Spare us the wagging finger

Few things are more tedious than books moralising about the deficiencies of yesteryear


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The social historian Dominic Sandbrook could recently be found in the Culture section of the Sunday Times reviewing a book called Imperial Island: A History of Empire in Modern Britain by Charlotte Lydia Riley. Sandbrook, who knows his onions, didn’t seem to think a great deal of Dr Riley’s opus, but his principal complaint was reserved for its deep-dyed censoriousness.

The author, he declared, “has a remarkable enthusiasm for telling people off”. The luckless victims of her asperity included Pathé newsreels for celebrating “white athletes and swimmers from Britain”, Ladybird books (these are guilty of “imperial patriotism”), and Melvyn Bragg for daring to describe William Wilberforce as “a great man”. Even Band Aid, one of the great charitable endeavours of the 1980s, is criticised for its “comforting colonial humanitarianism”.

Dr Riley’s biggest target of all, it turns out, is the British people and their resistance to “any reappraisal of their nation’s imperial past”. On the contrary, Sandbrook suggested; they were not resistant, just bored.

Here the Secret Author experienced a tremor of fellow-feeling, for how many times in the past few years has he been forced to endure the tedium of some book or other, that spends its time simply lamenting the subject’s failure to match up to the exacting standards of the modern age?

Graham Greene in 1954

Take, for example, Russian Roulette (2019), Richard Greene’s biography of Graham Greene. Mr Greene, like Mr Sandbrook, knows his onions — the Wall Street Journal acclaimed it as “astute and sympathetic” — but here again is a kind of masterclass in censoriousness. It begins as early as the fourth page, when Greene discovers that one of his namesake’s forebears owned slaves on St Kitts. He goes on to criticise his subject’s father for undertaking “cautious and paternalistic” charitable work before setting happily to work on his son.

What are Graham Greene’s crimes? Well, when visiting post-Great War Europe, he makes the fatal mistake of “accepting uncritically the complaint that the presence of black soldiers failed to respect the sensitivities of the Germans”.

As an undergraduate, he lampoons his fellow undergrad Harold Acton’s homosexuality. He writes a book about his time in Liberia that calls the local porters “boys”. He also publishes a novel in which the central character is referred to as “the Jew”, rather than by his given name.

None of which, to be sure, are points in Greene’s favour. On the other hand, each is entirely representative of the social attitudes of the time. Orwell and J.B. Priestley, to name only two of Greene’s contemporaries, talk about “the Jew”. It’s quite probable that Mr Greene’s grandfather (and Charlotte Lydia Riley’s) did so as well.

This needs to be proclaimed as loudly and as forcefully as possible, but not perhaps to the point where the biography or historical study in question becomes an exercise in convicting the grand eminences of the past, for crimes they didn’t know they’d committed in the first place.

“The literary criticism that arose in this country after the Second World War was as judicial, as fault-findingly ambitious and as youthfully and generationally vengeful as any that has ever been,” the critic Karl Miller remarked, from the vantage point of 1998. He was quite correct.

Yet, the censoriousness of the postwar era was mostly aesthetic. It tended to criticise its subjects for writing in what was assumed to be the wrong kind of way, rather than combing their work for opinions and beliefs which the modern age finds untenable.

Naturally, there are balances to be struck.

However worthy, the result is usually tedious beyond measure

The world of Imperial Britain — come to that, the world of Graham Greene — is not our world and it would be an odd kind of historian who didn’t jib at some of the attitudes on display in it.

On the other hand, to simply anatomise its perceived deficiencies is not, in the end, to tell us very much about its animating spirit. Once the smoke disappears from above the battlefield, such books tend to reveal themselves as being less about their subject than the sensibilities of the person who wrote them.

One sees this in that most dismal of modern book-world artefacts, the censorious review — usually of a biography of some long-dead figure. Its sole aim is, first, to demonstrate what an ogre they were by our no doubt terrifically enlightened and morally unimpeachable contemporary standards; and, second, to demonstrate how terrifically enlightened and morally unimpeachable is the reviewer.

However worthy, the result is usually tedious beyond measure. Confronted with one of these j’accuses, the Secret Author is always reminded of the trip he took to the Swedish National Museum in Stockholm. Nearly every mediaeval item came garnished with a solemn little label reminding him of the oppression of the peasants by the nobility, etc., etc.

No doubt this was historically accurate. Oddly enough, the effect of being told what to think in advance was to rob him of any interest in the exhibits themselves.

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