The New Elizabethan Age
Culture, Society and National Identity after World War II
Edited by Irene Morra and Rob Gossedge
London: I.B. Tauris, 2016
Hardcover. xi+348 p. ISBN 978-1784531799. £62
Reviewed by Nicholas Sowels
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Elizabeths I and II stand like bookends of England’s and then Britain’s global expansion. The last years of the present Queen’s reign now poignantly also coincide with Brexit. The Conservative government under Theresa May is bravely arguing that leaving the European Union will open up a new era of “Global Britain”, as the UK develops trading relationships across the world. Much has been made of strengthening ties with the Anglosphere. Some public figures like Tim Martin, founder of the Wetherspoon pub chain, have even boldly declared that the ministers leading the Brexit negotiations “will achieve far more for the UK by copying Francis Drake and playing bowls in Plymouth, rather than hankering after an EU agreement”(1). For Remainers, however, Brexit entails the real risk of Britain turning in on itself, and further diminishing its place in the world. At worst, it even threatens the Union, leading to renewed tensions in Northern Ireland, an increasingly disaffected Scotland and a retreat to the pre-Elizabethan little England.
This collective volume of papers examining Britain’s New Elizabethan age is therefore particularly timely. It recalls the moment of optimism Britain experienced with the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952, following the catastrophic yet heroic World War II, but preceding the later decades of increasingly evident economic decline. In doing so, the book examines many of the historical characteristics of British culture, or at least how these are seen as permanent and rooted in earlier times.
Shakespeare stands out as central to this cultural continuity spanning the Elizabeths. As the editors of the volume, Irene Morra and Bob Gossedge, note in their introduction, “[i]f mountaineers and test pilots acted as latter-day Drakes and Raleighs, if the Battle of Britain constituted the nation’s modern Armada moment, then the contemporary equivalent to Shakespeare was Shakespeare”.
This is perhaps hardly surprising given the central place of Shakespeare in English literature, and the pervasive presence of Henry V (notably the filmed adaptation with Laurence Olivier in 1944) and other histories during the Second World War, as well as in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, Irene Morra even goes on to argue that the disastrous reception of Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana, celebrating good Queen Bess in 1953, abruptly ended the prospects of opera becoming the institutionalised art form of the New Elizabethans. Salvation of the performing arts came later when the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre became the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSA) in 1961, followed by the founding of the National Theatre in 1963.
Section II of the book, A Family of Nations, looks at the question of national identity of the component nations of the United Kingdom. Kelly de Luca’s chapter on Scotland begins by pointing out the contradictions of the present Queen being titled Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, in contrast to her namesake who was merely Queen of England. This is an interesting, symbolic point of detail which leads three chapters about how the constituent parts of the nation related to Britishness, which Arthur Aughey (following Lord Parekh) notes is more a question of national character, whereas being British conveys the idea of being a member of a national, political community. Needless to say, this section of the book underlines how the Britain of the New Elizabethans was largely dominated by the English, and traditional (white) Englishness.
Numerous other chapters of the book stress the pervasive grip of nostalgia, old and new, which marked the New Elizabethan era. Ayla Lepine, for example, recounts the neo-Gothic, medievalist reconstruction of the House of Commons, which had been badly bombed during the war, although this was not made public at the time. Giles Gilbert Scott was the architect charged with the reconstruction, and while not admiring the Gothic style of the building, found this preferable to more modern “machine aesthetics”.
This nostalgia however is not the only, defining trait of the New Elizabethan era which emerges in the book. Several chapters recount the spirit of new, including the contributions by Tony Coult on the cultural implications of conquering the air and space, and Melanie Bigold’s paper on English ballet which only really flowered after the war.
Taken as a whole, the collection of papers provides a rich source of cultural information about the New Elizabethan moment in the early 1950s, the time leading up to it and even the decades after: towards the end of the book, one chapter is comprised of an interview by Scott Anthony of Frank Cottrell Boyce, who scripted the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games in 2012, the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
To the uninformed reader, some of the arguments and detail may come across as esoteric: for example Bob Gossedge’s chapter on the Commonwealth and his references to the Arthurian Myth and Byzantine History [sic]. In the reviewer’s opinion, this collection of papers also suffers from a providing very little political and economic context to the cultural, social and identity issues it explores. The Cold War and Suez are little mentioned, the Korean War not at all. Tellingly, Europe and the European Economic Community are entirely absent. So while the UK will surely quit the European Union on 29 March 2019 at 11pm, Brexit and the imminent end of Elizabeth II’s reign seem likely to provoke profound and protracted questions of identity, as many Brits wake up to realising they may have been nurtured in a New Elizabethan Britain, yet also in a country that has become increasingly European in its culture.
(1) Quoted in Nathalie Thomas, “Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin : We don’t need trade deal with the EU”, The Financial Times, September 9, 2016.
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