Morning Read: After After


For today’s Morning Read, I thought I would finish off AN Wilson’s After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World. This is a very rich book, and if I were teaching history at the graduate level I would use it as the text for a discussion seminar, to keep doctoral candidates from getting lost in their theses. Every one of the thirty-seven chapters makes at least three or four controversial statements — or, rather, statements that were deemed controversial while they still conflicted with official propaganda. Example: the United States deployed nuclear weapons against Japan in order to shorten World War II.

Of course the overwhelming view of those who actually knew about the atomic bomb, and its effects upon human lives, was that its use was an obscenity. Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Szilard were all utterly opposed. It took tremendous lies, of a Goebbelesque scale of magnitude, to persuade two or three generations that instead of being acts of gratuitous mass murder, the bombardments of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were almost benign — first, because they avoided the supposed deaths of half a million American troops (the estimated numbers of casualties had America conquered Japan by an invasion of infantry — a pretext utterly ruled out by the brevity of the time lapse between the dropping of the two weapons); and second, because it was better the weapon should be in the hands of Good Guys rather than truly wicked people such as Hitler or Stalin. Both these views, enlivened with a dash of Bible Christianity, helped to put the President’s mind at rest as he meditated upon it all in his diary.

After the Victorians does not believe in Good Guys, only Better and Worse ones; and there is no guarantee that being a Better Guy today will rule out being much, much Worse tomorrow. (Note to anti-“relativists”: Mr Wilson is gifted with an abiding sense of right and wrong, but he understands the difficulty of knowing one from the other in the heat of crisis. If the book were boiled down to his account of Churchill’s career, it would become more complex than it is.) And because After the Victorian necessarily charts the decline of that fairly recent invention, the British Empire, and covers two world wars as well, the UK is only the principal among many players. The book features not one but two chapters devoted to the “Special Relationship” between Britain and the United States.

After the Victorians, however, quickly turned out to be a bad choice for the Morning Reads. The point of the Morning Read is to familiarize myself, somewhat remedially, with books that I haven’t read. These books are either classics — last year, I read the Aeneid, which I rather despised, and Decameron, which I loved (and which helped me to grasp, for the first time, the fundamentally humanist bent of this blog) — or collections (poems, letters). The encounter is not intended to be very serious, but rather to replicate, as far as possible, the wide range of the college survey course. “So that’s what Moby-Dick is like (and no wonder I avoided it!).” Mr Wilson’s book is utterly incompatible with the speed-dating aspect of the Morning Reads — and certainly with the speed-writing notes that I scribble down afterward.

At the same time, After the Victorians is a difficult book to read alone. As a history, it is not even a secondary source of information. The reader who actually learns things from the book is at a disadvantage to the reader who can attend, instead, to the author’s handling of his material, which is sharp and provocative. My idea of heaven would be a book club that met to discuss one chapter every two or three weeks. We would be in no hurry to finish.