About once in each century, the British allow themselves to hope. The humorous resignation slips away; the people described as the only nation to feel Schadenfreude about themselves sense that they can transform their lives; the air of a rainy springtime fills British lungs. The last time this happened was in the years before and after the end of World War II: Labour’s electoral victory, the coming of free and universal health care, education, and social security, the attempt to expropriate the economy’s “commanding heights” in the people’s name.
But that was a brief, cool springtime, controlled from above and—in spite of the visionary rhetoric—cautious in scope. Louis MacNeice had written: “If it is something feasible, obtainable,/Let us dream it now,/And pray for a possible land.” Something feasible was indeed obtained: a new and long-lasting measure of social justice. But the possible land turned out to be a gray, austerely disciplined landscape, and the dreams and prayers were over by the early 1950s.
Fifty years before, there had been another season of hope that lasted longer and was far more ambitious. This was the upwelling of an enormous shoal of protests and visions that began to break the surface in the 1890s. Especially after Victoria’s death in 1901, the impact of these movements changed British culture, transformed intellectual and political expectations, and undermined all certainties in the course of the Edwardian decade. In its final phase, this surge entered a crescendo of direct action, street violence, and millenarian demands that seemed to both its participants and its foes like a prelude to revolution. But then came World War I, and an age of optimism was drowned.
That age forms the setting for Antonia Byatt’s majestic and immensely ambitious novel. It was a moment when Britain’s thinkers and creators looked back on the last, incredible century, which had brought their country to world leadership in manufacture and trade, to naval supremacy across the globe, and to dominion over a gigantic overseas colonial empire. But it was also a century in which Britain itself had changed beyond recognition, visually and socially. As these fin-de-siècle intellectuals perceived it, the “green and pleasant land” had been invaded by raw industrial cities that spouted their smoke over a new class: the proletarian millions who lived short lives in a squalor and a poverty that seemed to deepen as the wealth and comfort of the middle classes increased. The cultural and economic gulf between “the two nations” had widened until it seemed unbridgeable.
At the end of the Victorian century, men and women with ideas felt that this society they had inherited was monstrous and, as we would now say, unsustainable. It was, above all, unnatural—as much in its stunting of human instincts and potential for happiness as in its severing of human bonds with earth, trees, and fresh air. So it must be changed, and there was determination and confidence that it could be …