my mind one of the most beautiful lines in literature about the love of home.
In an earlier post, I wrote about authors who have used folktales and myths in their fiction. The ongoing Hogarth Shakespeare Series, (a Penguin Random House project), asks well-known authors to re-write Shakespeare’s plays for our times. Eight books have been published in the series. I’ve read several and while you don’t have to be familiar with the original play, it’s fun to see what the authors have done with Shakespeare’s characters and plots. Margaret Atwood’s novel Hag-Seed based on The Tempest; Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl based on Taming of the Shrew; and Jeannette Winterson’s The Gap of Time based on The Winter’s Tale were all great fun to read.