"In the six months covered by this volume, Liberal England was dying, the British Empire showing signs of decay, and The New Age was doing its bit to speed both processes along."

The New Age, Volume 4, (October 29, 1908 to April 22, 1909): An Introduction

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In the six months covered by this volume, Liberal England was dying, the British Empire showing signs of decay, and The New Age was doing its bit to speed both processes along. (The decline of Liberalism has been described with considerable vigor and clarity in George Dangerfield’s book, The Strange Death of Liberal England, first published in 1935 and reprinted many times since then.) Herbert Henry Asquith had replaced the beloved but ailing Henry Campbell-Bannerman as Liberal Prime Minister in April 1908 and continued to lead this party and the British government during this period. In his Cabinet were:

  • David Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Edward Grey as Foreign Secretary
  • Richard Burdon Haldane as Secretary of State for War
  • Winston Churchill as President of the Board of Trade

But the great Liberal majority of 1906–which had returned the Party to power with over four hundred seats in Parliament after eleven years of opposition, plus thirty additional votes from elected members of the newly formed Labour Party (Clarke 33-34)–had begun to dwindle, as did its public support, to the point where the party now faced not only Conservative and Unionist opposition to its right but also criticism from the disaffected Labour Party on its left, and from socialist organizations like the Fabians, who kept up a steady barrage of critical commentary. The New Age, as a maverick socialist journal, added its own voice to this criticism from the left. Since its circulation had increased by 6,000 in the autumn of 1908, reaching 22,000 copies (No. 5, Nov. 26 1908) before the end of the year, this criticism was not trivial. To leap ahead a bit, in 1910, there were two elections, which resulted in a Parliament almost evenly divided between Liberals and Unionists. The great Liberal majority had disappeared in four short years. This process of dissolution may be traced in the pages of this volume of The New Age and those that followed it.

Events of the Period

The major international events of this period were these:

  • The Ottoman Empire–beset by the internal quest for power of the Young Turks, and the nationalist aspirations of the Balkan peoples–was breaking up. (The Young Turks, founded in 1889, were members of an educated elite in Turkey, allied with exiles in Paris, who wanted to end the rule of the Sultans and make Turkey into a modern secular nation rather than an Islamic empire. They succeeded in deposing the Sultan and taking power in 1909.) Meanwhile, the nearest Great Power, the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, was trying to pick up as many of the pieces of the old Ottoman Empire as possible. During this period Bulgaria declared its independence from Turkey and Bosnia-Herzegovina were annexed by the Austrians, setting the stage for the events that began World War I six years later at Sarajevo.
  • German military power and geopolitical aspirations were on the rise. During this period German naval power grew rapidly, though the building of “Dreadnoughts,” the most powerful battleships of the era, which England first commissioned in 1906. Now more would be needed to match Germany’s efforts.
  • A devastating earthquake shook Sicily and southern Italy.
  • Japan, having made Korea a “protectorate” in 1906, proceeded to tighten its grip on that nation.
  • In India the new Nationalist Party was gathering strength, making the old “Indian National Congress” appear more moderate and hence more acceptable to the British government.
  • The Union of South Africa was created by a constitutional convention.
  • Belgium officially made the Congo its colony.

Within the UK and throughout its empire the major issues of this period were these:

  • Unemployment and poverty at home, and possible methods of government intervention in these problems. To deal with poverty among the elderly the Liberal government introduced old-age pensions (though very modest ones), designed to help to help the indigent aged avoid being consigned to workhouses–a relic from the Victorian “poor law,” which sentenced those unable to support themselves to prison-like conditions.
  • The movement for women’s suffrage and other rights. The Liberal government waffled on the issue until 1914, when they promised to attend to it after the War. Asquith himself was not sympathetic.
  • The issue of Irish Home Rule, complicated by the bitter resistance of the Northern counties (Ulster) to this. During this period the issue was on the back burner.
  • Continuing unrest in India, as the movement for national independence grew in numbers and influence. The voice of the Indian Nationalist movement was heard frequently in The New Age during this period.
  • The rise of German naval power also triggered debates over whether Britain should match the German program and build more Dreadnoughts.

All these issues and other related matters figured repeatedly in the pages of The New Age.

In visual art the center of excitement and innovation was Paris, where Picasso and Matisse continued to exploit the breakthrough that they recognized in the later work of Cézanne, though these artists were scarcely known in England at this time. In music the Continental giants, Mahler and Strauss, were joined by the Englishman, Edward Elgar, whose first symphony was performed in 1908. Literature in Britain was dominated by the major Edwardian figures: Wells, with Tono Bungay, Bennett with The Old Wives’ Tale, and Chesterton with The Man Who Was Thursday. But new voices were beginning to appear, such as E. M. Forster, whose third novel, A Room With a View, was published in 1908.

The Journal Itself

The New Age itself, its subheading now A WEEKLY REVIEW OF POLITICS, LITERATURE, AND ART, maintained its regular format, but issued four four-page literary supplements during this period. The magazine also sold shares in a “NEW AGE PRESS, LIMITED,” by means of which the journal and the New Age Press went public, with the resulting sale’s success triumphantly announced in No. 8 of 17 December 1908. For details of this agreement, see p. 100 of the journal. Under it, A. R. Orage and F. Palmer were to receive salaries of a bit over 200 pounds a year as Editor and Business Manager, respectively.

Individual numbers of the magazine were 20 pages long. After the table of contents under the banner on the first page of every issue came “Notes of the Week,” which usually ran through the third page. These notes covered parliamentary doings, party meetings, and international events like the Italian earthquake. For the cultural or political historian, these are not only a mine of information about what people on the left were thinking about the events of the time, but also, because they often report what other papers and magazines were saying, of public opinion in general.

After these pages came a series of individual columns on various matters, mostly political, occupying the rest of the front half of the journal. Around the tenth page, in twenty-five of the twenty-six issues of the volume, the section on literature and the arts began with a column called “Books and Persons,” signed Jacob Tonson and written by Arnold Bennett. This was often followed by a “Book of the Week”–a signed review of a current book, or a reprinted giant like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, reviewed by J. M. Kennedy on pp. 287-88. Then came other, shorter reviews and several pages of “Correspondence,” with quite a few advertisements sprinkled throughout these pages. Some issues had sections on art or music, and some did not.During this period the journal did a much better job of attending to politics and literature than to the other arts.

Specifically, columns devoted to particular artistic topics appeared in individual issues as follows:

Tonson/Bennett’s reviews were the power driving the literature section of the paper in this issue. Among the notable reviews are his welcome to the second volume of Chekhov’s (spelled Tchekhov here) short stories to be translated into English and his enthusiastic praise of Wells’s Tono-Bungay. The journal also published short fiction with some regularity, including one of Chekhov’s stories in No. 24. Poetry appeared regularly as well, and F. S. Flint, on four occasions, offered omnibus reviews of“Recent Verse.” At this time Flint, whose poetry appeared regularly in the journal, was groping for a new form of poetry for the new age but had not yet found it. The Imagist movement, in which he was to become a founding figure, along with Ezra pound and T. E. Hulme, was still some years away. The first visible movement in that direction occurred in No. 16, in which Flint compared an anthology of contemporary French poetry–“the work of pioneers, iconoclasts, craftsmen and artists”–to a similar English collection as the work of “a dining club and after-dinner discussion association.”

Another feature of this volume is a long ongoing debate among Belfort Bax, Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, and Cecil Chesterton on matters relating to religion and politics. This debate took the form of articles and letters, with scarcely an issue in which at least one of these combatants did not hold the stage to criticize one or more others and defend their own positions. The level of wit and energy generated by this group week after week is remarkable. This interchange was never labeled as a series in parts, but it reached a sort of climax in No. 21, with“A Debate on Socialism,” featuring both the Chesterton brothers (opposed to one another as usual), Shaw, and Belloc.

During this six-month period, Orage himself wrote a series of dialogues called“Unedited Opinions,” in which he took up a variety of subjects, including socialism, education, India, and the magazine itself. R. B. Cunningham Graham allowed The New Age to reprint a piece he had written as an eye-witness to the “Bloody Sunday” police assault on a worker’s demonstration in 1887, followed in a later issue by his up-to-date rethinking of that twenty-year old event in the light of the present situation of working people. And Cecil Chesterton wrote a three-part series on“Socialism and the Drink Supply.”

The year 1909 began with the first of a four-part series called“Indian Notes” attributed to “An Indian Nationalist.” This series is just one strand of a rich body of material on India in this volume, which is supported by an ironic series of letters on“Western Civilization ” by Duse Mahomed, author, a few years later of a history of Egypt. A short, unattributed series called“Studies in the Poor Law” also appeared in 1909, as did another short series on unemployment policy. This was a period in which social and economic issues received major attention in the journal.

Though there was no specific series devoted to it, the question of the rights of women, including the vote, and the tactics of the suffrage movement, was touched on in most of these issues. Beatrice Hastings, writing as Beatrice Tina, took a lead in this debate, but many voices, expressing many positions, including that of Orage himself, kept the issue alive in the minds of their readers. As Orage put it in the last sentence of his“Opinion” on the subject, “The Suffragist looks in the future for free women. The anti-Suffragist desires to see continued a race of wives, prostitutes, and oldmaids” (301). Some of his contributors, including Hastings, disagreed with him.

Throughout the volume a serious discussion over the true nature and proper tactics of socialism and socialists was continued. Serious but not solemn–a favorite weapon of these discussants was irony. And at the same time, a critique of the Liberal government’s policies at home, in the Empire, and abroad was kept up. The German threat, embodied in the growth of their fleet and the truculence of the Kaiser, was not taken seriously in the journal during this period. A touching faith in the ultimate reasonableness of humans is found in many of these writers, along with a belief that another European war was unthinkable. The extraordinary effect of World War I, when it came, was partly a result of the optimism that preceded it, and which is apparent in these pages.

The political section of the magazine, up until February 25, was led by Victor Grayson, one of the few socialist Members of Parliament, and a major figure in the Independent Labour Party. He left, very amicably to accept a similar post at a journal with wider distribution. In his “Au Revoir,” Grayson said of The New Age and its writers: “With a reckless contempt for conventional cants and creeds, whether in politics, literature, or art, its able and cultured writers have planked down the truth as they know it” (353). That is what makes the journal and this volume of it valuable today. That–and the extraordinary wit and verve of their writing.

For the location of specific topics and people, the reader should, as always, make keyword searches.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Clarke, Peter. Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-1990. London: Penguin, 1996.
  • Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England. London: Granada, 1983.
  • Kinross, J. P. D. B. The Ottoman Centuries. New York: Morrow, 1979.
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