Sunday, October 19, 2008
I have just stumbled upon what I can only describe as the greatest web site in the world - a project to put the whole of the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica online. This is claimed to be the finest of all encyclopaedias. Having flicked through it for the last 15 minutes, I am inclined to agree. Of course, the real fascination of these little essays, these elegant, Edwardian (I know, I know, he died in 1910, but I am guessing most were written before his death) summaries of lives and events, is what is not included. Modernism is, I think, unnoticed except as a development in theology. Joseph Conrad, for example, is praised for his 'vigorous English style and the vivid description of exotic scenes', not for his formal innovations. Henry James is called 'a modern of the moderns', but 'modern' here seems to be synonymous with 'contemporary'. The big thing missing, the gorilla in this heavily furnished, panelled drawing room, is the Great War, the terrible lens through which we must see 1911. To our imaginations, its absence hangs like a black cloud over every entry. These writers were living in a kind of paradise, a climax of western civilisation before the cataclysm of the twentieth century. The entry for the recently dead Edward VII - a popular, fat, randy rogue - is poignant - '... it remained for her (Victoria's) son to rehabilitate the idea of English kingship by showing how the sovereign could be no less constitutional but personally more monarchical.' And then the roof fell in.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 7:13 am