A family conversation, inspired by A.A. Gill’s The Angry Island, has me thinking of nostalgia. Apparently Gill argues that nostalgia in Britain is a modern invention, created after WW1. He believes that the nation becomes incredibly backward looking, longing for a past golden age. Now having never read this book, I have no idea whether this is what Gill says, but it has certainly been argued that WW1 resulted in great cultural pessimism and that this is the period where we start to question the idea of ‘progress’, while ‘relativism’ is popularised. So I am sympathetic towards this proposition. Now I don’t think that being backward looking is a new to this period. Certainly every generation, for hundreds of years, has expressed concern at the behaviour of their youth, questioning their fashions and values and harking back to their own youth when everything was simpler and more orderly! Nostalgia in that sense is not new.
But I think that Gill is on to something. The combination of Enlightenment ideas of progress, industrialisation, and the ‘success’ of the British Empire, meant that British Victorian society was extremely confident in itself as a nation. In another context, the Victorians are incredibly backward looking. History was never so popular; antiquarians abounded; Walter Scott’s historical novels were best-sellers. Yet, the lesson they learnt from history was ‘look how far we have come’. They were not a nostalgic generation; they looked to the present at their current success and to the future which never looked so bright.
WW1 shattered that vision. It left Britain economically vulnerable and socially insecure with rising class tensions, manifested in the growth of trade unionism and the Labour movement. Men returned from war physically and mentally damaged. The effects of WW1 on the male psyche began to challenge notions of masculinity, because it became evident that war was not natural to men and they were not designed to tolerate the stresses and losses that came with war. This belief that war was ingrained in men’s nature is probably why so many men were shot for PTSD. After the war, this began to be seriously challenged as we could no longer ignore the horrendous psychological effects of war. Similarly, women had risen to the challenge of war and more than adequately replaced men within the workplace. They too were challenging the meaning of gender and with that came social advances such as the vote, but also shorter skirts and short hair and greater freedom in behaviour. For the feminist historian, this challenge to gender norms is ‘progress’, but this belies the uncertainty and insecurity that accompanied these changes. Immediately after WW1, women experienced a backlash, being forced back into the home or, at least, out of traditionally male industries to allow for the returning men needing work. Trade unions were particularly threatened by women and women were often marginalised or excluded entirely. The Labour Movement promised a family wage for men and, by doing so, sacrificed women to pocket money pay.
Longing for and looking back to a time when the nation was powerful and society, at least appeared, stable was natural under the circumstances. Yet, it is interesting that nostalgia has not left us, but continued to haunt each generation as they look back to a not-so distant past to a golden age. Furthermore, that past has not fossilised in the Victorian period, but kept apace, so that we now worship nuclear family values located in a mythical 1960s and 1970s. We look to the young age at marriage, that was peculiar to this period and a definite aberration in the historical trend; to lowish divorce rates; to women in part-time, but very gendered and child-friendly (but not necessarily woman-friendly) work; to a slightly higher birth-rate; to present and non-working grandparents; to contraception without abortion; to an assumption about the availability of pre-marital sex without the ladette culture that (it is thought) mars women today. We look at a time which is similar to ours, but not quite the same, and we block out the social unrest, the high levels of unemployment, the shot-gun weddings and all the other things that made that period less than ideal.
Part of that nostalgia is because we have not regained our place as leaders of the world and that we have not yet figured out what our new role should be. Part of that nostalgia is that we need an explanation for why we live in a less than perfect world. Part of that nostalgia is that we are desperately trying to hold on to our power, as a nation, and as people: as men trying to hold on to a time when their power over women was greater, but within the bounds of what is acceptable today; and as white people trying to feel culturally superior in an increasingly multi-cultural society.
Yet, that nostalgia is crippling. It is preventing us learning the lessons we need to from the past. And it is preventing us from imagining a new and radically different future. If we can learn anything from the Victorians, it is that radical change, such as that marked by the industrial revolution, took incredible confidence in ourselves and a belief that something new and different was possible. It required us to look forward with hope and vision. The question now is: what is that vision and what should we as feminists being doing to shape it?