188. Before the Storm

On July 28, 1914, 102 years ago Thursday, World War I began.

The years just before the war were a high point in British life, at least if we judge by Masterpiece Theatre. John Buchan set his early espionage novel The Thirty-nine Steps in that era, writing it shortly after WWI had begun. The Riddle of the Sands (see this Wednesday’s post) was an actual prophesy of the coming conflict, since it was published before the war began.

After the Great War, as it was then called, Buchan and many others looked back to the pre-war era with longing. They saw it as a golden age. Perhaps; it depends on your perspective. Young men who expected to work their way up through the ranks of British society – like Buchan when he was young – saw a world of opportunity before them. Their perspective was very different from the working class poor trapped by industrialism.

It was certainly different from the millions in British colonies, toiling to keep the Empire rich, and the ruling class richer.

Victoria was dead; Victorianism wasn’t, at least on the surface. Baden-Powell had just organized the Boy Scouts. Conservatism, especially in sexual matters, was the norm – on the surface.

What was going on at gatherings in the great houses of England was often a different matter. There:

much silent and furtive corridor-creeping between one double bedroom and another took place. . . . During the day, a clandestine affair could develop unobserved . . . At night, the names written on cards slotted into brass holders on the bedroom doors were as helpful to lovers as to the maids bringing early morning tea. Assignations confirmed by . . . a whispered exchange over the candle that lit the way up the stairs . . . ensured that extra-marital sex went on with ease. . . At six in the morning a hand-bell rung on each of the bedroom floors gave guests time to return to their own beds before the early morning tea trays arrived.

That quotation is from The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicholson. John Buchan’s world never looked like this. (Some critics suggest that it would have been better if it had.) Nicholson has clearly cherry picked among the movers and shakers, the avant-garde, the spoiled children of the rich to whom the rules didn’t apply, to find the subjects of her book. She portrays a world of arranged, often loveless, marriages with gatherings in the great houses designed to facilitate swapping partners on the sly.

Discretion was the watchword. Letting the rest of the world in on your secrets, even if they had similar secrets, could lead to social disaster. Mrs. Patrick Campbell said, “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do in the bedroom as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses?” The answer to her rhetorical question was, Yes. It mattered very much. Just ask Lady Cunnard, who was in bed with Thomas Beecham when an early morning workman on a ladder saw the two of them through a crack in her bedroom curtain. The scandal almost ruined her.

This is the atmosphere in which the ruling class of England spent the summer of 1911, while their servants scurried about facilitating their dalliances, while the working class struck for higher wages and better working conditions, while natives in tropical colonies slaved in the pitiless sun. And while Germany hungered for their own colonies in a world where the early arriving nations had already gathered them up and sucked them dry.

Their days were numbered.

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