Fantasies: Trollope’s Brittanula, Churchill’s Battle of Gettysburg

Fantasies: Trollope’s Brittanula, Churchill’s Battle of Gettysburg

“Tales for Our Time” is an ongo­ing series of audio read­ings by the com­men­ta­tor Mark Steyn. Being of con­ser­v­a­tive dis­po­si­tion, Mr. Steyn tends to select vin­tage clas­sics, but his recita­tions are straight­for­ward, non-polit­i­cal, and con­ge­nial to the ear. Agatha Christie, John Buchan, Jane Austen, G.K. Chester­ton, F. Scott Fitzger­ald all adorn his reper­toire. They remind us of what good writ­ing was—before what Steyn calls “12-year-old prose-plonkers look­ing for Twit­ter clicks.”

Trollope’s Great Reset

In April, “Tales for Our Time” fea­tured Antho­ny Trollope’s The Fixed Peri­od. It is a flight of fan­cy, like his Chron­i­cles of Barset­shirean imag­i­nary Eng­lish coun­ty. Trol­lope pub­lished The Fixed Peri­od  in 1882.  It involves an imag­i­nary South Pacif­ic island named Brit­tan­u­la, set­tled by young New Zealan­ders. Mr. Steyn writes:

The book was a flop when first pub­lished in 1882, and it remains an odd­i­ty in Trollope’s oeu­vre. But these last two very strange years have brought it bob­bing up to the sur­face. In the age of Covid and Cli­mate, we have under-report­ed news sto­ries about the vul­ner­a­ble elder­ly slaugh­tered en masse in so-called “care homes”…. And so we come to Bri­tan­nu­la, a for­mer Crown Colony whose polit­i­cal class, as its pres­i­dent explains in our first episode, has been think­ing out­side the box and come up with its own Great Reset—the Fixed Peri­od.

The Fixed Period

Trollope’s nar­ra­tor, Britannula’s “Pres­i­dent Never­bend,” explains how the island-repub­lic solves the prob­lem of old age: Reach­ing 67 1/2, each cit­i­zen is “deposit­ed” in a lux­u­ri­ous “Col­lege of the Fixed Peri­od.” There amid pleas­ant sur­round­ings they are lov­ing­ly pre­pared, cel­e­brat­ed and hon­ored for their ter­mi­na­tion and cre­ma­tion with­in twelve months. The Fixed Peri­od, Never­bend explains,

con­sists alto­geth­er of the abo­li­tion of the mis­eries, weak­ness, and fainéant imbe­cil­i­ty of old age, by the pre­arranged ceas­ing to live of those who would oth­er­wise become old…. Such old age should not, we Bri­tan­nulists maintain…be pre­vent­ed, in the inter­ests both of the young and of those who do become old when oblig­ed to linger on after their “peri­od” of work is over.

This is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a stark and riv­et­ing nov­el. It is, of course, noth­ing more than the solu­tion rec­om­mend­ed by an archi­tect of a cer­tain gov­ern­ment health pro­gram: stop pro­vid­ing health­care to any­one over 75. By the way, Trol­lope died short­ly after pub­lish­ing The Fixed Peri­od. He was (wait for it) 67 1/2 years of age.

WSC at age 67 1/2

It is inter­est­ing to recall what Win­ston Spencer Churchill was doing at the age of 67 1/2 (30 May 1942). That was day he wrote his first mem­o­ran­dum order­ing the devel­op­ment of float­ing piers which rose and fell with the tide. “Don’t argue the mat­ter,” he wrote that day.  “The dif­fi­cul­ties will argue for themselves.”
.
The result was the Mul­ber­ry Har­bours, which made pos­si­ble the land­ing of tanks and oth­er heavy equip­ment after D-Day in 1944. We may be grate­ful that at age 67 1/2, Mr. Churchill was not “deposit­ed.” (Mr. Steyn kind­ly includ­ed my note on this in his “Fixed Peri­od but Mul­ber­ry-Mind­ed,” April 8th.)

“If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”

Trollope’s fan­ta­sy puts me in mind of a stun­ning Churchill coun­ter­fac­tu­al: “If Lee Had Not Won the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg.” Churchill’s yarn has a hap­pi­er and more uplift­ing end­ing. As much as I despise jar­gon and Newspeak, I will use a word I ordi­nar­i­ly shun. His Lee tale is “awe­some.”

Churchill’s screed was explained in detail by Pro­fes­sor Paul Alkon, and excerpt­ed on this web­site. Briefly, Robert E. Lee wins the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg and com­pels peace. Then, ris­ing to the pin­na­cle of the Con­fed­er­a­cy, he declares the South inde­pen­dent, and the slaves free. With their rev­er­ence for Lee, South­ern­ers’ resent­ment is mut­ed after he appeals to their bet­ter nature. There is no Jim Crow. or the dread­ful injus­tices of the car­pet­bag­gers and Recon­struc­tion.

The USA and CSA evolve inde­pen­dent­ly, and in 1905 join Britain and the Domin­ions to form the “Eng­lish-Speak­ing Asso­ci­a­tion.” This alliance is so potent that in 1914, it has only to declare against Ger­man aggres­sion to pre­vent it. Thus, there is no Great War, no deposed mon­archs, no Lenin, and no Hitler. Long before 1914, Dis­raeli becomes a Lib­er­al social reformer, Glad­stone a Tory impe­ri­al­ist, and Woodrow Wil­son “the enlight­ened Vir­gin­ian chief of the South­ern repub­lic.” (If you’re going to dream, dream big.)

Wilhelm II, democracy’s evangelist

By the time of writ­ing (1930), Kaiser Wil­helm has advanced to head a con­fer­ence on Euro­pean Union—not the EU idea, but Churchill’s. That is: a Europe of free trade and peace among demo­c­ra­t­ic nation-states. But Churchill, as nar­ra­tor, has a warn­ing. His Impe­r­i­al Majesty may today occu­py “the most splen­did sit­u­a­tion in Europe.” But let him not for­get “that he might well have found him­self eat­ing the bit­ter bread of exile, a dethroned sov­er­eign and a bro­ken man loaded with unut­ter­able reproach…if Lee had not won the Bat­tle of Gettysburg.”

Cyn­ics have said 1914 was “when the rot start­ed.” What Churchill called “the driz­zle of empires” led to Bol­she­vism, Fas­cism, Nazism, and anoth­er world war. Read­ers may find Churchill’s “Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg” a thought­ful ven­ture into what might have been. They may even agree with late Civ­il War his­to­ri­an Shel­by Foote, to whom I sent a copy: “Churchill’s fan­ta­sy tran­scends all my objec­tions to explor­ing the what-ifs and might-have-beens in that great war.”

N.B.

“If Lee Had Not Won the Bat­tle of Get­tys­burg” appeared in Scribner’s Mag­a­zine, Decem­ber 1930.  It was repub­lished in The Col­lect­ed Essays of Sir Win­ston Churchill, 4 vols. (Lon­don: Library of Impe­r­i­al His­to­ry, 1975), IV: 73-84.

Churchill’s sto­ry was ana­lyzed in depth by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project: click here. The full text is avail­able for per­son­al use but not for pub­li­ca­tion from this writer at rlangworth@hillsdale.edu.

Further reading

Guel­zo on Lee: ‘To Err on the Side of History’s Default­ers,” 2021

Robert E. Lee and the Fash­ion­ble Urge to Hide from His­to­ry,” 2019

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