Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Fateful Year: England 1914, by Mark Bostridge

Staff Review, by Chris Saliba

This vivid history brings the year 1914 to life, allowing the reader to very much walk in the shoes of the average Briton during that fateful year.

Mark Bostridge's The Fateful Year provides a history of one year, the momentous one of 1914. In it he shows English society and politics before the declaration of war, then describes the quite unbelievable rush of events that leaves the population stumbling and stupefied as to how war came so quickly.

For the months before the war, such diverse events as George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and the horrific child murder of Willie Starchfield are described, helping to give an idea of the popular culture of the time. The pre-war months were also full of political troubles, in Ireland with the military resistance to home rule and the incredible activities of the suffragettes, who were not averse to slashing famous paintings and plotting other outrages on the public.

The usefulness of this excellent book lies in how it shows all facets of English life before war was declared, when conflict with Germany seemed utterly incomprehnsible. Bostridge cleverly fuses the personal and the political, focusing on such relationships as the intensely close one between Prime Minister Asquinth and his confidante, Venetia Stanley, with whom he shared all his anxiesties.

In our current era, where we seem to feel that we can predict everything, it seems extraordinary how the English political elite really had absolutely no idea of the looming dangers. The culture at large – the newspaper reading public, the politicians, the historians and diplomats – no one really had a clue as to the tinderbox Europe was sitting on. All it took was an assasination to set off a remarkable sequence of events.

This is a wonderfully vivid history that gives a devastating feel of what it must have been like to live through those times, to plod through domestic political issues – the troubles in Ireland, the violent unrest of the suffragettes – and then suddenly, as though in a nightmare, to find yourself facing one of history's most horrific and destructive wars.

The Fateful Year so skilfully brings to life the sufferings and agonies of the British public during the year of 1914, that it filled me with sadness and sympathy for them. It seems a cruel trick of fate that some are forced to live through such horror, but that us later generations are able to avoid suffering on such a huge scale.

The Fateful Year: England 1914, by Mark Bostridge. Published by Viking. ISBN: 9780670919215 RRP: $45

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