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Edwardian England and the Idea of Racial Decline

An Empire’s Future


Christopher Prior 


 Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013

Hardback. 126 pp. ISBN 978-1137373427. £45


 Reviewed by Adam Stephenson

Université de Picardie Jules-Verne, Amiens



Recent histories of the Edwardian era have accustomed us to the notion that in Britain – or in England at least – ‘the idea of imperial decline and fall haunted imaginations’ (Samuel Hynes), there was ‘national anxiety about decadence’ (Hynes again) or even ‘a mood of hysteria’ about British physical and moral degeneration (G.E. Searle); theories of ‘hereditary urban degeneration’ attained ‘widespread’ middle-class support (Gareth Stedman Jones); in short, it was ‘almost axiomatic that the British “race” was suffering from a degeneration which only hard-nosed, coolly implemented scientific measures could repair’ (Dan Stone). This degeneration was seen as chiefly affecting the urban working-classes – 80% of the population – whose poor diet, living conditions and way of life had, in a supposedly Darwinian way, led to their producing mentally and physically stunted offspring, unable to defend their country and Empire. Some commentators, while describing this degeneration as ‘racial’, still thought of it as reversible if living conditions were improved; others, in contrast, thought that nothing short of sterilisation and ‘lethal chambers’ would do the job.  Middle-class children, cut off from Nature and subject to softer educational and moral standards, were also thought to be at risk.

Evidence cited for the importance of ideas of degeneration in Edwardian England is abundant and spectacular. On the one hand, words: journalism (Frederick Maurice), pamphlets (Elliott Mills, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1905), books (Arnold White’s Efficiency and Empire 1901), official reports (e.g. that of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration, 1904), literary-speculative works about the future of Britain, ‘invasion’ novels and so on; on the other hand, deeds: the founding of the Boy Scouts and the Eugenics Education Society in 1907, the proselytising of philanthropists, enthusiasts, cultural pessimists and crackpots.

Like a Popperian scientist, Christopher Prior has had the good idea of putting these affirmations about ‘imaginations’, ‘national anxiety’, ‘a mood of hysteria’ and ‘widespread’ or ‘almost axiomatic’ ideas to the test by bringing (relatively) hard evidence to bear on a number of refutable and often-made claims about Edwardian public opinion: that it blamed Boer War disasters on the low quality of recruits (Chapter 1); that it believed this low quality was a result of racial degeneration in the cities (Chapter 2); that it thought a) that popular culture was leading to moral decay, b) that the point of Scouting was to remedy military and patriotic inadequacy, and c) that working-class ‘hooliganism’ was a threat to civilised society (Chapter 3).

Prior’s evidence comes largely from the press, not only the mass circulation national dailies but also local papers, of which he seems to have been through more than thirty titles with a fine-tooth comb. He justifies this approach by saying that they were the ‘gatekeepers’ for information and ideas to middle-class public opinion, for while ‘a small number of figures tirelessly attempted to alert the public to the existence of racial decline’, only a few dozen people actually attended meetings and a few hundred read articles in the British Medical Journal and elsewhere, whereas tens or hundreds of thousands read newspapers.

What he finds is that while the papers do indeed talk a lot about the problems of the Boer War and slum housing and, more intermittently, about working-class culture, Scouts and hooligans, they hardly ever mention racial decline. And while certain themes do indeed ‘haunt’ public debate, these are straightforwardly economic and political: in particular, questions of tariff reform and the proper role of the State. When ‘racial decline’ does make an appearance, it is nearly always as a point-scoring annex to some other debate.

So we learn that Boer War difficulties were blamed on the officers, the generals, the War Office, the government… on everyone except the common soldier and his supposed physical or mental degeneracy; that the improvement in the living conditions and health of the working classes was almost universally recognised and the superiority of country living not confirmed; and that, much to the annoyance of moral reformers, the middle classes went on taking their children to vulgar pantomimes and put them into the Scouts ‘for peaceful citizenship’, not, despite Baden-Powell’s soon watered-down pronouncements, to prepare them for war, and finally, that any press-inspired worries about hooliganism collapsed as quickly as they had arisen. 

Prior is nothing if not methodical: the introduction and conclusion are thorough, each chapter is preceded by an abstract, and the index, footnotes and bibliography are reliable. On the way through his argument, he conscientiously raises objections and answers them using works of popular culture, diaries, government papers and the archives of public associations, and in the process he teases out some interesting information, considerations and questions.

The result is clear: the quasi-general propositions about degeneration are false. The idea of imperial decline and fall did not haunt imaginations, there was no national anxiety about decadence or mood of hysteria concerning British physical and moral deterioration, it was not almost axiomatic that the British ‘race’ was suffering from degeneration. Historians have persuaded us of the contrary by cherry picking or selection bias. ‘The idea that racial decline was a serious threat,’ Prior concludes, ‘[…] was one propagated by a small number of individuals’ who created ‘a small, self-reinforcing network,’ while ‘the Edwardian middle classes were, by and large, comfortable in themselves’.

* * *

… Alas, the work I have just described is not the one Dr Prior wrote. I have extracted it by painful labour from what must be the worst-written book that I have ever read, even by a younger English academic. Errors of vocabulary and syntax make sentences difficult to read, the line of argument is often obscured by incompetent expression, and the experience of reading is made disagreeable by ugliness and vulgarity. All of this somewhat undermines our confidence in Prior’s judgment and, a hundred years after the scare which is his subject, inspires renewed fears of national degeneration: what can his publisher, peers, colleagues, students and teachers all the way back to primary school be like if they accept this? Are they part of a conspiracy of silence, have they not noticed, or do they simply not care? A reader not interested in what is happening to the English language or academic world may wish to skip the next six paragraphs, for since no one else seems to wish to be the whistleblower, the present reviewer feels that the task falls to him.

Sometimes the problems raised by Prior’s prose are easy to resolve, as when he commits the classic solecisms – ‘a phenomena’, ‘to mitigate against’, ‘disinterest’, etc. – or when he transparently says the opposite of what he means, e.g. that a hospital was named after William Cook ‘in honour of his work against disease prevention’, or that cries of ‘We want eight, and we won’t wait’ were a ‘response’ to ‘a well-known sequence of events including the launching of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 and the Agadir Crisis of1911’. However, on hundreds of occasions, the wrongness is less obvious: ‘elite’ used to refer to an individual (‘Baden-Powell and the other elites’, ‘Scouting’s national elites’, ‘disgruntled military elites’, etc.), ‘opprobrium’ used to mean ‘vulgarity’, ‘bearing’ to mean ‘authority’, ‘urbanity’ to mean ‘urban problems’, to ‘alight upon’ to mean ‘to light upon’, ‘infamy’ to mean ‘notoriety’, ‘presumption’ to mean ‘assumption’, ‘primal’ to mean ‘primitive’, etc. Among many other words wrongly used, we find ‘delineated’, ‘distinctive’, ‘testament’, ‘whereupon’, ‘whereby’, ‘romanticist’, ‘avowedly’, ‘upstanding’, ‘tidings’, ‘to chime with’, ‘to stymie’ and ‘ulterior’ as well as ‘amount’ and ‘expended’ (‘the amount of column inches expended on the matter’). This misuse does not only concern slightly recherché words, but also simple expressions: ‘social progress’, says Prior, was a culpable interest in army officers. Leftism or personal ambition? The second time round, the reader gets it right. Sometimes several half-empty words in the same sentence reduce it to baloney: ‘This sustained dialogue with the past possibly made it inevitable that Edwardians sometimes felt facets of their modernity to be lacking’.

Often it is enough for the reader to fill in the ellipses: ‘the innate superiority of the Englishman to rule the world’, the ‘antipathy towards a hooligan problem’, ‘(Thomas Horsfall’s) performances about the state of living conditions’, ‘(youths) were rendered (i.e. represented as) passive innocents’, ‘(criticisms) tended to take the form that…’, ‘(the response) (i.e. our natural reaction) is that’ (i.e. is to think that…), ‘(the Post) was quick to support the Lancet that…’, ‘he was already on record that…’, ‘(debate) was dominated by how’, etc. Or else it suffices to suppress a preposition – ‘to offer with’, ‘to foretell of’, ‘to demur from’ – or change one: ‘a tenacity for’, ‘an inconsistency to’, ‘an interest shown to’, ‘attention upon’, ‘the situation surrounding’, ‘on the side of the masses over the establishment’, ‘to argue contrary to’ (meaning ‘against’). And occasionally, we can just resign ourselves to bizarre priorisms: ‘Were hooligans felt indicative of moral decay?’ ‘Hooliganism was felt a pressing problem’, ‘this was felt an issue’, ‘problems were felt explicitly racial’, ‘racial decline was believed a contributory factor’, ‘rejection rates were believed symptomatic’, ‘(they) felt themselves a minority’, ‘South Africa was felt a relatively healthy place’, etc.

However, more drastic action is needed when the syntax is tangled, and even more so when paragraphs are mismanaged. Concessive clauses sometimes seem to concede something irrelevant to the main assertion: ‘Although the IDCPD report…denied that racial decline was…real…, its public impact is central to historians’ discussions’; ‘Urban and rural local Tory papers alike invariably agreed that the quality of working-class life was improving, but perhaps local Liberal publications used racial decline as a stick with which to beat the national government?’ This is usually manageable in single sentences, but not when we have two paragraphs of oblique concessions, when the reader tends to lose the thread: on one page we are told that Thomas Horsfall was ‘recognized as a prominent public figure concerned with public health by those interested in such matters’ and on the next, that, on the contrary, Charles Booth, the authority on such matters, ‘had never heard of Horsfall’s urban sanitary improvement work’.

Equally, there is no guarantee that the subject at the beginning of a sentence will still be so at the end (‘Rather than having lost its inherent productive capacity, free trade was hampering Britain’s ability to draw upon this capacity’); or that the main verb will not have changed (‘this might appear blind… or, even worse, to seem to imply…’) or become a noun (‘Conservatives reminded the public of the complicated nature of the conflict as a precursor to a request that patience be shown’); or that a noun will not have become an adverb (‘This chapter will examine English attitudes…and, in particular, how far racial decline was believed…’); or that a pronoun will not replace the wrong noun (‘the conservative press either rejected (extreme) commentators … or attempted to put a positive spin on them’); or that a singular will not have become a plural or vice versa (‘the difficulties… was a thread’); or that two mutually exclusive constructions are not being conjoined (‘fears of decline that working-class culture was corrupting thousands of middle-class children’). Furthermore, the reader is in constant danger of getting lost in the jungle of argument because the signposts have been turned round ‘and’ has become ‘but’, ‘moreover’, ‘however’  or of walking over a syntactical cliff because ‘when’ has replaced ‘that’: ‘It had not been until 1904 when public campaigns had finally stirred the War Office’ or ‘It was not until 1903…when the undesirability of the “foreigner within” (became an issue).’

But it is aesthetic reasons – the ugliness and vulgarity of Dr Prior’s prose – that most undermine his authority. Each time ‘the Edwardian landscape’ is mentioned, a metaphor is mixed: here this landscape is ‘peppered’ with ‘a small number of key texts’, there it is ‘festooned with numerous pressure groups’, elsewhere ‘an inherent feature’ of it is – or is not – racial decline. ‘Soldiers,’ we learn, ‘were not impervious to fluctuations in standards of health’ (meaning they sometimes fell ill); ‘shifts’, ‘movements’ and ‘army reforms’ were ‘powered’, ‘standards’, among other things, were ‘packaged’ and ‘marketed’, ‘beliefs’ were ‘stymied’, ‘racial decline’ was ‘deployed’ but so were ‘fears’, ‘policies’ ‘played out’ in the regions, politicians should not ‘point fingers over how the war panned out’, ‘processes’ and ‘the war’ were ‘framed’, enthusiasm for eugenics ‘was hard to come by’, ‘Some in the press upped the rhetorical ante’, ‘Papers’ sought ‘to up the sensationalist ante’. ‘A sturdy public was the rhetorical underpinning to White’s suggestion’, while Henry Richardson ‘was keen to undermine the rise of “municipal socialism”’. ‘The belief that culture should be blamed for poor behaviour amongst youths had long been a stock weapon of choice for reformers’. (A belief a ‘weapon’? And why ‘stock’?) The tone lurches from the chatty to the pretentious (‘articulations of racial decline’ (i.e. expressions of belief in the theory), ‘The TCL ceased to be in1906’, etc.

Sometimes this verbal irresponsibility spills over into a misguided familiarity with the objects of his study: Birmingham becomes ‘Brummagem’ with no suggestion that this meant‘shoddy’; its citizens are ‘Brummies’, but none of the social connotations of the word are intended, while those of Southampton become‘Sotonians’, a word unknown at the time. And here, we begin to wonder how far we can trust Prior with his sources. He uses ‘tabloid’ as if it were the opposite of ‘broadsheet’ (The Southampton Times and Hampshire Express is ‘an avowedly free trade broadsheet’), whereas at the time all the newspapers had a large format. His quotations, where I have been able to check them, seem to be largely correct (apart from ‘fate’ becoming, on different occasions ‘face’ and ‘fait’, ‘and’ becoming ‘of’, ‘Colville’, ‘Colvile’, etc.), but a certain insensitivity to words shows through: ‘irremediable’ is quoted as ‘irredeemable’ and an article entitled ‘Decline in manners of the present generation’ (my emphasis) is described as a lament about ‘public morals’. ‘The old courtly gentleman is passing away and the product of the Education Act can scarcely be said to adequately take his place’, Prior quotes, but the reader cannot help asking: did this traditionalist really split an infinite like that? Perhaps he did; but we are not inclined to take Prior’s word for it, any more than we can trust his vaguely sketched tripartite sociology of ‘elites’, ‘the middle-classes’ and ‘working-class communities’ (my emphasis again).

* * *

Perhaps, having established his point about middle-class opinion and taken for granted that it was also true of the working class, Prior might have spared a word for the intellectuals, among whom some version of the degenerationist thesis does indeed seem to have been ‘widespread’, perhaps even ‘almost axiomatic’, if we are to believe John Carey (The Intellectuals and the Masses, 1992). And maybe a lighter touch would have helped make his point more clearly. ‘One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool’ said George Orwell in a different context (Notes on Nationalism, 1945). What did the ‘ordinary man’ (and woman) make of ideas which seem so pernicious and absurd to us? One invasion novel not often cited by the historians is P.G. Wodehouse’s, The Swoop!  (1909), in which ‘England was not merely beneath the heel of the invader. It was beneath the heels of nine invaders. There was barely standing-room’.

Not only the Germans and the Russians are invading, but also the Monegasques, the Bollygollans and others.  Prince Otto of Saxe-Pfennig, at the head of the German troops, is invited to tea by the Chugwater family and can’t make them understand that he is invading, can’t even get a word in edgeways. ‘At last I begin to realise the horrors of an invasion – for the invaders’, he says to his aide-de-camp. The English public is much more interested in the cricket scores than the invading armies, although they do vote thanks to Prince Otto for ‘beautifying London’ by shelling nearly all the statues, the Albert Hall, the Royal Academy, etc.  Finally Clarence Chugwater, ‘one of General Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts’, with the help of his scouting chums, manages to get the invaders to leave.

It would require a more delicate sensibility and other sources to work out how many people shared Wodehouse’s attitude. A few years later, readers of The Great Gatsby (1925) did not need to be told what to think about Tom Buchanan when he starts saying ‘Civilization's going to pieces… If we don't look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved’. One can’t help wondering whether, when Sir John Frederick Maurice, Thomas Horsfall, John Gorst and their like got up to speak, members of the audience, the Inter-Departmental Committee or the House of Commons didn’t react like Gatsby’s narrator, Nick Carraway: 'I was tempted to laugh whenever he opened his mouth'.


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