The decline of empires

We all do dumb things.

Last summer, before checking into actor housing at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival, I stopped by  the Williamsburg Cracker Barrel for breakfast. Since I habitually read when eating alone, I decided to take my new Kindle e-reader into the restaurant.  So I stuck it into the hip pocket of my jeans , and - when I sat down at my table - Snap!
Dead Kindle.

This mutton-headed  moment brought a sudden end to my first experience with an e-reader.  I lived without my Kindle for six months before I learned that, under Amazon’s excellent warranty, I could replace it for much less than full price.  Even though I broke it myself...

So, since December, I’ve had a new Kindle, automatically loaded with all the texts I had purchased for the original reader.   The experiment has resumed, and I’m learning  to take the best advantage of this little device - while continuing my love affair with actual, physical books.

For one thing, I’ve learned to take my Kindle along whenever I visit a bookstore.  If I spot a book I want to read, I can instantly check the cover price against the Kindle price, which often saves me a few bucks. This is especially true with regard to selections for the Commonwealth Book Club, which often chooses recent non-fiction books available only in hardback.  In such cases, Kindle prices are often hard to beat.

I also use my Kindle to purchase and read really old books - especially the great novels of the 18th and 19th centuries.  I’ve been on a considerable 19th-century binge lately - delving into the works of Dickens, Trollope, Conan Doyle and other great Victorians - for pennies a novel.

There’s really nothing quite like the works of these masters.  While they certainly don’t enjoy a monopoly of style, the English-language writers of the mid- to late nineteenth century must rank near the top, both in poetry and in prose.  Just reading their works is like taking a really good writing seminar.  

But what’s equally important is the subject matter they dealt with.  The history of Britain between the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 and the end of World War I in 1918 presents a case study of the decline of a great power - with disturbing parallels to our own recent history.  

In its heyday, Britain was the global super-power.  From a small island, Queen Victoria reigned over the vast Indian sub-continent, strategic ports in China and the East Indies, Australia, and New Zealand.  For part of the time, she ruled Canada - and British influence remained strong when Canada became self-governing.  Britain held strategic naval bases in the Caribbean and dominated South Africa and Rhodesia.  During the last decades of the 19th century, Britain took over the lion’s share of Africa.

Britain’s power rested on a vast and powerful navy, and upon its predominance in industry, maritime trade, commerce and technology.  Although Japan, Germany and, especially, the United States were rising rapidly as competitors, Britain remained supreme until its strength was sapped by the extraordinary losses - in men and money - of World War I.  

But even without the Great War, Britain paid heavily for long-neglected social problems, including limited social mobility and extreme inequalities in both wealth and educational opportunity.  Americans charmed by the above-stairs lives of the 19th-century British aristocracy and gentry - in novels, on film or television - should remember that these people shared a world with the wretched poor of Dickens’ harsher novels and A Christmas Carol.

Under Queen Victoria, it could be truly said that “the sun never sets upon the British Empire”.  No matter where you were in the world, the sun was rising upon one or another of Britain’s possessions.  

But of course, the sun ultimately set on the Empire, as a whole.  Great powers inevitably decline - at least in terms of their relative power.  Ambitious and hungry powers copy the things a dominant power does well - while exploiting its weaknesses - as they work to carve out destinies of their own.

Americans who, like myself, have become addicted to the Masterpiece Theatre series Downton Abbey participate vicariously in the twilight of Britain’s global dominance.  While the series is, in some ways, a brilliantly acted soap opera, beneath its superficial loveliness, we see a way of life tht is passing away as its foundations crumble.

Looking at our own nation - the decline of its industrial base, its educational system, even its traditions of democracy and equality of opportunity - the keen-eyed among us, will detect something disturbingly familiar.

If I were designing a curriculum for young Americans preparing for leadership in the 21st century, I’d have them read deeply in both the history and literature of Britain during the century of its greatest power.

The lessons they would draw might well “kindle” constructive ideas about how to avoid the fate Victoria’s Britain suffered under her successors.


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