Saturday, December 8, 2012

Half of the Human Race (Book Review)

A few of my readers over at the Record Searchlight complain that I’m overly slow in getting to the point.  Fair warning...this will likely be no exception.

A common image of pre-Great War England is of an assured, genteel, perhaps even pastoral land, its inhabitants enjoying a complacency which would be shortly annihilated by the guns of August.  But George Dangerfield’s classic The Strange Death of Liberal England shatters the idea of a green, pleasant, and amicable land.  His audaciously literary account (first published in 1935), in explaining the breakdown of the consensus around liberal society, portrays a very different country.

By 1910, Britain’s was a system buckling under too many contradictions: it was a “free trade nation”, but that free trade was based on gunboat diplomacy (the “freeing up” of trade), and was being sharply questioned as Britain lost its comparative advantage and protectionists gained in strength; Britain was meant to be a country of liberty, the destination for refugees and revolutionaries fleeing autocratic Europe, but it governed an enormous Empire through the use of force and violence; it was committed to a laissez-faire political and moral economy, and yet the working class was making demands that led to the first hints of a welfare state while an emerging cadre of social scientists and bourgeois philanthropists “discovered” poverty and other ills brought on by industrialisation, urbanisation, and imperialism; Britons were free, the Irish were not; more and more men were able to vote and participate in civic life, women were largely not. 

These contradictions reached the breaking point, and by 1910, Britain was a society on the verge of war with itself.  A prehistoric Conservative Party was fighting a rearguard action against democratic reform, and the Liberal Party’s government of the day found itself in a tense standoff with the House of Lords.  Labour grew restive over the failure of employers to pass on the benefits of good economic times to workers, who were increasingly unwilling to be placated by vague promises.  Ireland edged toward a civil war, and as the government sought to deal with the vexed question of the northern provinces, murmurs of mutiny wafted through the ranks.

In no place were the contradictions of British society more evident than in what was surely one of the most dramatic civil rights struggles of the twentieth century, in which the women of Britain demanded the vote.  It is salutary to recollect that the struggle for suffrage was precisely that—a full-blown battle which involved breaking windows, lighting fires, undertaking hunger strikes, and generally ransacking what proved to be the hollow conscience of a supposedly liberal nation.  For after being confronted by patronising tones and legal obstacles, .blank stares and laughs, dissatisfied with the efforts of their more respectful sisters, who were perpetually betrayed by both major parties, militant suffragettes turned to civil disobedience. 

Suffragettes did not shrink from speaking the language of war in support of their cause, one which seems absurdly obvious today, but which was answered at the time by brutal force, terrible imagery, and draconian legislation (most famously the “Cat and Mouse” Act) aimed at squashing their efforts.  “I am here as a soldier”, Emmeline Pankhurst declared to North American suffragettes in Connecticut in 1913, “who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain—it seems strange that it should have to be explained—what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women”.   Intimating that in this final struggle for their rights women would not be intimidated, and were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, Pankhurst opined, “Not by the forces of civil war can you govern the very weakest woman.  You can kill that woman, but she escapes you then; you cannot govern here.  And that is, I think, a most valuable demonstration we have been making to the world.  We have been proving in our own person that government does not rest upon force; it rests upon consent; as long as people consent to government, it is perfectly easy to govern, but directly they refuse then no power on earth can govern a human being, however feeble, who withholds his or her consent”.  Pankhurst described the fury women felt when “we found that all the fine phrases about freedom and liberty were entirely for male consumption and that they did not in any way apply to women”. 

The civil war was averted by the coming of the Great War.  That war passed, leaving a momentarily changed country.  Women (initially those under the age of thirty) won the vote, though this was presented as a reward for “good behaviour” during the war.  The House of Lords faded into irrelevance, the flower of the English nobility having gone down with all the quaint notions about the glory of war and battle in the trenches.  Irish nationalists drove the British out, and then fought a bloody civil war, echoes of which were felt last week as police disarmed bombs in advance of the visit of a U.S. cabinet official.  And the Trade Unions embarked on further battles with successive governments.  Baldwin turned the tables on them, portraying them as a rabble against which the “constitutional classes” should arm itself, although in the end, the welfare state which emerged in the post-Second World War era was a testament to their struggle. 


It is in that pre-war world that Connie Callaway and Will Maitland, the two characters at the heart of Anthony Quinn’s novel, Half of the Human Race, find themselves.  They are not just star-crossed lovers, but star-crossed members of a conflicted society.  Initially drawn together by a shared love of cricket, Connie and Will are kept at a distance in spite of their love by the demands of the cold and respectable society they share.

In her Hartford speech, Pankhurst declared that “in the course of our desperate struggle, we have had to make a great many people uncomfortable”.  It is precisely this discomfort which lies at the heart of Quinn’s moving characters’ divide.  For Connie is a committed if also conflicted suffragist, and her passion by turns disturbs and attracts Will, who ultimately feels humiliated by Connie’s embrace of militancy and her subsequent imprisonment.  Unmoved by the nudging and urgings of those in his circle who see the depth of his affections for Connie, Will persists in seeing himself as the victim, and the two characters proceed, like ferries in the night, to pass each other again and again and again, maddeningly unable to see the sentiments behind one another’s actions. 

So theirs is a love story, and a well-written one.  I found it easy to plunge into the book, and once there, could hardly get out.  The characters, a bit stiff in their Edwardian way, were nonetheless affecting, and I found the novel as a whole to be almost disturbingly moving. 

But there is something more than a love story there.  Amidst the jocularity, the cricket matches, the house parties, the weddings, the innumerable social engagements and obligations of this affluent English society, there is the story of impossible loneliness.  It is a story about the inability of people who love one another to communicate that love openly and honestly.  It is about the failure of social chatter and small-talk to substitute for a conversation between equals.  It is about the cry for help that never emerges from the mouth of a friend or loved one in need out of fear of social sanction, and the haunted mien of those who let the un-uttered cry go un-answered to avoid censure.  It is about a kind of familial and social authoritarianism—whether in the form of Will’s daunting mother or the cricketing code—that grinds people down when it does not kill them outright.  It is about the absurdity of the loyalty embodied by the men who charged “over the top” into machine gun nests on Flanders field in the service of king and country and empire, and yet who were unable to respect the cause embraced by their mothers and sisters and wives. 

The beautiful thing about Half of the Human Race is that it is simultaneously a portrait and a narrative of a particular era and the outrages that people visited upon one another during that era, and a meditation on moral frailty, social mores, love, and friendship.  It is, in other words, very much worth reading, and the best book I’ve read this year.

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