Book review: The Fateful Year: England 1914 by Mark Bostridge


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The Independent Culture

British history is scattered with lost Edens. Before the Normans imposed their foreign ways, before the agricultural enclosures, before the industrial revolution vomited its dark satanic mills on to the landscape. One of the most tenacious is that of Edwardian England before the carnage of the First World War. The nation, atop of one of the greatest empires ever seen, was supreme, secure in its superiority and confidence, the entire edifice gilded by glorious summers and bounteous harvests.

With admirable clear-eyed precision, the  historian Mark Bostridge gently dissects this picture as he examines the events of 1914 in England. It opens with accounts of the new dance craze – the all-too-suggestive Tango, which Lady Layland-Barratt opined was too immodest for girls of refinement.

The less refined sections of society were riveted by the macabre details of the Liverpool sack murder and the mystery of five-year-old Willie Starchfield’s death. Young Willie, born into poverty, vanished while running an errand to a local shop. His body was later found strangled, stuffed beneath a seat on the 4.14pm train from London’s Chalk Farm, and his father tried and acquitted of the murder, which remains unsolved. Similar discord clouded the idyll elsewhere. Ireland was on the brink of civil war with armed men drilling across the country as the Home Rule Bill struggled through Parliament. Another monstrous regiment provoking outrage was that of Emmeline Pankhurst and her suffragette supporters. Added to this was the growing power of organised labour as it flexed its might in the form of strikes and disputes.

Once war came there were spies everywhere. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, when the tune for “The Lark Ascending” came to him during a cliff walk overlooking the Channel, took out his notebook only to find himself arrested, and cautioned for allegedly making maps.

By the year’s end, what innocence remained was exploded as the German fleet bombarded Scarborough and Hartlepool killing 136 including women and children.

Bostridge makes no claims to write a comprehensive history of 1914. His eye for interesting detail and his storytelling skills will certainly make this book stand out amid the salvo of volumes on the subject that will be fired by publishers this year. Oh, and that magical summer? The truth of it got mislaid somewhere together with our innocence. It was dull, wet and balmy.