That we live in different worlds was brought starkly home to me earlier this summer when I read, in succession, two books about the 1930s. The first was The Thirties: An Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner, an exhaustive account of Britain in the decade that begins in the working class streets of Glasgow, and though it goes all the way up to Buckingham Palace you never forget those streets. This was the decade of Depression, and throughout the book Gardiner is anxious to ensure that we remain aware of the human cost. We see the hunger marches (pretty nearly the last and least of which was the only one we remember these days, the Jarrow March), we see the unemployment, the inadequacy of any public response, the dread of a visit from the government agents who had a right to enter any home, pry among ones belongings, and drastically reduce one’s dole if they suspected you had earned even a penny over some notional limit. It was a hard time, because the poverty that was all around resulted not just in economic hardship but in needless deaths, poor health, appalling housing, political extremism. It was also a hardy time, as thousands of working class men tried to evade the authorities in order to enlist (on either side) in the Spanish Civil War; sometimes, it is true, they enlisted only because it might bring in a little money, but very often they enlisted because they believed in the cause (this was also the decade of The Road to Wigan Pier and Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club and the Red Dean).
In contrast to which there is Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris, a book that has won extraordinary amounts of praise and, if I recall aright, the odd award or two, though it seems to me to be a far inferior book to the Gardiner. Harris’s book deals with the arts (primarily painting and literature) in Britain from the late-20s to the mid-40s. In other words, it opens just before Gardiner’s book, and where Gardiner closes with the declaration of World War Two, Harris goes on into the first year or two of peace. Though it is not always easy to grasp this, because Harris arranges her book thematically, there are chapters on villages and houses, gardens and nostalgia, in other words all those quaint characteristics that are so often called upon as clichéd images of Englishness. And Englishness is appropriate here; where Gardiner covers shipbuilding on the Clyde and mining in the Welsh valleys, Harris confines herself almost exclusively to England, and where she venture out to other parts of the United Kingdom it is as quaint rural scenery for the tourists.
Harris keeps returning to the same relatively small cast: her main stars are John Piper and Virginia Woolf, though she also covers Eric Ravilious and Evelyn Waugh, the Sitwells and Cecil Beaton. She returns again and again to the way they use modern techniques to present a romantic image of the country. But the image she presents is every bit as romantic, if not more so.
There isn’t a single one of her characters who suffers financially during the Depression. Quite the opposite, they often seem to be buying houses out in the country, and the bigger and grander the better. Occasionally they might go through a period of genteel poverty, living in a remote farmhouse with few modern amenities and living, we imagine, on soup; but where this does happen it is a livestyle choice rather than a necessity. Not a single person here is primarily a city dweller, none of them experiences unemployment, disease, hopelessness, starvation. In fact, you could read through the entire book without realising that the Depression was happening. The world she writes about is sunny and happy and easy. This is emphatically not the 1930s that Gardiner is writing about.
When Gardiner writes about the top end of society, for instance in her coverage of the Abdication Crisis, we see Edward VIII touring Welsh mining villages and making statements that the unemployed must be helped. In Harris’s book everyone lives in big country houses or ultra-stylish modernist flats, they record the prettiness of country churches or the camaraderie of village life, but they do not see any unemployment. Indeed, they barely see any employment, other than touring the country for a book or delivering a talk for the BBC.
When Gardiner writes about the Spanish Civil War, it is about the working class volunteers getting killed, the poor people who sacrifice a much needed 6d here or 1s there to support the cause, aristocrats who work tirelessly for relief programmes. When Harris writes about the Spanish Civil War it is a romantic adventure and a book by George Orwell. Though at least one or two of the people she mentions actually go to Spain. When she covers the Second World War nobody is involved in the fighting, nobody is enduring the Blitz, nobody has any contact with the killed or wounded. They are all, of course, making their contribution to the war effort, but their contribution is a book about patriotism or a painting to show the traditional old England that we are all fighting for.
The trouble is, not one of the people Harris writes about would have been as immune to, as unseeing of the distress of people throughout the Depression as Harris makes them out to be. I do not believe that even the snobbish, pleasure-loving seekers after high society like Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh would have been able to shut their eyes quite so firmly to the troubles of the world around them. It is Harris who has chosen to portray the Thirties as a world without poverty or hardship; the Second World War as a time in which there isn’t actually a war going on.
There is something even more snobbish than Beaton, even more Conservative (in the worst and most political sense), about Harris’s book. It is a record of painters and writers living a relatively easy, pampered life, but it contains nothing of the context in which they lived and worked.
2 thoughts on “Other Worlds”
I was initially really interested in the Romantic Moderns, until I picked it up and discovered what you did–the total isolation of these characters from the Depression, War, and its aftermath, without any interest in examining that isolation. I’m a big history buff and this is my period–the 20s and 30s specifically–and to write about the glamour without the shadow is just gross and negligent. Fitzgerald was able to write about both, including the rot behind the louche life. And I believe Waugh fought in WWI and wrote about war and its horrors. Woolf, too, was deeply affected in the aftermath during the 20s. And you’re absolutely right–during the Blitz, everybody was affected and in danger–even the King and Queen. It’s not like the upper crust were immune, you’re absolutely right. I feel like Harris is maybe just lazy more than even snobbish.