Novelist, biographer, historian, Wilson has once again brought his gifts as a man of letters to the study of his country's history, dealing in this case with the United Kingdom from 1900 to 1953. Wilson is above all fascinated by personalities (Winston Churchill) and by what writers (Henry James), poets (T. S. Eliot), popular artists (Noël Coward), and entertainers (Laurel and Hardy) can tell us about the culture and trends of an age, and this work is a brilliantly written, opinionated, kaleidoscopic discourse on the colossal events of the period. If Wilson's judgments on artists are sometimes harsh, his opinions of political figures are often devastatingly right. His defense of the constitutional monarchy is indicative of his love for both liberty and moderation. The theme that dominates the book -- insofar as there is one -- is nostalgia: aware of all that was wrong with the British Empire, Wilson nevertheless conveys a strong sense of regret at how World War II forced the United Kingdom to leave the future of the globe to the Americans and the Russians. Wilson's ability to see the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 as both "a splendid piece of patriotic pageantry" and "a consoling piece of theatre" is what gives this quite original Cook's tour its bittersweet charm.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.