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The Victorian Dance of Death

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

The Victorian Aftermath. By Esme Wingficld-Stratford. New York: William Morrow and Company. $3.50.

In response to the demand on the part of critics of “Those Earnest Victorians” and “The Victorian Sunset,” that the author state his thesis and pronounce his verdict on the period which he delineates, Mr. Wingfield-Stratford, in “The Victorian Aftermath,” finishes his trilogy with that massive singleness of effect which comes of uniting with his vivid historical imagination a definite historical judgment and a philosophical grasp of pervading themes. We may not always agree with his conclusions, and we may reject his premises; but we can hardly fail to be moved by the spectacle he conjures up, of that magnificent doomed procession which began with such faith and energy in the days of Manchester and Macaulay, and which ended in the conflagration touched off by a Black-Hander in Serbia. The informing theme throughout the author’s narrative is taken from biology. “Life is a perpetual endeavor of the creature to adapt itself to environment. . . . History is strewn with the wreckage of civilizations that failed to adapt themselves—failed, that is to say, to produce minds of the requisite wisdom or resource.” The conclusion is Spenglerian in its implications: “The history of Victorian and Edwardian England is essentially that of Western civilization in its latest, not impossibly its final phase.” Such a conclusion, the author is well aware, will inevitably provoke from some quarters the charge of libel, or at least of indulging in an eloquent and empty jeremiad. In reply to such charges, as well as in answer to the sceptics who attribute the debacle of 1914-1918 to the workings of blind chance, he is content to quote the Duke of Wellington: “If you can believe that, you can believe anything.” Appropriately enough, “The Victorian Aftermath” begins with a chapter entitled “Marcia Funebre” and ends with one entitled “Over the Edge.” In Queen Victoria’s funeral procession there rode “a bull-necked, eupeptic individual just verging on middle-age, the Anchduke who was afterwards to be launched into fame and eternity at Serajevo.” It is such historical phenomena as this, it might be observed, together with strikingly interwoven events and the rise of ironically appropriate symbols, which make one hope that a “flame-picture” of the era may yet be painted by the imagination of another Carlyle. The Titanic was in itself the symbol of an epoch; it was no less comfortable and unsinkable than the age which produced it: yet “that other unsinkable ship called Civilization had only two more years to race over smooth waters before her safety likewise was called in question.” As for the age itself, its central failure was a failure in leadership. And the author’s chapters rightly deal, alternately, with the breakdown of political control and with widespread social intransigency. Whatever unity there had been in Victoria’s middle years had now dissolved; the Edwardians could only agree on what not to believe. The world now made overt what had long been rigidly concealed: that each class or faction might as well pursue its own selfish ends, since no principle of synthesis was to be hoped for. In the piping times that followed, any warning voice rose only to be drowned in the universal cry for madder music and for stronger wine. The old prophets of disaster, Carlyle, An-nold, Ruskin, “quietly faded out of fashion, like the frock-coat,” and there was no one to ask, “In a world where nothing was sacred, nothing certain, could anything be safe?” It is in these years, we note, that there appears for the first time that ominous cleavage between the academic specialist, who returns the public’s scorn with a subtler disdain, and the popular publicist-leaders like Shaw, Wells, and Chesterton, who “debase the coinage of thought by the alloy of journalism.” Politicians fall to sowing the seeds of Germanophobia, and to pushing Ireland to the brink of rebellion and civil war; labor conceives the idea of the general strike; orthodoxy, now bankrupt, gives way to the fashion for being “advanced in one’s thinking”; science continues to amass facts about nature and leaves man with his age-old ignorance of himself; all things are “speeded up,” yet every one is bored; the world has at last produced the first “age of nerves.” It is in this atmosphere of sultry tenseness, of triviality and imbalance, of excitement and tedium, of much “knowledge” and little wisdom, that the materials of war are ignited. “The mob, obedient to mass suggestion,” and led by “leaders without light,” goes “over the edge.”

In this brilliant, trenchant book we have an admirable analysis of both the pre-War and post-War dilemma, the first by explicit statement, the second by a compelling inference. Indeed, all of the author’s major judgments on Edwardian England may profitably be transposed into the present tense. And it is one of the author’s services to the present that he depicts the tragic background against which we stand confronted with a menacing future. “I am aware,” he says dryly, “that a plain, unvarnished account of the years immediately preceding the War reads rather like the chronicle of a vast asylum, . . . but the proceedings may appear sane and reasonable compared with what is going on to-day.”


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