Constant rain, sullen skies and a scarcely articulate commentary did not deter the massive and sodden crowds or diminish the momentum of the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Only the bigger picture and the jaundiced eye of history could assign the event its comparative place in the great panoply of royal extravaganzas …
Certain eras somehow put their mark on those born into or growing up during them, and this process, while a part of the historical record, is also influenced by myth and anecdote.
Victorian Britain, for example, will no doubt never throw off its aura of vague gloom, narrow propriety and prissiness despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, ranging from the pleasant and pastoral to the lurid and prurient – not to mention the minatory Queen’s own fleetingly lighter moments: when assured by a cleric that ‘we cannot pray too often, nor too fervently, for the Royal Family’, she reputedly replied: ‘Too fervently, no; too often, yes.’
The ‘Edwardian Age,’ on the other hand, remains halcyon in legend and memoir. From the time of his accession at the dawn of the new century, the sybaritic Edward VII seemed to bring a sense of liberation, a release of constraints and tensions. His death in May 1910 did not apparently signal the end of ‘the age’.
His son and heir, George V, though less flamboyant and more cautious, did nothing to stall the momentum, and pleasure-seeking, celebration, fashion and high society became inextricably linked with English and particularly London life in much the same blurring, unexamined way that ‘naughtiness’ became associated with the nineties in Paris.
Unlike Queen Elizabeth II – with the 1992 fire at Windsor Castle completing what she called her annus horribilis, unforgettably translated by the Sun as ‘One’s bum year’, and then twenty years later the ordeal by water during the Jubilee – both Edward and George were favoured by a succession of stunning summers. In July 1911, the Sussex towns of Eastbourne and Hastings had the highest monthly total of sunshine (384 hours) on record and in August the country ‘enjoyed’ day after day of temperatures of more than 35 degrees centigrade.
And then there was the famous last summer before the war, the remembered perfection of which was no doubt intensified both by fond and eventually flawed recall and by the shocking starkness of its contrast with what followed. David Fromkin, in his Europe’s Last Summer, describes ‘the hot, sun-drenched, gorgeous summer of 1914, [as] the most beautiful within living memory … remembered by many Europeans as a kind of Eden.’
Even allowing for the idealization that has blurred the picture since, there seems little doubt that what came to be known as the Edwardian period in England – 1900 to 1914 – shaped the self-image of a generation by virtue of its benign atmosphere, its relative or at least perceived calm, and its confidence – however misplaced it turned out to be – in the possibilities of the future.
Bliss was it, no doubt, in that time to be alive and ‘to be young was very heaven’. You needed to be twenty something as Edward VII’s court got into its stride, to enjoy the world of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Barmy Fotheringay Phipps and Bingo Little – ‘young men in spats’. But, as George Orwell pointed out in his wintry way, ‘Bertie Wooster, if he ever existed, was killed round about 1915.’
‘Out of the world of summer, 1914,’ says Paul Fussell in his classic study, The Great War and Modern Memory, ‘marched a unique generation. It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.’
For both historical and meteorological reasons, therefore, the funeral of Edward VII was a royal event at least as spellbinding as the Diamond Jubilee. In the words of historian Barbara Tuchman:
So gorgeous was the spectacle on [that] May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jewelled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens … and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendour never to be seen again.
Ah, they don’t do royal occasions like that any more. And as for what the rain-distorted face of history’s clock was showing during the Diamond Jubilee – well, no doubt we’ll soon find out.
Brian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark - A Life.