When this book begins, in the reign of Edward VII, Great Britain commands the mightiest empire the world has ever seen. By the time it ends, with the Coronation of Elizabeth II, Britain has emerged victorious from a world war, but ruined as a world power. How did Britain's power and influence decline? This is one of the questions which A. N. Wilson seeks to answer in his masterly follow-up to The Victorians.
Wilson an estimable novelist and historian has written a splendid sequel to The Victorians, describing the vanished world of his "parents' generation" between 1901 and 1953. Wilson eschews a rigidly chronological narrative in favor of unveiling a colorful, quirky "portrait of an age." Encompassing everything from high politics through middlebrow pursuits to low culture, this book displays Wilson's magpie-ish talent for the telling detail, the amusing anecdote and the wry observation to delightful effect. Reading it, one feels with Wilson a wistful, admiring pang for these post-Victorians, who were born at the zenith of British power and died just as their great empire slipped away. What they left, argues Wilson, was a heritage of defending a peculiarly British form of liberty; what succeeded them was government by a bureaucratic class of "colourless, pushing people controlling others for the sake of control." The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 provides Wilson with a fittingly elegiac conclusion: This "splendid piece of religio-patriotic pageantry" may have justly celebrated "peace, freedom, prosperity," but it was also a "consoling piece of theatre" that temporarily obscured the reality of America's new dominance. 32 pages of illus.