Roy Hattersley, The Edwardians (New York, St. Martin's Press, 2004)
Paul Thompson, The Edwardians (London, Weidenfeld and Nelson, 1984)

You know, I wasn't sure what to do when I found Roy Hattersley's handsome book The Edwardians in my mailbox at the Green Man offices earlier this summer. Sometimes it's really hard to write anything fresh and interesting about a conventional history book. Then, as luck would have it, I spent some time helping the brownies dust in the library one Saturday afternoon when it was too hot to do anything else. And what should I find on a shelf but another book with the same name, written by a different author using a completely different approach! Now that's a good challenge!

The title of both books provide a clue regarding the interest these authors share in the period of British history known as the Edwardian era, which began with the coronation of Edward VII in 1901 and ended quite abruptly with the outbreak of the Great War (also known as World War I) in August 1914 -- although Edward actually died in May 1911. No matter how you define its endpoint, the period is quite brief, as so-called eras go. This suggests a problem both authors had to address in writing about people who might be called Edwardians. Some of the Edwardians were born in the early years of Victoria's reign and were still alive and (in some cases) in positions of political, social or cultural leadership during the Edwardian era. Still others were born in the later years of Victoria's reign, during a time when many of the accomplishments of that era were taken for granted. And quite a few were born during the Edwardian era---but of course they were hardly old enough to be of interest to writers of history since they hadn't really done anything important yet.

It's safe to say that both Hattersley and Thompson agree that events taking place during this short period in British history started the landslide that dumped Britain and the British (and Irish and Scottish and Welsh) people into a modernity that wasn't nearly as safe and predictable as the previous era. For reasons that have much to do with the personal histories of these authors, their ways of approaching an understanding of these events and their effects are quite radically different. 

According to web-based resources, Roy Hattersley has been active in British Labour politics since the 1950s, when he was elected to council in his home town of Sheffield at the age of twenty-three. He served in the House of Commons, has held numerous high-level government and party positions and has written several works of fiction and quite a few biographies of British luminaries. Although he is currently a member of the House of Lords, Hattersley stood down from his seat in the House of Commons in 1997 to concentrate on his writing. So we can assume that The Edwardians is a product of this later period in Hattersley's active political life. It reflects his extensive involvement with the Labour Party and his passionate belief in the Party's ideals. He's avoided the predictability of a straight chronological narrative by creating a thematic organization for the book. Among the themes of greatest interest to him are voting rights for women, home rule for Ireland, public education reforms, and challenges to religious dogma from the realm of scientific discovery and to moral absolutes from the realms of literature and philosophy. Hattersley tries to cover quite a lot of ground in The Edwardians and most of the time he succeeds. My problems with his approach, which are relatively minor, concern his persistent optimism and trust in progress, and his somewhat idiosyncratic choices in the chapter on Edwardian literature. To give him credit, Hattersley opens this chapter with the admission that a thirteen-year period doesn't readily define a literary style. But then he refers to authors like Thomas Hardy, most of whose fiction was published before the Edwardian era; Arnold Bennett, whose best-known work, The Old Wives' Tale, takes place primarily during the Victorian era; and the American ex-patriate Henry James, who traveled so much that it's hard to see how he could be claimed as an English author at all. But I'm being excessively nitpicky. Hattersley writes well, uses his references with appropriate care, and has important insights to share about this period in history. 

Hattersley's The Edwardians first appeared in Great Britain in 2004 under the Little, Brown imprint of Time Warner UK. The edition I am reviewing came out on St. Martin's Press a year later -- and looks almost identical to the British edition listed on Amazon.co.uk, sans the endpapers. I indicated in my opening paragraph that it is a handsome book. The dustjacket is cream-coloured, with a stunning print of a full-length portrait of Winifred, Duchess of Portland, by John Singer Sargent. She is wearing a low cut, cream-coloured satin gown with a high lace collar and an open coat of rich, red velvet. That I can tell you this much about an image that measures about 3" wide X 6" tall tells you that the quality of the print is quite good. The binding is stitched; the book contains two sections of black-and-white photographs on glossy coated stock. Brief endnotes are organized by chapter; many of them refer to newspaper articles and archival materials, including diaries and letters, from the period. The bibliographic references are all books; their publication dates range from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century. Paul Thompson's book is not included, although it might well have been.

Now let me turn for contrast to Paul Thompson's book of the same name that I found by chance in the Green Man library. The copy I found is a second edition trade paperback published in 1984. The first edition came out in 1975. It looks like Routledge published a third edition of this in 1992 that's still readily available on the 'net. Paul Thompson is a scholar, an oral historian to be precise. Educated at Oxford, he is a research professor of sociology at the University of Essex and the founding editor of the journal Oral History. His most recent book is The Voice of the Past: Oral History, a methods text last published in 2000 by Oxford University Press.

With that introduction, I don't suppose it will surprise you to learn that Thompson's The Edwardians is largely based on oral history. In the early 1970s, Thompson was the principal investigator of 'Family Life and Work Experience before 1918,' a national oral history interview project intended to gather recollections from people who were alive during the Edwardian era. Because he is a scholar by training and was pioneering the methods of oral history at this point, Thompson includes quite a lot of information in this book about his data collection methods, as well as about the strategies used to recruit participants in the study and the limitations of obtaining information about a historical period from informants decades after the fact. As a sociologist who regularly teaches an undergraduate research methods course, I found this part of Thompson's book absolutely fascinating.

While I can easily imagine that someone without my occupational interests might skip the book's introduction altogether, I think that anyone with an interest in early twentieth century British social history would find the rest of The Edwardians well worth reading. Thompson has done a splendid job of interspersing fairly long quotes from his interviews with research subjects with his own summaries of their stories and with secondary data about the period taken from sources including tax records, government reports, and ethnographic studies conducted and initially published during the Edwardian era.

What I particularly liked about this version of The Edwardians, which I read almost in its entirety, was Thompson's attention to the stories of people of very different social classes and from different parts of the British Isles, a strategy he used to obtain a more nuanced representation of the experiences people had during the Edwardian era. For example, Grace Fulford's father was an actuary at the same London insurance firm where his father and grandfather had worked. The family employed a nurse, a parlourmaid and a cook. Having little to do with household chores and no outside employment, Grace's mother suffered from ennui and depression. Grace and her siblings spent more time with the servants than they did with their parents. Fred Mills, on the other hand, came from a large family in northeast Essex. His father worked as a farm labourer and could scarcely provide for his wife and the children at home. Thus they often took 'parish relief,' the type of assistance that always comes with conditions. When she wasn't in the late stages of pregnancy, Fred's mother took in washing to help make ends meet. Fred left school when he was twelve and entered employment, eventually working as a bricklayer for most of his adult life.

I thoroughly enjoyed Thompson's methodological discussion and the brief life stories he recounts. However, I don't think he is always successful at articulating the connections between his subjects' daily lives and the larger social and political processes of change that he clearly intends to be the theme of this book. For those, I consider Hattersley to be the better reference.

Born in 1935, Paul Thompson is almost exactly the same age as Roy Hattersley. I surmise from his writing that his politics are even farther left than Hattersley's. If you are at all interested in Thompson's research project, his faculty Web site at the University of Essex provides a link to the Economic and Social Data Service site, which has online archives of material from the project.

[Donna Bird]