A.N. Wilson admits in his introduction that he grew up hearing stories about Britain’s glory days. Perhaps that accounts for his rather affectionate history of Britain’s ruling elite during its long slow slide from empire to equal player in world politics.
After the Victorians is massive, exploring endless minutiae of fashion, music, scandals and daily life through the decades of the twentieth century, with references to even more details in the shadows. There are an infinity of things to catch the eye - here a look at postmodern art, there a clever poem by Max Beerbohm. The spending habits of Victoria’s children or the sinking of the Titanic, the loss of the Indian colonies to the poetry of Ezra Pound, everything is on display.
But like the random goods on display at an estate sale, there is no clear link between any of the gems Wilson hands to his readers. Yes, clearly, everything here belongs to the same family; everything is examined from an unquestionably British viewpoint, and an affectionately loyal British viewpoint at that. He writes about the royal family with a sense of importance and devotion that seems frankly absurd to American eyes. The individual scenes and histories are told with colorful language and attention to detail. But just how the dressing habits of King Bertie instructed the course of the Titanic, or what linked Pound to the Indian colonies, Wilson never really makes clear. His vignettes are charming, but vignettes are not enough to sustain interest for over five hundred pages of close type.
In the end, After the Victorians has the flavor of the world’s largest family scrapbook. A multitude of stories are here, complete with notes, memos, ticket stubs and souvenirs, but so scattered in their retelling that only a devoted historian can focus long enough to make sense of it all. Still, it is fascinating to open the book occasionally, seeking the details of some half-forgotten adventure to give immediacy to the past.