Goodbye to All That
So, by process of elimination, I fished up in sixteenth century Britain.
Occasionally, I would go slumming in eighteenth century France, or hang out with Wellesley (not yet Wellington) in India, but on one thing I was very clear: anything after 1815 Just Didn’t Count. Sure, one might read the odd novel set in Victorian England or thrill to M.M. Kaye’s tales of India in the days of the Raj, or, of course, cackle maniacally at the antics of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, but that was for recreation, not study. Everything just got dull, dull, dull post-industrialization. Mechanized warfare? Killed off Romance entirely.
The entire stretch of twentieth century history was a blind spot for me. I knew the rough outlines—what school child didn’t?—and could confidently recite archducal assassinations, alliances, and ententes, but the cultural history of the time held no interest for me. I squirmed my way grudgingly through my Modern Britain field in grad school, grumbling about being forced to spend so much time in the twentieth century at the expense of the eighteenth. What was khaki compared to knee breeches?
That was until I found my imagination caught by Kenya in the 1920s and started work on a novel that bounces between 1910s and 20s England and 1920s Kenya. It quickly became clear that World War I, even if I avoided the war itself, was a pivot point in the novel, changing my characters and the world around them. I started reading up on that period directly before and after World War I and found myself ashamed that I had never done so before.
There are a wealth of excellent primary and secondary sources available. I’d grown up on Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, but added to it Juliet Nicholson’s far more intimate portrait of the old world just before it exploded: The Perfect Summer, a social history of the summer of 1911 which contrasts vividly to its sequel, The Great Silence, an examination of the immediate aftermath of the war. Part of what makes reading the pair together quite so effective is that the author follows up on many of the same sources, providing a direct before and after in the lives of specific individuals.
The work that left the deepest impact on me, however, was Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That, his recollection of his experiences during the Great War. Reading it, one could understand fully just what sent that generation of young men reeling—not just the shell shock, but the mad inanity of it all, the sense of lack of purpose and direction, the gross incompetence. Small wonder that so many talented young men began to question the world in which they’d been raised, or found themselves emotional wrecks, forever scarred by what they had seen and experienced. As I was writing The Ashford Affair, many of Graves’s experiences became those of my hero, Frederick.
What are your historical blind spots?