A History of Britain Through Books, 1900-1964

Christopher Tugendhat

Whitefox, £18.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

The past is open to interpretation in any number of ways. With hindsight, it’s easy for a historian to shape a narrative, making an outcome seem inevitable, by painting with broad strokes and crowding out opposing voices.

Take, as Christopher Tugendhat does here, the suffragettes, widely thought of nowadays as the spearhead of the early women’s movement. In their day, though, the mainly middle-class suffragettes were not universally liked among campaigners for women’s rights, and their headline-grabbing programme of civil disobedience has, for generations, drawn attention away from more significant advances made in the trade union movement.

That’s just one imbalance found by former European Commissioner Tugendhat as he studied the literature of Britain in the 20th Century up to 1964. The books of the time – like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, which “holds up a mirror to the age in which it was written” – challenge attempts at sweeping generalisations, presenting a much more nuanced picture of what the British thought of current events. Sometimes, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Samuel Butler’s 1903 classic The Way of All Flesh, books can mark the beginning of a new era and a cathartic shrugging-off of the old. Others, like some works by H.G. Wells and John Maynard Keynes, can predict the future with uncanny prescience.

The chapters in Tugendhat’s book cover several particular areas of significance: the passing of the Victorian era, the two World Wars, the Cold War, imperialism, provincial life, feminism, sex and race. A final miscellany draws together writings on the public school system, Elizabeth David’s pivotal book on Mediterranean cookery, Evelyn Waugh’s attitudes towards the press and the landed gentry and two contrasting takes on the Bright Young Things of the 1920s.

Britain’s status as an imperial power is a dominant theme, as is the shadow cast by two World Wars. From contemporary books we can see, for instance, how strong the pacifist movement was in the 1930s, with memories of the Great War still fresh. Far from being universally regarded as cowardly appeasement, Chamberlain’s desire to avert conflict was shared by a large number of people. And, although the strict separation of the classes remained largely intact throughout this period, working class voices, women’s voices and gay voices are straining to make themselves heard, a chorus of anger, resentment and the demand for recognition rising above a general thrum of complacency and colonialism. Tugendhat quotes passages that challenge the accepted version of British unity in the face of war, like Joe Lampton from John Braine’s Room at the Top, who was glad to be captured and made a PoW, and declares: “Let those rich bastards who have all the fun be heroes.”

Ranging from such popular favourites as Lord of the Flies, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists and Nineteen Eighty-Four to weighty analyses like Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Tugendhat’s choices are always pertinent and thought-provoking. He guides us through a vivid and absorbing examination of 20th Century Britain, showing the seeds of a new age taking root in the soil of the old.