After the Victorians 1901-1953 by A N Wilson

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
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The Independent Culture

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.

Britain's Empire and imperial ambitions are the organising theme around which After the Victorians is arranged, and in its early pages we witness the splendour and pageantry of the Delhi Durbar at the beginning of Edward VII's reign, which symbolised the historic might of British rule in India. But this structural device doesn't work as well as the overarching figure of Queen Victoria did in the first book. Wilson says that he's written a portrait of the age rather than a formal history. However, pursuing the fate of the Empire, central as that undoubtedly is, has led him to produce a book that contains too much political history and more detail than one wants about other parts of Europe in the early 20th century. In the process important aspects of British life are neglected.

The treatment of the First World War is a case in point. Wilson, reasonably enough, shifts some of his focus to an analysis of the war in the East, demonstrating the significance of Turkey's siding with Germany to Britain's struggle for its imperial existence. Yet the war's cultural, social and literary impacts, as well as an assessment of the conflict as a cataclysmic event in the experience of ordinary people, form a large gap in Wilson's pages.

Wilson's judgments on the arts of the period are charmingly idiosyncratic, as one would expect. Thus we are given plenty about Elgar, but nothing about Benjamin Britten; rather more than one can stomach about Rupert Brooke, but nothing on Sassoon or Owen; as for Virginia Woolf, her problem, apparently, was that "she had nothing to write about" - which rather flies in the face of all she had to say about war and peace, the position of women, and imperial patriarchy.

Inevitably, individual taste plays a larger part than usual in the appreciation of a book such as Wilson's. For instance, tragi-comic as the story of the Rector of Stiffkey is (mauled to death by a lion after being defrocked for associating with prostitutes), I would rather have read something about Dick Sheppard, the radio parson, who led the largest pacifist movement in Britain between the wars.

But one can go on picking holes forever, finding fault (there's a right old muddle about the difference between a constitutional suffragist and a militant suffragette), and still finish After the Victorians with a thrill of admiration for Wilson's risk-taking, the extraordinary inclusiveness of his book, and for his seemingly inexhaustible ability to summon up characters from the past - such as Dr Crippen and Ethel LeNeve, "a Tristan and Isolde played out behind lace curtains".

For those of us privileged to watch A N Wilson at work in the British Library's Humanities One Reading Room, assembling the materials for this project, disappearing under piles of books, hogging the photocopier, and chewing on sandwiches from a tiny lunchbox, it's a pleasure to report that, by and large, he's pulled it off.