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The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars [Hardcover]

Richard Overy
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

7 May 2009

British intellectual life between the wars stood at the heart of modernity. The combination of a liberal, uncensored society and a large educated audience for new ideas made Britain a laboratory for novel ways to understand the world. The Morbid Age opens a window onto this creative but anxious era, the golden age of the public intellectual and scientist: Arnold Toynbee, Aldous and Julian Huxley, H. G. Wells, Marie Stopes and a host of others. Yet, as Richard Overy argues, a striking characteristic of so many of the ideas that emerged from this new age - from eugenics to Freud's unconscious, to modern ideas of pacifism and world government - was the fear that the West was facing a possibly terminal crisis of civilization.

The modern era promised progress of a kind, but it was overshadowed by a growing fear of decay and death, an end to the civilized world and the arrival of a new Dark Age - even though the country had suffered no occupation, no civil war and none of the bitter ideological rivalries of inter-war Europe, and had an economy that survived better than most. The Morbid Age explores how this strange paradox came about. Ultimately, Overy shows, the coming of war was almost welcomed as a way to resolve the contradictions and anxieties of this period, a war in which it was believed civilization would be either saved or utterly destroyed.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 522 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane; 1st ed edition (7 May 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713995637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713995633
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.2 x 5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 366,889 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Overy is a mighty figure, one of the great historians of the second world war'
-- Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times

`The Morbid Age is history at its best' -- Economist

`a rewarding book, and a highly readable one'
-- John Gross, Standpoint


`The Morbid Age is history at its best'

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshingly different 3 Jan 2010
By GregB
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
We're all well accustomed to history books about the Twenties and the Thirties, many of them in the field of social history, and while there are many splendid examples, perhaps we now have something of a surfeit of 'more of the same'. That's why it's so refreshing to find a book like 'The Morbid Age' with its original focus on the pessimistic outlook of much of society in Britain (and elsewhere) between the wars. I think it's fascinating to get to the real nature of a society at a given time, behind and well beyond the simplistic labels, such as The Naughty Nineties, The Belle Epoque, The Roaring Twenties, The Swinging Sixties and the like which just skate superficially over the surface. This is the history of ideas at its best.

Mr. Overy is, in my view, a master historian of modern times, one of the finest of our day, and his detailed analysis of his subject matter here is excellent, painstakingly well conceived and expounded, certainly exhaustive but by no means exhausting, as some have implied. It is also very well written, very important for me when reading history. I found every page fascinating and I was constantly discovering new facts about those troubled times while having fresh light thrown on an era when many might have thought there was nothing more to say. I feel it is set to become a classic of its kind and would unhesitatingly recommend it to serious readers with a powerful curiosity about and interest in aspects of our recent history, especially outside of the more well-trodden paths.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Change and Decay 14 Feb 2010
The inter-war period is a fascinating period of history. It was a period of discontent, disillusion, dismay and delusion in which the politics and culture of Britain was wrapped up in an overcoat of mediocrity. The mediocrity was a measure of the failure of the political class to understand the nature of the changing world around them. "The western view of the world between the wars was essentially diagnostic: searching for the symptoms that indicated disease and fearful lest they should prove fatal." World War One had undermined belief in progress which blinded the intellectual elite to contemporary reality and future development. The widespread mantra that capitalism was in crisis created an unfounded belief that the future was socialist. For democrats that meant economic planning, for communists it meant the adoption of the Soviet model which was hailed as a new civilisation based on scientific principles.

The massive overviews of the rise and fall of civilisations which spawned the work of Spengler and Toynbee (neither of whom are read much these days) predicted a bleak future. The implicit belief in the superiority of Britain was undermined by a lack of any sense of spiritual satisfaction. Frank Buchman found a ready audience for the idea of Moral Rearmament. The optimism which had accompanied the expansion of the British Empire was replaced by a pessimism which questioned whether civilisation could survive. Freud sought to address this mood through psychoanalysis while others argued science would provide the answers to social problems.

The sharp division of politics into extremes of Right and Left was assisted by the absence of a meaningful intellectual critique. The misguided works of Sidney and Beatrice Webb were widely read.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but flawed 1 Jan 2010
By Claretta VINE VOICE
I found this book heavy going at first but once I got beyond the opening chapters it was enthralling. Overy paints a vivid picture of the fears which obsessed intellectuals of the period and also demonstrates how these views were spread and debated through hundreds of local and national groups and organisations - the Peace Pledge Union, the Eugenics Society etc. What strikes the reader today is how some fears - like the conviction war was inevitable - came horribly true, while others - like the idea Britain's population would fall dramatically - proved way off-beam. (Which will our modern obsession with climate change turn out to be like?)
However, I felt Overy didn't give sufficient coverage to the official/government response to the ideas and movements he describes, and thus leaves the reader with the feeling that perhaps many of the characters who move through his pages were ultimately just ineffectual busybodies who left no real mark on history. International comparison is also beyond the book's scope so there is little discussion of how it came about that Britain avoided the fate of Germany, Spain or Italy in the same period.
Despite the reservations though I would certainly recommend the book for anyone interested in 20th century Britain.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars People have always worried 30 Oct 2009
We feel threatened by all manner of disasters from terrorism to global warming. Has it always been so? Richard Overy takes us back to the era between the two world wars of the 20th century to emphasise that fear of change and the future is nothing new. Then it was concern about biological sickness in 'inferior' individuals, families and groups, inescapable psychological sickness inherent in our pre-natal development, the evils of the capitalist system, dread of future, even more catastrophic wars and the resulting dilemma - was it better to fight fascism or remain a pacifist whatever the provocation? Some fears proved justified but others didn't, not least because information was increasingly avialable. Awareness of what people have achieved through knowledge and protest is much more comforting than recourse to alcohol or valium. This is a splendid, irresistible book by an academic who explains the issues clearly but in a scholarly fashion that treats readers as serious students, not dilettanti. The reader returning to each reading session re-enters a lecture theatre in the author's presence. Read it to feel less helpless.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Another view of the 20s nd 30s
Ok I have to admit as a history graduate I have a lot of time for Richard Overy as he is always an illuminating read, always challenging and always teaching. Read more
Published 14 months ago by atticusfinch1048
5.0 out of 5 stars Morbid Fascinations
British public figures and intellectuals in the years between the World Wars were a glum bunch. Given the background of war and depression, was it any wonder? Read more
Published 22 months ago by F Henwood
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag
In general, this was a good social history of inter-war Britain, and the author has done a good job analysing such a complex period into less than 400 pages. Read more
Published on 26 April 2011 by Jon 'ET' A
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best reads of the year
Fascinating insight into the ideas behind the events and culture of the interwar period. Full of surprises, one of the most satisfying histories I've read in a long time.
Published on 3 Jan 2011 by Fran Bury
4.0 out of 5 stars Aptly titled history
This is a well researched history of the period between the two wars and gives a more than adequate history of the peace and disarmament movements which in some ways fed into... Read more
Published on 18 Nov 2010 by Mr. D. J. Linnell
4.0 out of 5 stars News From The Zeitgeist
This book (misleadingly subtitled Britain Between The Wars) is well-named inasmuch as it concentrates on intellectual and psychological morbidity in interwar Britain. Read more
Published on 26 July 2010 by Ian Millard
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