The research, erudition, earnestness and effort that went into Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars might well have made up three or four striking and worthwhile books. Instead Overy has given a single volume, 521 pages long, in many ways highly unsatisfactory.
In The Morbid Age, Overy seeks to demonstrate that in Britain during the period 1919-1939 ‘a strong presentiment of impending disaster […] touched many areas of public discourse’. Although the economic slump of the late 1920s and the rise of Hitler constituted ‘real historical dramas’ — to which, presumably, at least a degree of pessimism would seem an appropriate response — he tracks this ‘culture of crisis’ back to the 1920s, and indeed the period prior to the Great War, where — he implies — they may have been less appropriate and, hence, more similar to the ‘phantoms and extrapolated fantasies’ he detects in our own time: ‘how often in the last few years has the “defence of our way of life” or “the defence of democracy” been mobilized as an argument, as if they really were endangered from within or without,’ he laments early on, although the bracing parallel seemingly proposed is, in the end, never quite followed up — a serious disappointment jostling amid a crowd of less profound ones.
For the first few chapters of The Morbid Age, minor annoyances provide a distraction from more fundamental flaws. Let’s start with the editing. In his Acknowledgements, Overy thanks his ‘new editor in New York’ who has ‘rightly asked me to make the “Englishness” of the text more accessible and has made it a better book as a result’. The most obvious fruit of this enterprise is the proliferation of those banal and bleakly reductive explanatory tropes so beloved of trans-Atlantic middlebrow journalism, whereby, upon introduction, Albert Schweitzer must always be ‘the distinguished missionary Albert Schweitzer’, Arnold Toynbee ‘the historian Arnold Toynbee’, Siegfried Sassoon ‘the poet Siegfried Sassoon’, Wyndham Lewis ‘the futurist artist and writer Wyndham Lewis’, and so on, ad infinitum and before long also ad absurdum, so that by the time one encounters ‘the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’, ‘the Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes’ and ‘the German philosophers Georg Hegel and Karl Marx’ — the dictator Adolph Hitler is, I think, uniquely honoured in being allowed to enter the text unadorned with an explanatory adjective — one begins to wonder whether readers to whom the names ‘Hegel’ and ‘Marx’ suggest very little might actually be better off setting out on what might well be a rather long intellectual journey with the help of something other than Overy’s bulky, dense yet often meandering survey.
Perversely, however, there are also points at which The Morbid Age offers far too little information about its subjects. Let us take, for example, the case of Lord Robert Cecil (later Lord Cecil of Chelwood), sometime president of the League of Nations Union, subject of much attention in The Morbid Age. It’s doubtless fair to assume that for many of those who are likely to pick up a book about inter-war intellectual life, Cecil is already a very familiar figure. Other readers, less attuned to inter-war public affairs yet still broadly aware of some basic aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century British political history, might deduce useful information from Cecil’s style and surname. All of which is just as well, really, as in The Morbid Age, the basic issue of Cecil’s party affiliation doesn’t arise until more than half way through the book, and while we are eventually vouchsafed the intelligence that he was, in fact, the third son of the third Marquess of Salisbury, the same reader who requires gentle guidance in discovering the relevance of, say, John Maynard Keynes might also benefit from a hint or two about the third Marquess of Salisbury’s career path, the notion of ‘splendid isolation’ and indeed Salisbury’s probable influence upon his son’s engagement with foreign affairs, pacificism and Tory politics more generally.
This isn’t just recreational carping. The success of The Morbid Age as argument stands or falls on the interlocking claims that the intellectuals whose pessimism it catalogues were in some way representative, that their negativity had some sort of impact, and that the sense of impending doom they variously expressed was somehow more profound or significant than the unease that most people express at least some of the time when confronted with a world that comes fully furnished with ignorance, misfortune and conflict.
Yet the longer one persists with The Morbid Age, the more obvious it is that Overy’s project is beset with problems. Not least, while The Morbid Age sets out to survey the content of ‘public discourse’, in fact most of Overy’s research has focused on about thirty individuals, glimpsed during a decade or two of what were, in most cases, considerably longer careers: a list including Charles Blacker, Vera Brittain, Cyril Burt, Lord Robert Cecil, G.D.H. Cole, G. L. Dickinson, E.M. Forster, Edward Glover, John A. Hobson, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Storm Jameson, Ernest Jones, Sir Arthur Keith, John Maynard Keynes, Basil Liddell Hart, Bronislaw Malinowski, Gilbert Murray, Philip Noel-Baker, George Orwell, Lord Ponsonby [‘Lord Arthur Ponsonby’ through much of the text, a howler which perhaps annoys that ‘new editor in New York’ less urgently the rest of us], Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Canon Hugh Sheppard, Arnold Toynbee, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, H.G. Wells, and Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The book is based largely on their letters, diaries, committee papers, occasional journalism, published debates and memoirs. Overy has clearly spent an awfully long time in various archives producing this research, which has turned up fascinating, often valuable and occasionally jaw-droppingly odd material.
Anecdotal enjoyment aside, however, the more one contemplates this short list of subjects, the more questions arise. The left-of-centre bias is undeniable if unsurprising, only becoming a serious irritant when Overy starts to discuss attitudes towards capitalism, the USSR and the Republican cause in Spain. Odder by far is the decision to exclude some (but not absolutely all) politicians, to include so many pacifists yet surprisingly few men with actual military experience (experience obviously far more general in the inter-war period than in our own time), and indeed such a predominantly ‘middle-middle-class’ (as James Lees-Milne might put it) line-up. Oddest of all is the realisation, which only comes into focus gradually as the book progresses, that many of these people knew each other, wrote to each other, existed in variously supportive or contentious relationships with one another, so that what we’re being shown is less some representative sample, than a loosely-woven web including many who chose to associate together, presumably because they believed, or at least thought they believed, many similar things. Did there flourish somewhere in the Britain of the 1920s and 30s the sort of cheery, emotionally resilient and highly pragmatic social circles in which, for instance, Julian Huxley might not have been welcome? If so, their existence does not trouble the even surface of The Morbid Age, where a bleak and unhappy homogeneity reigns.
Even in the case of these thirty-odd individuals, we’re offered meagre rations indeed when it comes to background information. Religion, family, education, formative influences, relationships, feuds and affinities, crises and minor triumphs — we’re generally given little if any sense of these, even where — as in the case of Cecil, his famous father and his own party-political history — an individual’s intellectual history is rendered unintelligible by the omission. This lack of interest in context and connections makes it hard to see where a subject is going against the grain, just as it makes it hard to see where he may well be cannily preaching to the choir.
Because all political context has been carved away from the quotations that make up the meat of the book, it becomes impossible to get a real sense of where a subject is making a strikingly controversial point, as opposed to reciting a platitude, with or without irony. And even when the words are clear enough, how are we to see what they mean? As Eric Hobsbawn (not someone I typically quote with approval, which just goes to show how important context can be) wrote in a thoughtful, occasionally wrong-headed and often gently malicious review of The Morbid Age, ’emotions — the extremely widespread dislike of Jews in the West, for instance — were obviously not felt or acted on in the same way by, say, Adolf Hitler and Virginia Woolf’ — something he can write with confidence, based on a fair working knowledge of Woolf and Hitler, but a calculation that becomes considerably less reliable as the protagonists grow less well-known, and one of the many reasons this book might prove baffling to a non-specialist audience.
In order to demonstrate what he believes to be the gathering sense of crisis, Overy first examines — always with the focus on his hand-picked handful of morbid thinkers — several spheres of apparently ‘pessmistic’ activity. Here, more than anywhere else in the book, one spots the potential for the small shelf-full of arresting, surprising and thought-provoking books that might have been. Why, for instance, should Overy not have translated into full-blown book form his very evident sense that J. A. Hobson, a popular writer on economic topics, is less fully recognised than he should be, rather than simply conjoining it with some fairly obvious and indeed sometimes gappy stuff about Maynard Keynes, presented far better elsewhere? Why not a book on the inter-war connections between psychology, anthropology, warfare and pacificism?
Possibly, indeed, the eventful history of inter-war pacificism — the recruitment process and the dogma, the campaigns, the splits and terminal ruptures — might have elicited some smaller and perhaps even better book from Overy, in which he might have had more scope to demonstrate an understanding of the distinction between anti-war and pacifist activism than he does here. Aside from creating an armful of interesting books, such diversification might have spared Overy the awkwardness of trying to present some of the interests his subjects display — in birth control, eugenics, psychoanalysis, ‘planning’, the defeat of fascism in Spain or the success of communism in the USSR — as being in any sense ‘pessimistic’, as opposed to the sort of pungent intellectual optimism that, in some of these cases anyway, turns out to have been more than slightly rancid from the very start.
That, however, is probably enough about the subject-matter. The ultimate test of the sort of book that claims to explore the spirit of an age — in that sense, an old-fashioned book, like G. M. Trevelyan’s English Social History, but also, as far as that goes, rather like Keith Thomas’ The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England — is how the picture it presents hold up when juxtaposed with whatever else we know about the period in question.
Here, The Morbid Age runs into another serious problem, hinging this time on its narrowness of focus. The Morbid Age is absolutely remarkable in its general obliviousness to art, architecture, design, music, film, literature, indeed anything to do either with high art or popular culture — quite bizarrely so, given the central roles it assigns to E. M. Forster, Victor Gollancz, Aldous Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, Vera Brittain, Storm Jameson, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and Virginia Woolf , or the secondary roles doled out to W. H. Auden, Vanessa Bell, Rosamond Lehmann, Wyndham Lewis and Rose Macaulay. There’s quite a lot of attention given to the BBC, or at least to the Listener, and to the Left Book Club’s subscription statistics, but the discussion is gappy, impressionistic and lacking in rigour. It’s all very well to listen to what the self-proclaimed public thinkers were saying, but what if they were merely speaking to each other, or to themselves? At no point does Overy even attempt to demonstrate that his intellectuals made much of an impact on ‘ordinary people’, on what they acquired or consumed or dreamed, and part of the problem must surely be that ‘ordinary people’ — rather like the rest of us, really — rarely acquire their ideas and beliefs exclusively from explicitly ‘intellectual’ debates. This isn’t the only reason why popular culture matters, but it’s an important reason. It also suggests why Overy should not have tried to talk seriously about inter-war pessimism without reference to Cyril Connolly, Kenneth Clark, or indeed, George Formby.
We can prove this point, in a sense, by digging down to the roots of our own historical understanding, such as it is. Many present-day readers presumably ‘know’ the inter-war period largely through its cultural emanations, however thoroughly decontextualised or otherwise debased — Waugh’s painful tract Brideshead Revisited viewed through the distorting lens of the 1981 television adaptation, for instance, or the chrome-and-gloss visual Esperanto of Art Deco’s apparently unstoppable appeal. Other will have grown up in suburban landscapes spawned by the inter-war explosion in automotive travel and tourism, or been made to read Orwell at school, or have become entangled in the Mitford family business of resourceful and often highly entertaining self-promotion, or watched that strange 1995 version of Richard III starring Ian McKellen. Others will have stared searchingly into the surface of an early Ben Nicholson abstraction, dozed off and had disconcerting dreams while listening to Peter Grimes, re-read Letters from Iceland in order to remember the sharp-edged passions of adolescence, readjusted the pitch of a dusty anglepoise desk-lamp. What we feel about the inter-war period is, accordingly, composed at least in part of all these activities. Presumably, what the people who lived through that period thought about their own times was also bound up with their cultural experiences.
In The Morbid Age, in contrast, the only work of literature to receive serious consideration is Walter Greenwood’s 1933 novel Love on the Dole, a gloomy text once much admired by middle-class readers — and, slightly later, middle-class theatre and cinema audiences, for within a year it has been adapted as a play, while by 1941 it had been filmed, albeit in bowdlerised form — for the useful insights it offered into the reality of life in working-class Salford. Elsewhere in the book, part of an Auden poem is used as an epigraph, while the Whitechapel Gallery is name-checked in the context of that famous 1937 exhibition in which about 15,000 visitors queued up to see Picasso’s Guernica, each paying as their price of admission a pair of boots to be sent to the Republican forces in Spain.
And that’s all, more or less. The idea that some sort of cultural pessimism might be articulated, or indeed refuted, in the sort of films that were being made, the novels being read on buses and tube trains, the content of popular and unpopular music, the designs that Wedgwood was commissioning from Eric Ravilious, the reshaping of Eltham Palace or the construction of modest civic structures in Art Deco mode — the significance of all of this remains not so much denied as unconsidered, although it should be obvious by now that one of the longest interfaces between the self-proclaimed ‘opinion formers’ and the intended consumers of those opinions exists within the sphere of popular culture, in its commercialised aspects as much as its public provision. To assume The Listener, the New Left Book Club and talks at the South Place Ethical Society were somehow where most people derive their understanding of how the world works risks seriously skewing some notably hard-won conclusions. Yet this, more often than not, is what Overy seems to do. To write, as Overy does, that ‘in the days before television and the internet the positive, voluntary pursuit of information was a public phenonemon of great importance’ is not quite the same thing as as proving it.
Perhaps it was only an unfortunate accident, but throughout the days in which I was reading The Morbid Age, I could hardly open my eyes without encountering something, somewhere, apparently calculated to disprove Overy’s thesis. A friend who lives in Washington D.C. mentioned his enthusiasm for all things Art Deco, and planned to see as much Art Deco architecture as possible when visiting London, which of course still abounds in the stuff. What’s pessimistic about Art Deco, for heaven’s sake? For complicated reasons, I found myself re-reading James Lees-Milne’s diaries, 1942-45, where the profundity of general pessimism regarding the postwar situation is hardly less striking than the lack of enthusiasm for war in the first place, the passionate antipathy towards Winston Churchill as half-mad architect of an unwanted and unproductive conflict, and an incessant stream of evidence that it was in fact the Second World War, not the Great War, that did the most harm to the great English landed estates, the village communities they supported and the links between urban and rural life they fostered. Lees-Milne knew several of the intellectuals central to The Morbid Age, yet it was hard to make the complex, nuanced, highly contingent encounters he describes match up with the filletted, stark, strangely lifeless quotations around which The Morbid Age is constructed.
Even a visit to the National Railway Museum in York, of all places — where, as the sharp-eyed amongst my readers will perhaps have already noticed, I much admired the Duchess of Hamilton, a steam locomotive built in 1938, pictured in part at the top of this review — appeared designed to refute Overy’s claims about pessimism. There was nothing, as far as I can see, remotely ‘morbid’ about British railway engineering in the inter-war period. On the contrary, trains were becoming ever faster, more comfortable and, indeed, more elegant, providing an ever-improving service both for freight customers and for passengers, demonstrating the robustness and ingenuity of British engineering expertise to a worldwide audience. There is, as it happens, a lot of pessimism evident in the NRW, but it kicks off with the 1948 nationalisation, swells with the Beeching Report, reaches a messy masochistic climax amid film-clips of Mrs Thatcher making speeches and then sinks into a sort of reverie, in which the kindness of private individuals and their philanthropic initiatives only partially cushion that terrible hopeless yearning for the steam-powered world hegemony that we have, I pessimistically suspect, now well and truly lost.
At the heart of The Morbid Age, though, there’s a more fundamental slipperiness. The validity of pessimism is, to a high degree, contextual. Intelligent Somali commentators, for instance, might be forgiven for entertaining the sort of basic ambient gloom regarding the short-term future of their nation that would resemble self-indulgence if coming from, say, the average New Zealander. Overy must, one assumes, take a point of view about the basic good sense, or otherwise, underlying his subjects’ pessimism. Were they, in short, correct in thinking that their world was on the edge of collapse? Or perhaps this question might better be split apart down the middle, into two hardly less momentous queries. Were Overy’s subjects right to believe that another world war was ‘inevitable’ — and, if so, were they right in thinking that it would result in the end of civilisation?
Who knows? No one, presumably, is suggesting that these are simple problems, inviting concise and agreeable replies. Yet although a reliable answer remains outwith the competence of this reviewer, who wasn’t even very good at the Tudor religious history in which she once took an interest, a book of more than half a thousand pages, produced by a highly-respected author who has written very widely indeed on related topics, might well have found room to provide some sort of judgement.
Eventually, the indirection of the book, its pointless repetitions and numbing simplifications, give up a few hints. For what it’s worth, my own suspicion is that, when confronted head-on with these questions, Overy splits the difference. Often, he seems to imply that a degree of irrational, increasingly compulsive doom-mongering on the part of British intellectuals — shared, eventually, by the politicians who may have been influenced them, although this is more asserted than it is demonstrated — may have hampered Britain’s response to the threat posed by more confident powers elsewhere. Principally, though, he appears to blame the war preeminently on Hitler per se — locating in Nazism, in effect, a manifestation of evil so uniquely effective that no politician on earth had any choice when faced with it but to do, well, whatever it was that they all in fact did — yet at the same time, he seems to doubt that consequences of war were as bad as might have been feared.
Certainly, the alternative — which is to say, both that Britain’s involvement in the Second World War might well have taken place along very different lines, and that what followed on from the war that actually did take place was every bit as catastrophic as imagined — fails to appeal to Overy, who asserts not only strong ‘popular demand for a conflict with Hitler in 1939’, but also that
In the years immediately following the end of the Second World War British society concentrated on building the ‘New Jerusalem’ around a wide commitment to social and economic modernization and moral reconstruction. […]
It gradually became clear that many of the fears for the future that pervaded pre-war discourses failed to materialize. The population did not decline steeply; ideas of eugenic intervention were modified into positive welfare policies; the capitalist economy was reformed sufficiently to avoid a repeat of the slump but not replaced entirely; the progressive political centre voted overwhelmingly for the Labour Party and ended the political stalemate of the National Government; fascism was utterly discredited but the emergence of Soviet domination in eastern Europe also eroded sympathy for a ‘New Civilization’ on communist lines; psychotherapy became an accepted branch of medicine and a growing interesting in and knowledge of sex did not promote degeneration. […]
Confidence in the possibility of progress, despite short-term problems of reconstruction and economic revival, replaced the immanent gloom of pre-1939. If the 1930s had seen a painful slithering to the edge of the precipice, post-1945 could be seen as a brisk uphill walk into the sunlight.
Those seeking irony in that final sentence should perhaps look elsewhere — although more than anything else, my impatience with its content is probably a reflection of my own pessimism regarding a war and a peace that, among other things, left Britain increasingly in the grip of intellectuals, planners and ‘progressive’ politicians — a state of affairs possibly less agreeable to me than it seems to be to someone like Overy.
To reiterate, briefly: in order to be believable, whatever The Morbid Age tells us about the inter-war period has either to fit with what we know about the period already, or alternatively, to strike such a firmly persuasive note as to reform our vision of the period entirely. Yet the more one looks at it — even looking at it sympathetically, willing it to convince — the more it starts to feel like a long list of isolated empty quotations and broken fragments of narrative, all hand-picked to underscore a thesis that could just as easily be refuted by hand-picking a different set of quotations and narratives. In the end, I finished the book unconvinced that the inter-war period had been, in any meaningful sense, extraordinarily morbid. There was pessimism, of course — but as long as there has been rhetoric, there has been pessimism, justified or otherwise, because pessimism is persistently effective rhetorical stance. More to the point, although it’s quite possible that this pessimism had some impact on actual events, since Overy appears as uninterested in demonstrating any such connection as he does in spelling out precisely what connection he feels that it ought to have had, the argument lacks traction. I was left, ultimately, mildly amused or appalled, occasionally surprised, but more often than not disappointed by a very big book that was somehow so much less than the sum of its parts.
Let us adopt, by way of summary judgement, a metaphor left over from the summer holidays. Reading The Morbid Age felt like trying to understand the history and continuing life of a pond by looking at a single slide under a microscope. In places, of course, the process is fascinating. One learns a lot. One draws parallels, speculates, admires the strange and re-examines the familiar, enjoys the unusual vantage-point. Overall, though, it’s a failure, not just because the scale of the question itself overwhelms the evidence directed at it, but also because the abstract appeal of extreme simplification simply cannot survive comparison with raw, intractable, messy yet wholly authentic complexity. In the case of the pond and the slide, the failure is a suggestive one, telling us something important about the pond and science itself. In the case of The Morbid Age, however, the failure is simply frustrating.
It’s a pity that The Morbid Age isn’t a better book, or indeed several better books. Overy is probably right in implying, as he does in his Introduction, that our present age is much afflicted with apocalyptic rhetoric, predicting disaster if we don’t somehow get to grips with climate change, economic instability or the extraordinary revelation that not everyone in this world shares the particular strand of quasi-secular liberal individualism currently en vogue amongst the caste of professional thinkers ascendant in the Anglophone West. Finding a rhetoric capable of keeping all these worries — valid or otherwise, which is rather a different question — in proper perspective thus becomes, as Overy suggests it should, an urgent and necessary task.
Instead of writing about pessimism, indeed, Overy might have done better to seek out what he would take to be inter-war examples of realism, clarity and a sense of balance. Whatever this might have told us about the past, the result would, at the very least, have served as lesson to our own thinking classes about the value of keeping calm when confronted with floods, droughts, crashes, panics, surges, explosions, carnage, disillusionment, ideological heterodoxy and — this last, potentially, the most upsetting of all these grave things — the extent of their own limitations, as regards understanding as much as influence or ultimate efficacy. Whether the intellectuals would take any notice is, of course, a different question altogether.