What Was the World Like 100 Years Ago?

BLOG #36, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHAT WAS THE WORLD LIKE
100 YEARS AGO?

September 3, 2014

In a nutshell, it was a different world from the one we live in today. In many ways, changed very little from what it had been for more than a millennium. As 1914 approached, so many things seemed to be going right for the nobility, princes and princesses, kings and queens and emperors.

Ever since Darwin, there had been the perception that the world was rapidly becoming a better place. According to evolutionary theory, it was assumed we could expect global peace in the future. As Emile Coeu famously put it, “Every day, in every way, I’m becoming better and better.” It was then easy to believe in the goodness of God: God would no longer permit mankind to do terrible things to each other.

Back then, England ruled the world, thus, ruling over one quarter of the globe, it was said, “The sun never sets over the British Empire.” At the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, her sway extended over half of North America, slices of Central and South America, a vast part of Africa, a whole continent in Australia, some of the richest lands in Asia (including India), plus other island possessions spread clear across the globe. It was the British sea-power that enabled it to rule over the ocean, and Britain’s merchant fleet that made Britain the greatest of all trading nations.

On the European continent, the Hohenzollern Kaisers had gradually forged such a powerful military power that the German army was perceived as being almost invincible. And now, vain, impulsive Kaiser Wilhelm II worshiped the art of war. A huge naval shipbuilding program had begun in order to challenge Britain’s supremacy over the seas.

France had mostly recovered from its 1870 defeat at the hands of Germany. France now had a world-wide empire, second in size only to the British.

East was the vast land called Russia, composed of one-eighth of the land mass of the world. A proud and imperialistic nation ruled by the Romanoff czars, now Nicholas II. Nicholas, a narrow-minded aristocrat who wholeheartedly believed in the divine right of kings and was totally oblivious to the plight of his people, was incapable of handling the forces sweeping across the steppes of the empire. Politically inept, he was dependent on his strong-willed czarina, Alexandra, who was herself manipulated by the Svengalian mystic, Rasputin.

Dominating Central Europe was the far-flung Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by its beloved emperor, Franz Joseph, last of the great Hapsburg monarchs. The empire shouldn’t even have existed, yet somehow did, composed as it was of 12,000,000 Germans, 10,000,000 Magyars [Hungarians], 6,000,000 Czechs, 5,000,000 Poles, 4,000,000 Ukrainians, 3,700,000 Serbs and Croats, 3,300,000 Rumanians, 2,500,000 Slovaks, 1,300,000 Slovenes, and 800,000 Italians. But all those diverse peoples remained a unit mainly because of the respect they had for the emperor. In reality, it was just one big powder keg waiting to explode. And Franz Joseph was old.

Then there was the increasingly formidable Japanese Empire. To the north, Japan annexed the Kuriles; to the south and east, the Ryukyus, the Bonins, the Volcanoes, and Marcus Island. After its victorious war against China in 1894-95, the Japanese annexed Taiwan and the Pescadores; and Korea became a vassal. In 1904, Japan had an epic showdown with Russia, and won. Nicholas II never recovered from that ignominious disaster. So now, Japan was spoiling for a fight in order to acquire even more territory.

Thus the western world was ruled from five great cities: London, Berlin, Moscow, Vienna, and Paris. Most all the European royal houses had intermarried to the extent that they were all cousins.

It is fascinating to read eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction. The protagonists, the heroes and heroines of that age were invariably royal, among the nobility, or aristocratic. In America, it seemed every girl yearned to marry a prince, duke, earl, count, or lord. And many did just that. Reason being that the European aristocracy and nobility, due to their frivolous and lavish lifestyles, were almost always in debt: desperately needing money. Since there were plenty of rich Americans who had lots of money, and would gladly pawn off their daughters to the highest bidder, Americans bought their way into European high society. That most of those marriages had nothing to do with love, yoking title to money, more often than not, they proved disastrous.

It would not be until the end of World War I, and the resulting doom of royal supremacy, that fictional heroes and heroines shifted away in the direction of media, entertainers, and sports protagonists, such as we see today.

The tragedy of 1914 was that, in reality, no one deep down really wanted war. Times were good. Sidewalk cafes were full. Monarchies were becoming ever more democratic, the middle class was increasingly prosperous, education was becoming more and more accessible to all, European tours were something more and more people wanted to take. In most cases the populace would rather have the ruler they had (the devil they knew) than the ruler they didn’t know (the devil they didn’t know).

Then came June 28, 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, Serbia, on a state visit, was assassinated.

And the world exploded into war . . . and has never been the same since.

References: The Five Worlds of Our Lives (New York: Newsweek, Inc., 1961).

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB–FRANCIS (ELIZA) HODGSON BURNETT’S LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

BLOG #9, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB

FRANCIS (ELIZA) HODGSON BURNETT’S

LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY

February 29, 2012

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If you really want to understand the Nineteenth Century psyche of England and America, just read Burnett’s most famous book, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886).  England then ruled over the hearts of both the British and Americans via the persona of that long-lived symbol of virtue, Queen Victoria.  Ever since the Revolution, though Americans ostensibly threw off all ties to the British monarchy, in their hearts they missed the pageantry and romance of royalty.  Not surprisingly, the predominant icons in popular American literature were European royalty and nobility, and England being then the greatest world power, Queen Victoria ruling over one quarter of the world—including India and much of Africa—was said to be “empress of an empire where the sun never set.”  Even today—note the American obsession with Princess Diana and Princess Kate—, this deification of English royalty continues.  But, worldwide, the fascination with European royalty suffered a mighty hit with World War I (the so-called “Great War”), at the conclusion of which royal houses collapsed like dominoes in France, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Poland, Italy, Spain, and on and on.  But nevertheless, nostalgia for the panoply of royalty has never died in popular culture.

On November 24, 1849, Frances (Eliza) Hodgson was born in Manchester, England.  Her father (a hardware wholesaler) died when Eliza was only five.  Her mother did her best to keep the business going until 1865, then gave up and took her brood to Knoxville, Tennessee, moving into her brother’s log cabin.  Thus Eliza first experienced American life just as the bloody Civil War ended, and she was turning sixteen.  Eliza married Dr. Swan Moses Burnett in 1873.  After a failure as principal of a private school, she turned to writing.  She first gained recognition with That Lass of Lowrie’s (1877), a tale of Lancaster, England coal mines, and Haworth (1879).  In 1883, she turned to America for her subject matter: Through One Administration, a novel of Washington corruption.

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But her life took a dramatic turn when her first book for children, Little Lord Fauntleroy, was published both in book form (by Charles Scribner’s Sons) and in the pages of the world’s greatest magazine for children, St. Nicholas in 1886.  Cedric, the protagonist was based on Eliza’s second son, Vivian, whose velvet suits, now immortalized in a novel that took the world by storm, gained immortality as a beautiful pampered and effeminate little boy who apparently always did the right thing.  According to Britannica editors, “Fauntleroy’s charming manners and picturesque garb provided an uncomfortable model for small boys for an entire generation.”  Such an impact did the book have on world culture that, even today, “Little Lord Fauntleroy” remains alive and well as a prototype.

With fame came the breakup of Eliza’s marriage in 1898; on the rebound, she married Dr. Stephen Townsend; it didn’t last: they were divorced in 1901.  In 1905, she became an American citizen.  With success came a conviction that sentimental romantic fiction for children was the way to go.  Eventually most of her forty-some novels were written either for children or for adults who loved romantic fiction.

Sara Crewe (1888) gained immortality when it was dramatized as The Little Princess in 1905.  The Secret Garden (1911) had little impact during her lifetime but has gained stature ever since, for it, unlike most of her other books for children, depicts real children in a real world who achieve worthwhile aims.

As money continued to roll in, her lifestyle reflected this affluence, and she shuttled back and forth (as a gilt-edged celebrity) between Europe and America, residing variously in Kent, England and in Long Island, New York, where her friends called her “Fluffy.”  When an unauthorized dramatic production of Little Lord Fauntleroy threatened her artistic control of her work, the worldwide fame of this now Anglo-American author gave her so much clout that the British changed their law in the 1911 Copyright Act.  She died on October 29, 1924 in Plandome, New York.

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There are many editions of Little Lord Fauntleroy available on the web, but I urge you to try to pick up a Scribner’s edition that features the now iconic illustrations by Reginald Birch, staff artist for St. Nicholas Magazine.