The Hundred Years

by Philip Guedalla
[Doubleday, Doran, $3.00]
MR. GUEOALLA’S hundred years turn out to be but nine-and-ninety, and the small discrepancy opens a crevice more than ample for springing one of those grotesque traps that wait for the man of letters undertaking to compromise artistic considerations with journalistic. The scope of the book and its thesis are packed into the first sentence of a prefatory note: ’One hundred years ago next [i.e., this] June the world heard for the first time of Queen Victoria; and the world we live in is largely the result of that eventful century.’ The boldly selective method of presentation adopted is ‘to describe the leading moments of the century as they affected the leading units of the Western world,’ These units are Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and the United States. The ‘moments’ are 1337, 1848, 1861, ten other more and less pivotal years, and finally 1936; for the tactical exigencies of publication had decreed that the author must take leave of his manuscript in July of last year. The cadence on which the whole narrative closes is a glimpse of Edward VIII walking bareheaded on a winter afternoon behind the draped gun-carriage of his father’s funeral cortège. Mr. Guedalla, who is an indefatigable pursuer of historic echoes, found in this glimpse a piercing echo of the unceremonious ceremony whereby on a summer morning of 1837 Victoria learned of her accession. On the one episode he opens the narrative, on the other he rounds it to a poetic close; and each is supposed to lead the imagination into a long vista.
Alas for purely literary inevitability, within a matter of months the new King was an ex-King, and Mr. Guedalla’s expressive characterization was bathos. {‘The watching streets . . . had already learnt to know him better than they knew any of his subjects: and twenty years of active life had taught him almost all that there was to be known of them. . . .’) A brilliant journalist-historian had got his centenary book ready well before the coronation, but it was the coronation of the wrong King. One is tempted to add that it was also the wrong country: for the stable and pacific England of his valedictory was even then on the brink of world readjustments that were to compromise its prestige, call its moral credit into grave question, and undermine its self-confidence — developments to which it finds no answer except the most colossal programme of rearmament ever devised. The world is indeed ‘largely the result of that eventful century,’ but somehow, after the brutal ironies of Mr. Guedalla’s omitted year, —a year almost certainly as crucial as most that he includes, — we do not seem to be living in quite the world he is talking about, and we are left excusably wondering how far a divination so much less than realistic about the end of the story is to be relied upon for balance and proportion in the story itself.
The Hundred Years contains, of course, many passages written with supreme virtuosity, of which none is more brilliant than the character sketch of William II of the Hohenzollerns. Some of the interpretations of major international developments make basic hypotheses of the professional historian for the first time really luminous to popular readers. If, as I surmise, the book is giving a good many such readers a new appetite for the study of modern history at the sources, even the more austere pundits of the profession may well forgo the customary gibe about ‘fictional history.’ They could even afford to forgive Mr. Guedalla his chronic indifference to the one kind of literary art he lacks — the kind that attests by concealing itself.