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. Continue reading