After the Victorians is the type of book that demands to be immediately re-read on completion. Alas, there are so many books and so little time, I shall simply have to content myself with the nuggets of information that percolated through to my less than capacious memory. A N Wilson’s tome follows on from his masterly The Victorians, and many of the characters survive through to the sequel. It’s tempting to think that all the Victorians were conveniently erased in 1901, but many of them continued undiminished, yet slightly bewildered, into the new century.
Wilson has received much criticism for his eclectic style, but this is actually one of the strengths of the book. There have been many conventional, linear histories of the first half of the twentieth century, so his more opinionated approach is welcome. His style is engaging and thought-provoking. As a prodigious writer of non-fiction as well, his interest is piqued as much by the literary figures as by their historical contemporaries. He is something of a magpie, swooping on shiny facts, sometimes chosen for their interest rather than their relevance. If anything, this inspires the reader to delve further into the wider context, thus leading to a richer experience.
Critics have also derided Wilson’s decision to champion “minor” voices such as Hillaire Belloc. Again, this is part of the book’s appeal, as the reader is presented with a perspective other than that of the traditional historical protagonists. Indeed, Wilson is highly iconoclastic, singling out Churchill for particular consideration, and reinforcing our notions of the uselessness of some of his parliamentary predecessors. We are also reminded, lest we forget, that the reasons for war are often economic and based on a very shaky understanding of the issues at stake.
Incisive analysis of some of the major events of the last century are peppered with interesting facts such as that Rupert Brooke was killed by a gnat bite, the Titanic was described as “unsinkable” only after it had sunk, and Louis Mountbatten was known as “Mountbottom”. The reasons for the latter do not require further elucidation. I suspect the wide-ranging nature of the work means that some of the “facts” are questionable, and Wilson is not attempting a particularly objective study. His voice is always in evidence, giving a chatty rather than scholarly air. Particularly pleasing to me was his tendency to rewind to the nineteenth century in order to illuminate a particular concept or event. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I salute him for it.
After the Victorians by A N Wilson