Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jolly Boating Weather, Or So They Thought

In wading through the murky waters of days gone by, one sometimes hits upon a few words that really say much more than the obvious.

I recently ran across a quotation from George Orwell's autobiographical essay "Such, Such Were the Joys." Orwell wrote it in the 1940's about his childhood and his years at St. Cyprian's School and at Eton College. While I suspect these places were not the Home Counties gulag that Orwell describes, his reminiscences have a lot to say about coming of age for the middle classes in Edwardian Britain.

The one line that really stuck out for me was his description of the mood of the times in the years between the death of Queen Victoria (1901) and the outbreak of the Great War (1914).

Orwell wrote:

  • "From the whole decade before 1914 there seems to breathe forth a smell of the more vulgar, un-grown-up kind of luxury, a smell of brilliantine and crème-de-menthe and soft-centred chocolates — an atmosphere, as it were, of eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song."
In this time, Britain had passed her time at the height of world power. She was still one of the "great powers," but by no means dominant. Settling into the fading sunlight of her imperial afternoon, the Sceptered Isle was about to be irreversibly changed. For a brief moment, though, people either didn't know or didn't wish to acknowledge this fact.

Orwell's words give us an engaging portal into one of those days gone by.

It is for little reasons like this that I am a historian.

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