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When All Men Starve: Showing How England…

When All Men Starve: Showing How England Hazarded Her Naval Supremacy, and…

by Charles Gleig

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Recently added byStevil2001
sf (1) sf19 (1) Victorian (1)



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To be fair, this book sounds from its title like it ought to be awful: another in a long stream of didactic Victorian books about political economy, imperial power, and land ownership. But to my surprise it wasn't. Charles Gleig, who apparently mostly wrote YA naval adventure tales, turns out to have a less obviously moralizing tone than many of his contemporaries. He's pretty sarcastic about the amount of money that goes into the imperial project, and about how the British upper classes overlook the plight of the lower classes, and how the middle classes have been bamboozled into siding with the upper.

The starting point for the novel is conflict between English and Boer settlers in South Africa that allows the Germans to land on a pretext of peacekeeping, doing so unimpeded because Britain pursues a diplomatic, rather than military solution. Soon, it's too late, and Britain is not just fighting Germany, but France and Russia have seized the opportunity and are demanding British withdrawal from the Mediterranean. Gleig isn't interested in your typical jingoistic future war, though: this is not The Next Crusade or even The Three Days' Terror. Rather, he focuses on the effect of the war on an already strained domestic situation: war mean no exports, which means no profits, which means mass unemployment.

"The remedy [to the bread famine], hinted unpatriotic Socialism, was to make peace. War might be glorious, but what was glory upon an empty stomach?
"But as yet there was no general desire for peace. The nation hurled defiance at all accursed foreigners, and would yet find a Nelson to drive the Allies from the seas. […] Let Labour eat his turnips and be patient; above all, let him trust in the failing wisdom of the Government and all would be well." (76-7)

Because the government ignores the people (Gleig is particularly scathing of Radicals who are not actually radical), things spiral out of control at home while war is waged abroad. A Socialist leader, Jim Scalds, is arrested after a speech in the town of Braiding; the people riot, and when the police accidentally kill a rioter, things really go nuts.

The Justice of the Peace who arrested Scalds is hung, but a man named Robert Margrave, a former major in the "little wars" unites the rioters under his control. Gleig doesn't flinch from the violence, but he also doesn't revel in it; the book mostly reports it matter-of-factly, and I think it does a good job of expressing sympathy for the working-class position, unlike many of Gleig's contemporaries.

"That regrettable excesses were committed, that violence and bloodshed marked the overthrow of the old order in Braiding, has to be admitted; but there is no evidence connecting Robert Margrave with the acts of violence perpetrated by his undisciplined followers, whilst, on the contrary, the rapidity with which some semblance of order was restored sufficiently indicates the force of character possessed by the man who dominated and guided the coming rebellion." (147)

The rebels aren't met in London by the military, but the police, and Gleig is most regretful over the horrific massacre that results: "one is forced to admit that the massacre left an indelible stain upon the character of the British rough" (178). Six thousand policeman are killed, but only one-third die in the actual battle: the others are killed afterward, while trying to flee. Buckingham Palace is burnt down, but the mob lets Westminster stand, apparently conscious that the only thing worse than the current government is no government: unlike many of his contemporaries, Gleig gets that these people aren't actually anarchists; they only want a just government. Margrave, though he is praised for his ability to channel the mob throughout, cannot control the revolution in those early days in London.

That's where the book ends, with the mob dancing around the embers of Buckingham Palace in a pretty haunting scene: "So they dance on, till the grey dawn steals up from the east and the burnt palace looms black and haggard in the cold light of morning" (192).

One thing I should note is that the book is fun and playful in its construction of future history; there are lots of footnotes, some of which cite what I think are real books, but many of them must be fake because they're things like London during the War by Andrew Slang and Chronicles of the Revolution by Professor Ducky. (I bet these are references to real writers, because Gleig likes doing this kind of thing; for example, the book transforms the real Sir Compton Domville into "Sir Dompton Colville" or Sir John Hopkins into "Sir John Skipworth."*) He's not the only person to do this kind of thing, but he's more playful than most, even establishing that "Alfred Norrison" (i.e., Arthur Morrison of A Child of the Jago fame) wrote novels about the events he's chronicling.

I particularly liked this skewering of writers of military fiction:

"The English are a pugnacious race, yet how few Englishmen care very greatly to study those minutely detailed descriptions of sea fights which are to be found in the pages of James, Brenton, Laughton, Colomb, or even Mahan. The picturesque pen of a Froude, the robust irony of a Stevenson is needed to pierce the smoke of battle and show us the deportment of the dramatis personæ; otherwise the average citizen is sadly prone to yawn over whole pages of tactics and military manœuvres." (96)

He uses this as an excuse to not engage in such minute chronicles himself. Thank goodness, because he's right: they're dead boring, and his take is much more interesting.

* Thanks to Jess Nevins for pointing this out.
  Stevil2001 | Apr 22, 2016 |
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