Thursday, May 07, 2015

History as snark

In honor of a British election (excellent pre-primer here) in which that nation's electoral system and internal unity seem sorely tested, it seems appropriate to note a charming history from another time. In 1935 the journalist George Dangerfield published The Strange Death of Liberal England--1910-1914 describing a series of trials from which the country was only rescued by the Great War in Europe. In this author's telling, without that patriotic emergency, the contradictions within Britain's transition to a modern democracy might have led to civil war. The signs and violent eruptions were everywhere.

The four presenting crises of this short period were the Conservative (Tory) Party's sabotage of the governing Liberals' legal process to enact the supremacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords; the traumatic divide in Irish nationalism which pitted the island's Catholic majority against Protestant Ulster, secretly abetted by the Tory leader; the upper class women's suffrage rebellion led by the Pankhursts which employed rioting, arson and bombs to agitate for extension of the franchise; and a militant working class movement which evolved from demands for union recognition and a minimum wage through a series of violent general strikes that seemed pointed toward an anarcho-syndicalist revolution. The mildly conventional Liberal Party of that day had no answers for all this ferment (and in fact has been a minor element in British politics ever since.)

All this is fascinating, but the bare facts do not convey the pure delight of Dangerfield's book. This is history as snark, biting and sometimes scathing about the follies of the figures of the day, but also ultimately gentle in its treatment of their unheroic flailing. I often laughed out loud while reading it.

Here's a taste of the style, describing the indomitable and more than slightly crazed upper class element in the women's uprising:

... the revolution was on its way, and the way it took was the way of all revolutions. Its end was a valuable one -- the solidarity of women, the recovery of their proper place in the world; its means were violent and dubious. But no revolution has ever taken place without the sudden, the unbridled uprising of long suppressed classes and long ungratified desires; without cruelty and rage: nor is a revolution anything but the savage assault of right instincts upon wrong ideals. The Georgian suffragette was not personally attractive, or noble, or clairvoyante. People who make history very seldom are. Providence has bestowed upon them an instinctive response to the unrecognized needs of the human soul, and though this response is often wry and more often ridiculous, life could scarcely progress without it.

By 1910 the ideal of personal security through respectability had become putrid: therefore it was necessary that it should die. And to accomplish its death there assembled, crowding up from the depths of the female soul, as uncouth a collection of neglected instincts, hopes, hatreds, and desires as thorough-going a psychological jacquerie, as ever came together at any time in human history ....

Victorian notions of respectability must be killed and there were deaths in the women's revolt, as in the other uprisings described here, though among these women the casualties were mostly a few of the women themselves. It is also worth noting that "Votes for Women" finally began to progress when the excited "respectable" ladies of the Pankhurst faction found themselves allied, not entirely willingly, with working women.

Dangerfield writes in the light of not only what all historians know -- how the story came out -- but also in the looming awareness of that the disruptions of that time turned into the as-yet-unimagined horror of the Great War. The 1914-18 conflict swept all these ripples away and changed the landscape of British democracy forever.

This book is not easy going for an early 21st century reader in the United States. We don't talk or write like this. But I found it delightful -- and quite unique among narrative histories.


Hattie said...

The upper classes could not win the war without everyone's help. The pre-war society that we idolize today was actually a very unequal one, and liberalization post war was necessary. As Piketty explains.
BTW: I had to identify two photos of pizza to post here!

janinsanfran said...

Hattie -- I'm horrified to learn about the pizza identification quiz. As far as I know, I have no control of this. It just asks me to click a box to prove I am "not a robot."

I will say, I only get minimal spam here.

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