Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Age of Elegance, by Arthur Bryant

This yellowing hardback belongs to my father, and I borrowed it from him. He owns a series of Arthur Bryant history books, who was a popular historian just after the Second World War. Arthur Bryant’s star has faded badly since, and questions have been raised about his scholarship and his personal political views. He was not an academic historian, unearthing facts from original documents, but he was a synthesiser of others works, relying on his own eloquence and interpretation to appeal to his readers. Indeed he is a good writer – clear and colourful, perhaps even florid. Some critics have accused him of plagiarism – at least in his books on Pepys.

In this book he covers the period 1812 – 1822. This seemingly limited time span covers some important events, crucial to the history of this nation, including the invasion of France by Wellington’s army, the peace-making conferences, the battle of Waterloo, the industrial revolution and the political battles between George IV and his wife Caroline. This decade saw the United Kingdom become the undisputed leading world power. Bryant’s expositions of the Peninsular War battles and Waterloo are excellent.

Apart from the war narrative, he devotes some limited space to analysing the social and economic developments of the United Kingdom, but not in enough depth. He likes to spend pages eulogising how wonderful our country was, especially compared with the war-ravaged Continental countries. England (mainly) is full of well-fed happy honest yeomen, whereas places like France are full of down-trodden hungry peasants and bad inns. Bryant lays this on thick, with eulogistic patriotic prose that is too sickly at times. This, frankly, was the appeal of Bryant in the war and post-war years, when patriotic films and books were encouraged by the government, and the British people basked in self-congratulation as a result of being on the winning side. The descriptions of tables groaning with luscious English food must have been an attractive fantasy for those still on rations in 1950, when this book was published.

To support his case, Bryant cites many authors in his notes and bibliography, which gives it a scholarly aura, but careful tracking of his sources shows he relies on a limited stack of books for his evidence, particularly ‘Romany Rye’ by George Borrow, and a travel journal of a Frenchman called Louis Simond; (this latter book has been digitised and can be viewed on Simond’s account is most interesting, and coming from a foreigner adds weight to Bryant’s portrait. But there is something tendentious and distorted about what Bryant is saying. Was our country such a paradise at that time? This goes against much of modern, self-abnegating histories that focus on the miseries of the industrial revolution.

To be fair, Bryant balances his account of a prosperous England with criticisms of the selfishness of mill-owners, the economic plight of mill workers, the vicious economic swings from boom to bust, the cruel laissez-faire philosophy of the ruling classes, the self-indulgence of the dandies of the aristocracy and so on. He writes from the viewpoint of 1950, when the state was expanding its economic and welfare role, and he apparently wishes that the governments of 1812 – 1822 were doing the same.

I wonder if Bryant has a point, though. He is a useful antidote to the self-abnegating histories that have dominated in recent decades. He argues that for considerable sections of society this was indeed a (brief) golden age, before the wheel of industrialisation swept across the whole fabric of society in the 19th Century. Britain was undoubtedly the richest and most prosperous country in Europe at that time. It won the Napoleonic wars by financing every army that fought against France. It produced the steel, the guns, the buttons, the uniforms and so on for most of the allied armies. It also had the most advanced agricultural techniques, born of a century of innovation with stock, seeds and methods. It had nearly all the world’s steam engines. It had the best roads and the fastest coaches.

I compared his account of the huge political squabble between George IV and his estranged Queen Caroline with the account of the same affair in Paul Johnson’s ‘A history of the English people’. This illustrates how Bryant’s approach is the lesser of the two. Johnson is far more provocative, critical and objective, as he teases out much more fundamental theories about English history.

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