The Edwardians by Roy Hattersley

It wasn't all women in big hats, you know
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There are two orthodoxies about the Edwardian Age, one more familiar than the other. The familiar one is that it was a golden epoch, symbolised by men in blazers and boaters strolling along the sunlit Thames at Henley arm-in-arm with elegantly long-skirted, parasol-wielding women. The less familiar orthodoxy is that the Edwardian period was one of deep and dramatic change, a vertiginous rather than a golden epoch, whose teetering instabilities had nowhere to go other than the violent plunge into the abyss of 1914.

This latter view was first outlined by George Dangerfield in the 1930s in a book more quoted than read (because more quotable than readable), The Strange Death of Liberal England. It is a version of this thesis, but a much fuller and more interesting one, that Roy Hattersley presents here; and, without paradox, he inadvertently shows that the other version is also true in part.

This educative panorama of the age in which Britain began to wake from its imperial dream is superbly readable. Ambitious in scope, it ranges from the period's politics, about which Hattersley writes with insight reserved to those who have spoken at the despatch box and sat in Cabinet, to the war, sports, science, philosophy, exploration, motor-car and aircraft inventions, diplomacy, theatre and literature of the time.

He does it in what is in effect a series of essays, each surveying its subject in conspectus fashion. In addition to the early chapters on King Edward VII and the period's fascinating politics, the best things in the book are Hattersley's accounts of Edwardian theatre and the evolution of the press. There is rich vein of information throughout: how one wishes that the early hampering effect of the church's involvement in education were understood now, and likewise the fact that the first real militancy in the Irish question came from Unionists, who began the process of arming and drilling to threaten civil war - in effect, against the very polity that they did not wish to leave.

Hattersley's portrait of the long Edwardian decade's drama and fiction is the more valuable because attitudes towards its literature are often distorted by two things. One is universal agreement about the vileness of what came to be known as "Georgian" poetry, including as it does the horrors of Sir Henry ("Play up! Play up! and play the game!") Newbolt, and the bathetic Alfred Austen, Poet Laureate. The other is a universal mistake to the effect that the period includes the major Bloomsburys, Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, who did not begin to function until the period was over. But in the theatre there were Shaw, Galsworthy, Pinero, Barrie, Granville-Barker and J M Synge, and writing novels were H G Wells, E M Forster, Henry James (English for these purposes), Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy again, Buchan, Conrad and Lawrence (and among the numerous and lively crowd of also-rans, G A Henty and Bram Stoker).

The British way of politics is periodic self-paralysis through eternal adversarial partisanship and bickering, intermitted by elective tyranny as the only way that a government can get anything done. It was the landslide Liberal victory of 1906 that produced the government that dominated the Edwardian era, a remarkably radical and reforming one in many ways, at least in intention, and of course the one that at last succeeded in gelding the House of Lords. But its attempts at reforming education, trades union laws and censorship, and to introduce pensions, unemployment benefits and health provision, were partial successes only, for the perennial reasons: timidity, botched compromise, temporisation, party squabbling, teeth-sucking over cost, and the general downward thrust of our absurd yah-boo Parliamentary methods.

Hattersley's mainly dispassionate account of the politics and political personalities of the era is riveting, and that includes his account of the birth of Labour, unhagiographically described as a minor if portentous part of the whole. If there is one thing that mars the dispassion, it is Hattersley's distaste for Winston Churchill. Try as he might, Hattersley cannot make the Edwardian phase of this extraordinary man uninteresting. Despite himself, Hattersley shows that Churchill was bold, imaginative, a reformer, a man above party - his criss-crossing of the floor of the Commons is standardly regarded as opportunism and want of principle, but the truth is that party piety was too trivial a constraint for an ego of such ambition and talent.

Despite typographical and factual errors here and there, this is a handsome book. Written with style, grace and wit, it is informative and perceptive, and for the first time brings the whole history of Edwardian Britain into a single focus for the general reader. The task required an author of wide accomplishments, ranging from practical insight into politics, a historian's skills, and literary talent: and here it has abundantly found them.

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