The Edwardian age: not just a 'long sunlit afternoon'

Edward VII was a charmer little prepared to preside over the twilight of an empire.

The old queen was dead. Her funeral was as imperial as her life had been, attended by the crowned heads of Europe (mostly relatives), 50,000 troops, 30 British warships, and naval tributes from several European countries, in particular from soon-to-be archrival Germany.

The most famous era Britain had ever known - the Victorian age - had drawn to a close. Would it also bring an end to the nation's unprecedented wealth, colonial expansion, and global political and economic influence?

Such was the overarching concern with which the world - in Britain as well as beyond its borders - greeted the onset of the Edwardian age.

It was to be an era that some would view as golden. But as Roy Hattersley makes clear in his new book "The Edwardians," it was also an age threatened by any number of dark shadows.

This is a highly detailed but engaging book. To read it is like sitting down to tea with a history virtuoso. Everything is here - statistics on wealth and poverty, vignettes about Parliament, glimpses of an "Upstairs Downstairs" social order that was soon to disappear forever.

By the time Edward VII took the throne in 1901, Victoria had reigned for so long (64 years) that most people couldn't remember a previous monarch. Her name was synonymous with power, being the figurehead of an empire "on which the sun never sets."

But the Edwardian age was not really the "long sunlit afternoon" that some have depicted. Edward's reign began in a period of national uncertainty, and Edwardians faced a period of unsettlement that had its roots in the past.

A look at the statistics in the book shows that although Britain was still Europe's richest nation, others were catching up.

Britain's manufactured exports were growing but were being overtaken by those of Germany (threefold) and the US (fivefold).

Agriculture at home had declined. Although British industry continued to grow, its pace had slowed considerably during the last decade of Victoria's reign.

Abroad, Germany was challenging Britain's supremacy in Europe, and in Africa, victories by the Boers had humiliated the queen and were calling into question the invincibility of the British Army.

When he came to the throne, Edward was almost 60 years old and had led a life of hedonism. His affairs were numerous, well-known, and viewed as reprehensible by many of the populace.

He spent much of his time with "men of dubious reputation," notes Hattersley, a former cabinet minister and deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Due in large part to his mother's constant disapproval, the Prince of Wales had been given no training to prepare him for kingship. The monarchy was still the cornerstone of British society and Britain's leaders feared the new king's private life more than his public one.

But Edward's bonhomie and friendly manner made him extremely popular when traveling abroad.

Hattersley recounts an incident when the king kissed the hand of a leading lady at the Theatre Français in Paris and said, "I remember applauding you in London when you represented all the grace and spirit of France."

During the rest of his visit the king was mobbed by crowds chanting "Vive Edouard." He was similarly feted during visits to other parts of the world.

Such popularity, Hattersley notes, had its effect on the British people, who also began to shout, "Good Old Teddy."

However, the social issues that had surfaced during Victoria's reign began to percolate during the Edwardian era. Chief among these was the high poverty rate among the working classes; 77 percent of the population were crowded into the cities, and in many cases wages had actually fallen, although the cost of living continued to grow.

There was a lack of equitable franchise (no women and only half the adult male population had a vote). The nation's prisons needed drastic reform, and in most cases prison conditions had actually worsened. Parliament, up until then a place for furthering one's personal interests, began to work in earnest to pass laws to redress some of the grievances. The new era, in fact, started to tackle a full-scale political and social revolution.

"Edwardian Britain teemed with the excitement of innovation and change," comments Hattersley. And this "explosion of intellectual and artistic energy swept Britain into the modern world."

Gillian Charters is coeditor of Monitor World, the Monitor's International weekly.

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