"The constitutional contest for legislative power between the Lords and Commons, the growing threat of German militarism, the growing demand for the safeguards of a modern welfare state, and the seemingly insoluble problem of poverty and unemployment all find their way onto the cover and into the columns of this unusually thick volume."
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The first thing that strikes a reader looking through the sixth volume of The New Age is that the journal itself has undergone a significant visual transformation. In place of those dual columns of text on the cover which echoed the appearance of the great Victorian and Edwardian quarterlies, large illustrations now adorn the first page of each issue. Contributed by the cartoonists Dudley Tennant, John P. Campbell, and Littlejohns, these span from the comic scene of an English parson consigning a copy of The New Age to a festive book-burning (06.14:313) to the horrific image of the German eagle armed for war (06.12:265). These cartoons, in fact, provide a comprehensive visual index of the various political and cultural debates in which England was embroiled in the period covered by this volume: 4 November 1909 to 28 April 1910. The constitutional contest for legislative power between the Lords and Commons, the growing threat of German militarism, the growing demand for the safeguards of a modern welfare state, and the seemingly insoluble problem of poverty and unemployment all find their way onto the cover and into the columns of this unusually thick volume.
No issue takes up more space in these twenty-six issues than the dire constitutional crisis provoked by the House of Lords when they vetoed the “People’s Budget” designed to finance such social reforms as unemployment insurance and old age pensions. The unwritten (but long-established) compromise between the hereditary Lords and the democratically-elected House of Commons upon which the British government rested had, for nearly two centuries, prevented the upper house from exercising its legislative veto when dealing with matters of finance and taxation. When Lloyd George, the fiery Liberal politician and now Chancellor of the Exchequer, guided through the Commons a budget imposing significant taxes on incomes and a “super-tax” on the extremely wealthy, this compromise fell apart. The House of Lords, which had already grown restless after the Liberal’s electoral triumph in 1906, took the unprecedented step of vetoing the budget. Declaring this action “a breach of the constitution and a usurpation of the rights of the Commons”, the Prime Minister asked the king to dissolve Parliament in December 1909 and order new elections. Lloyd George and his followers took their case the people, proclaiming that Commons would not be ruled by
“five hundred men. . .chosen accidentally from among the unemployed”(Powell 47)
The Liberals again proved victorious at the polls, acquiring a clear mandate from the electorate for the “People Budget,” and the bill itself was passed by the Lords in April without objection. A much larger problem now loomed, however, for the Liberals no longer commanded the same overwhelming Parliamentary majority they had gained after the 1906 elections. Asquith, in fact, now required both the votes of the still nascent Labour party and the Irish Home-Rule members to form his government. Stung by the Lords’ excercise of their veto and the continuing threat that they would derail other pending legislation such as Irish Home Rule and other social welfare reforms, this coalition now moved to take up the reform of the House of Lords itself. A crisis even more serious ensued, one The New Age describes as “nearly. . .without example in our constitutional history” (06.03:52).On the campaign trail in December 1909, Lloyd George had proclaimed that a “revolution” was at hand, as the Commons sought to eliminate the veto of the Lords and essentially remove any real legislative authority from the peers. The issue would eventually be resolved by a second round of elections at the end of 1910 and a threat by the King to create enough Liberal peers to overwhelm the Conservative and Unionist majority in the Lords. In the end, they passed a Parliament Bill that stripped them of their veto, while providing only the power to delay legislation passed by the Commons.
In this hothouse atmosphere of political intrigue and bitter partisanship, The New Age assumed its now familiar place as an intellectual gadfly, ruthlessly cutting through the cant of both Liberals and Conservatives. Its columns are prescient, insightful, and often quite surprising. Orage himself pursues an increasingly independent course for the journal, opening its pages to a wide array of political opinion while remaining elusive of any single political party. Observing that after the first elections of 1910 the Liberals now depend upon the votes of Labour, The New Age argues that “the Liberal Party will be swept away and its remains divided among the Unionists on the one side and the Socialists on the other” (06.18:410). Rather than seeing this as cause for celebration, however, the journal contends that the Labour party and the Socialists alike have lost their revolutionary potential. The “Notes of the Week” for 31 March 1910 regrets that Socialism itself has become entangled with “cranks and faddists,” alleging that the leaders of the movement have failed to recognize that “the chief obstacle to the success of their cause is themselves” (06.22:506).
This insistent critique of Socialist manifestoes, Labour party politics, and Fabian economics is formalized by Orage’s bold editorial claim that The New Age itself has become an “aristocratic” rather than a merely political organ. Taking his cue and his imagery from Nietzsche, he contends that “we are not afraid to tell our readers the truth, even when it goes against our inclinations and prejudices, and those of our readers” (06.14:316). This sort of intellectual honesty is one of the hallmarks of Orage’s New Age, of course, and it produces in this volume a number of surprising essays and editorials which do indeed weigh heavily against the prejudices of a Socialist readership. Among the most striking and unexpected of these pieces are the following:
The gravity of the constitutional crisis not only altered the political affiliations and tenor of The New Age, it also moved a number of other issues to the back burner, including women’s suffrage. This does not mean, however, that the Suffragists were willing to delay or surrender their cause, and the journal continues to report on and critique the strategies and goals of the WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League. Among the notable topics and events found in these pages:
The ever-pressing issue of Irish Home Rule also emerges as a major topic of discussion in this volume of The New Age, largely because the question of Irish self-government becomes increasingly entangled in debates over the reform of the House of Lords. Irish Home Rule bills had passed through the Commons in the late nineteenth century under the guidance of Gladstone’s Liberal party, but had been vetoed by the Lords-an act which cost the Liberals the next election and kept them out of power until 1906. After a victory at the polls, the Liberals commanded an absolute majority in the Commons, but after the first 1910 elections, they could only form a government with the support of the Irish MPs. Indeed, the Home Rule supporters lent their support to the People’s Budget only in exchange for a promise that Asquith would immediately follow it with a Bill providing for Irish self-government. Such an act would be meaningless, however, if the Lords still possessed their veto powers, so the issue of Irish Home Rule became directly implicated in the reform of the House of Lords. In order to pass the budget, Asquith not only had to overcome the veto of the Lords on the issue of taxes, but also had to assure members of his own ruling coalition that he would seek to do away with the veto entirely. It should thus come as no surprise that the columns of The New Age devote a great deal of space in this volume to the question of Irish Home Rule. Among the most notable pieces here are:
The gravity of the constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom weighs heavily on this volume of The New Age, directing the attention of its editors and contributors inward to domestic politics and away from the international concerns that typically occupied a great deal of space in the journal. With the exception of only two numbers, however, the regular “Foreign Affairs” column continues to appear, written by C.H. Norman (who signs himself as “Stanhope of Chester”). These pieces range quite broadly, though they are increasingly distinguished by an almost obsessive anti-Catholicism as well as a subtle anti-semitism. They nevertheless provide a wonderfully detailed look into the events shaping a world moving ever closer to war. Among the most interesting columns and events recorded here:
According to Virginia Woolf, 1910 marked the year in which “human character changed.” She was referring to the aesthetic revolution we now refer to very loosely as modernism, which found its most striking façade in the works of Cézanne, Matisse, Monet and the other painters gathered together at the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition. Though somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Woolf’s assessment was essentially correct, for the arts in general were, in fact, undergoing a revolutionóthe origins of which become strikingly visible in this volume of The New Age. Mixed with already familiar names like Shaw, Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthyóthose often ignored Edwardians who seem caught in limbo between the formality of a faded Victorianism and the rage the post-war generationówe now see Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, F.S. Flint, and Ford Maddox Hueffer (later Ford). The art critics Huntley Carter, Walter Sickert, and T. Sturge Moore all contribute essays and reviews that share a common contempt for academy art and its constraints. Similar restlessness becomes visible in the increased attention paid not only to Wagner, but to Wilde, Strauss, and Shaw as they attempt to reshape music and drama. A recognizable modernism does not emerge in this volume, and notably absent are names like Joyce, Picasso, Matisse, and Eliot. What we can see, however, are the rough outlines of a still emergent aesthetic revolt that attempts to question the nature, form, and function of art in an increasingly democratic and market-driven culture.
The most striking evidence of the still nascent modernism emerging in the pages of The New Age are the short stories by Katherine Mansfield that would later be gathered together in 1911 as the collection In a German Pension. The pieces included in this volume are:
These stories are sharply critical of the German culture in which the unmarried and pregnant narrator finds herself entwined. The sharply controlled point-of-view, the brevity of the stories, and their unconventional themes immediately single Mansfield out as a writer in the tradition of Woolf, Lawrence, and other early century writers struggling to find a new fictional idiom and structure.
Though this volume of The New Age contains few other poems or short fictions that we might so easily recognize as modernist, there remains here the same sense of discomfort, dissatisfaction, and dialogue that characterizes the journal as a whole. Such restlessness, in fact, is noted by a correspondent named Maud Braby whose novel had just received a negative review. “I have frequently observed,” she writes, “the strange hostility of your reviewers towards almost all of the novels noticed in The New Age.” This is, in fact, an apt description of the acid remarks penned by the various contributorsósigned and unsignedóin the reviews section, and the editors readily “confess to a hostility…to all the novels reviewed in our pages….Authors’ only remedy,” the editorial reply continues, “is to write better novels” (06:597-8). In “The Drawing Room Table in Literature,”Edward Carpenter also attacks conventional British fiction, arguing that the “The British drawing room of the last century,” in which reading was a decorous and polite practice, “was a centre from which many paralyzing influences radiated” (06.20:464). The literary critic Frank Swinnterton adds his voice to this cacophony of dissent, praising the hard-edged realism of writers like Ibsen who use their art “to question and to test everything” (06.22:518). Finally, in reviewing a new collection of poems by the still unknown Ezra Pound, F.S. Flint begins to assemble the ideas that would go into his more famous 1913 manifesto, “Imagisme.” After mildly taunting what Flint imagines to be Pound’s snobbish affection for foreign words and phrases, he goes on to conclude that the poems themselves “prove…that the old devices of regular metrical beat and regular rhyming are worn out” (06.10:233). This is not yet the modernism we recognize, but we can begin to see its emergent outlines in the artfulness of Mansfield’s stories, Carpenter’s disdain for Victorian propriety, Swinnterton’s embrace of Naturalism, and the still emergent desire to reinvent art shared by Flint and Pound.
Elsewhere in this volume, others add their voices to this debate about the changing role and structure of art as well. Among the most striking are:
In December 1910, of course, the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition would arrive on England’s shores and outrage the British sense of taste and propriety. Though such revolutionary impulses in color, line, and composition are not yet visible in this volume of The New Age, the art columnsónow largely edited and composed by Huntley Carteródemonstrate a clear sense of dissatisfaction with conventional portraiture and landscapes. Carter attacks the Royal academy (06.12:283); compares favorably the aesthetics of Punch, the Yellowbook, and contemporary political posters; despairs of a public taste defined only be deference to the old masters; and declares his intention to battle “snobbery, jobbery, misappropriation of public funds, [and] the fallacy of the traffic in aesthetic culture” (06.26:618). Among Carter’s more significant contributions to this issue:
Amid the political and social tumult of the six months covered by this volume of The New Age it is easy to understand why Woolf would later say (admittedly with a twinge of absurdity) that 1910 marked a watershed year within British modernity. A series of elections provoked one of the most serious constitutional crises in British history that only drew to a close when the House of Peers lost its veto and was forced to consent to the formation of a modern welfare state. Abroad, the vast collection of colonies that were the source of Britain’s wealth and power were becoming increasingly restive and fractious while at home Suffragists, Socialists, and others were resorting to increasingly visible acts of public defiance. In the arts, museums, lending libraries, and other cultural institutions were coming under sustained attack for their snobbery and commercialism. In the fractious columns of The New Age, poets, novelists, musicians, artists and philosophers found a common forum of expression where dissent in all its diverse forms could be registered without submitting to the constraints of a particular party or ideology. Here, amidst the seeming chaos of the letters, columns, and essay of the journal, we can see the fault lines of a culture in crisis, the cracks of which will soon shake a complacent Edwardian world violently enough to prove Woolf more right than wrong.
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