A backwards history of Britain by Hannah Rose Woods
Hannah Woods states that in the 17th century a Swiss physician published a medical treatise on a mysterious new disease affecting Swiss soldiers fighting abroad. By combining the Greek word nostos (homecoming) and algia (pain), he created the word nostalgia. Over time the meaning of the word broadened into the longing for a faraway time as well as a place. The author analyses Britain’s recent history by enquiring how nostalgia affected the debate about our membership of the European Union and about other historic periods. The author then adopts the unusual approach of writing a backwards history, starting at Brexit and finishing 500 years earlier in Henry VIII’s reign.
She starts with Brexit, from 2021 to 1979. Then she recalls how the “Blitz Spirit” and memories of the Empire made many nostalgic for a time when we felt we were not beholden to others. The slogans “keep calm” and “taking back control” resonated with the British public. She correctly reminds the reader that immigration was not a recent development, contrary to the general British view in the 20 years after the war.
Nostalgia in 1979 to 1940
The period 1979 to 1940 covers the war and industrial decline. Writers describing the changes experienced nostalgia. The rapid withdrawal from Empire was accompanied by the massive rebuilding of bombed industrial cities and the creation of New Towns.
From 1940 to 1914 is called the End of the Garden Party. Those who lived through the First World War looked at the inter-war years as an Edwardian Garden Party, free from anxiety and upheaval. Stanley Baldwin became the prime minister of nostalgia, endeavouring to regenerate the nation through the spiritual values of the countryside.
Nostalgic for pre-industrial period
1914 to 1880 is called Never Never Land. During this period Britain became the most urbanised country in the world. People increasingly left the land and suburbs grew in all large cities. Many late Victorians and Edwardians were nostalgic for pre-industrial forms of work and community.
The period 1880 to 1789 is called Those infernal and Damnably Good Old Times. No other 19th century nation so thoroughly embraced innovation or saw its surroundings so profoundly altered. But this very commitment to progress generated an intense yearning for what was being left behind. The shock of Britain’s rapid early industrialisation inspired intense ambivalence among the generations who lived through it.
1789 to 1688 is the period of Decline and Fall, covering the period from the French Revolution back to Britain’s Glorious Revolution. The latter had tipped the balance of power firmly in favour of Parliament over Monarchy. The growth of Protestant capitalism and global free trade producing many new luxuries seemed to some to be incompatible with national identity. They invested the wealth generated by trade and empire in Palladian-style country palaces, which to some seemed out of place. Merrie England
Rule, nostalgia in Merrie England
The 1688 to 1530 period is called the Committee for the Demolition of Monuments. It was a violent period which included the Civil War and the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. It also included the glories of English literature and the evocation of a nostalgic Merrie England.
Hannah Woods reminds us that each historic period normally contains contrasting influences. In Britain’s case nostalgia has been a strong influence, during each of the periods she has examined, particularly in the most recent period of Brexit.
This book is available to borrow from Kent Libraries
My main critique of it is that the illustrations (21 images) are poor, too small and mostly black and white. The writer has put much more effort in drawing quotations from writers than from artists or architects whom she references but without illustration. She is writing for book publication, constrained by cost of illustrations. This is a pity when digital publication allows for superior images.
How she divides the periods is also open to debate. Note that going backward, her first 4 periods are about 40 years each until 1880. Back from that, the book vaults by centuries, thereby lumping Regency with Victorian (stage-coach and railway age; or pre and post Reform Acts).