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"Little Englanders" by Alwyn Turner is a review that portrays a bittersweet moment in British history.

“Little Englanders” by Alwyn Turner is a review that portrays a bittersweet moment in British history.

Alwyn Turner is known for writing wittily about recent eras of British history, with popular culture placed to the fore. Here, he delves further back in time, to that poignant interlude between the death of Queen Victoria and the start of the first world war, when a sort of stodgy calm coexisted with a growing sense of insecurity that seems, in retrospect, entirely justified.

The writer’s amusing writing style is hinted at in his portrayal of the man who lent his name to the era. Unlike his mother Queen Victoria, Edward VII was not as serious and imposing. He had a more carefree and public persona, similar to Henry VIII, although instead of multiple wives, he had many mistresses. According to Turner, he was also skilled in playing the banjo, having been instructed by the talented black musician James Bohee. In his world, the term “Diamond Jubilee” was commonly used to describe one of his racehorses that won the Triple Crown in 1900.

Turner suggests that this was a suitable ruler for this non-heroic era, labeled by John Buchan as “somewhat lacking”. There were not many advancements in technology compared to earlier years. Development was focused on promoting democracy and equality. Herbert Asquith, the Liberal prime minister responsible for implementing national insurance, was the first to not own a country estate.

The age of expansion and excitement in the empire had come to an end, according to Turner, even the violent crimes became more ordinary. Instead of infamous criminals like Jack the Ripper, the Edwardians were captivated by Dr Crippen, a seemingly average and unassuming man who committed a traditional murder. However, this case was extensively covered in the newspapers like never before. Turner believes that the police’s detailed description of Crippen, including his peculiar walking and talking mannerisms, was tailor-made for the booming popular press, particularly Alfred Harmsworth’s Daily Mail. This newspaper revolutionized journalism by focusing on human interests, emotions, and drama rather than just reporting the actions of politicians.

Harmsworth contributed to the era of excitement and marketing, also known as the “age of advertisement.” He hired author Edgar Wallace, known for his self-promotion, as a prominent writer. In response to Harmsworth’s campaign against expensive soap, Wallace wrote a dramatic story about a poor washerwoman. However, it was mostly made up and resulted in a lawsuit from soap company Lever Brothers. This ultimately led to Harmsworth paying the largest libel fine ever given by a British court.

Horatio Bottomley, a successful East End native who was known for his exuberant and extravagant behavior, was both a financier and a Liberal MP. He purchased his own newspaper, the Sun, which was a popular evening paper in London, unlike the current national tabloids. Bottomley’s main tactic was to have famous individuals act as guest editors, such as music hall star Dan Leno. Author Turner admired Bottomley, seeing him as a man of high social standing. When one of his office boys was caught stealing stamps, Bottomley brushed it off, claiming that everyone has to start small. He earned the nickname “Botty” from the chorus girls because he did not deceive or cheat them.

Competitors in the marathon at the 1908 Oympics

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During this era, there were concerns about the impact of mass consumption on individuals. A headmaster from Cambridge expressed his frustration regarding how children now passively engage with entertainment. The presence of a gramophone in the home was seen as contributing to this trend. The Mutoscope, which used a crank to display moving photographs, was a cause for worry. It often showed scandalous content, such as the original version of “What the Butler Saw.” According to Turner, this device represented the cheap and shallow aspects of modern society simply because it was a mechanical invention.

The comparison to modern times is never explicitly stated by Turner, but it remains present throughout the book. The Labour party was established in 1900 by Keir, characterized as “non-doctrinaire.” It was the suffragettes who were causing controversy at the time, often ridiculed in musical performances, but sometimes supported, as seen with “Happy” Fanny Fields and her encouraging words urging women to fight for their rights.

The more sinister radicals – specifically anarchists and syndicalists – were thought to originate from other countries, particularly France. This was believed to be a result of Erskine Childers’s book, The Riddle of the Sands, which warned about Britain’s vulnerability to attack due to its exposed North Sea flank. There was a strong focus on guarding against invasion, possibly influenced by advancements in air travel. This sentiment of vulnerability was also reflected in PG Wodehouse’s novel, The Swoop!, in which various countries attempt to invade Britain but are met with resistance from the scouts, as the British army had been abolished by a socialist government. There was a general feeling that Britain was falling behind Europe in terms of cultural advancements, such as music and art. Turner suggests that if trade barriers were put in place and outside influences were restricted, Britain could potentially avoid any major disruptions.

I did not avoid them, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty for finding the Little Englanders amusing and likable, knowing the terrible fate that awaited them as Edwardians.

  • Little Englanders: Britain in the Edwardian Era by Alwyn Turner is published by Profile (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com