Political History

Aftershocks: Politics and Trauma in Britain, 1918-1931 by Susan Kingsley Kent

By Susan Kingsley Kent

This booklet examines the influence of collective trauma bobbing up out of the good struggle at the politics of the Twenties in Britain. Aftershocks reports how meanings of shellshock and imagery offering the traumatized psyche as shattered contributed to Britons understandings in their political selves within the Nineteen Twenties. It connects the strength of feelings to the political tradition of a decade which observed remarkable violence opposed to these considered as un-English.

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Herbert French recounted what he believed to be a typical situation. “In the midst of perfect health in a circumscribed community,” he wrote, such as a barracks, or a school, the first case of influenza would occur, and then within the next few hours or days a large proportion—and occasionally even every single individual of that community—would be stricken down with the same type of febrile illness, the rate of spread from one to another being remarkable. The patient would be seized rapidly, or almost suddenly, with a sense of such prostration as to be utterly unable to carry on with what he might be doing; from sheer lassitude he would be obliged to lie down where he was, or crawl with difficulty back to bed.

Joynson-Hicks argued for “the preservation of this country for the English people,” while Mr R. McNeill went so far as to say that the determination “to keep our own country for our own people” far outweighed issues of housing, health, land acquisition, and reconstructive reform generally. ” Disease, drug use, gambling, vice, and “unnatural offences,” MPs insisted, endemic to “Asiatic” populations (using the term Asiatic in reference to Jews) would be brought into Britain and be allowed to flourish; and as “Asiatics” did not assimilate but kept to their own communities and preserved their own culture, they could not but act as “a source of weakness and danger” to the country.

Popular fiction incorporated this model in a number of characters as well, beginning as early as 1919. Rebecca West’s returning soldier, the shell-shocked Chris Baldry, for instance, had abandoned in his mind his current life and returned to a time 15 years earlier, stranding his cousin and his wife Kitty in the present and taking up with his former love, Margaret. His cousin, the narrator, imagines his choice of Margaret over her and Kitty in terms of two crystal balls, in one of which Margaret resided, the other of which contained her and Kitty.

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