Class is Out: England Between the Wars

In Atonement's Britain, between the World Wars was not a lull in the storm, but a storm all its own. Bill Schwarz analyzes the shifting climate.

The opening scene of Atonement is set in country-house England of 1935. We witness the landed gentry at play, their privileged lives made possible by the regiments of uniformed domestic servants, who cook and clean and wash. The apprehensions of war - just four years away - are present only in the outer reaches of the field of vision.

The stillness of the verdant summer scenes, however, belies a social world in turmoil. "Country-house England" was on the brink of destruction. Economic catastrophe at home, and the consolidation of fascism abroad, required - if they were to be overcome - a systematic recasting of the old social order. The trigger for this social transformation was not so much the coming of war in 1939 as the succession of defeats which the British and their allies suffered a year later in 1940. Popular opinion shifted radically. Faith in the capacities of the old governing class collapsed. If the British people were to survive the emergency they could only do so by asserting more forcefully their claims to citizenship and by taking into their own hands the nation's destiny. In turn this amounted to a quiet, civic and very English social revolution, felt deep within the lived experience of everyday life.

In the 1930s vast sections of the laboring population - those dependent upon the crafts of the old industrial revolution: coal mining, the iron and steel trades, textiles - faced intermittent or permanent unemployment. Entire communities lived on or below the breadline, with public payments to the unemployed pared down year by year. Hunger marches, from the industrial north of England to London, sought to bring home to the wealthy the plight of those without work. Exhausted, the marchers arrived in the capital to be watched by prosperous Londoners (rather like the protagonists we see in the movie) from the high windows of their West End apartments and clubs, greeted by an embarrassed silence, broken only by the occasional catcall.

The National Government, formed by the Conservatives and by a sprinkling of Labour turncoats, and led by the genial if largely ineffectual Stanley Baldwin, was paralyzed in the face of what it took to be an irresolvable economic collapse. Although there were plenty of prominent figures advocating policies along the lines of a British New Deal, Baldwin's was not a government that could contemplate anything so radical. Deflation followed deflation, bringing ever deeper economic misery.

This unyielding conservatism at home had its counterpart in the field of foreign affairs. As authoritarian and fascist states became ever more rapacious - in Pacific Asia, in Spain, in Central and Southern Europe - the British government embarked upon one tentative policy after another, culminating in what its critics at home, furious but with precious little power, denounced angrily - and famously - as appeasement. Baldwin and those around him came to be branded as the Guilty Men of the age, appeasing not only the mighty force of the fascists but also the possessors of privilege at home. Indeed, as the more far-sighted of the government's detractors understood, this quiescence - both overseas and at home - derived from a single basic political instinct. In order to mobilize against foreign aggression, both socially and economically, it would prove necessary to improvise new, more democratic ways of being, in which the economically dispossessed would become authentic citizens, active on every part of the home front as much as in the military campaign. The entire people would have to be called to arms and, for this to happen, the population as a whole would have to be offered a future stake in the nation. In this lay the seeds of the British welfare state, which came into being in the 1940s and which sought to ensure that every citizen - from cradle to grave - would be protected from economic penury. Politicians of every stripe came to realize that, after the colossal sacrifices that the war demanded, there could be no return to the hungry 1930s. The defeat of fascism overseas and the regeneration of economic life at home required, above all else, this destruction of the old order. This marked the price of victory.

The events of Atonement are played out against this backdrop, from its opening in 1935 to the film's closure (or almost closure) in 1940. The scenes we witness at the beginning of the movie, in which young gentrified belles soak up the pleasures of the world, represent - though this they are not aware of - a life poised on the edge of a precipitate collapse. The estates of the old landed gentry, which we see projected in the first shots of the movie, had been on the decline since the 1880s. The war of 1939-45 finally brought this life of landed privilege to an end. The handful of estates that did manage to survive did so only due to their re-invention as aristocratic theme parks. Most famous of these was the 900-acre Longleat estate owned by the sixth Marquess of Bath, who in 1949 opened both his home and his grounds to the paying public - followed some years later by the introduction of the first safari park outside Africa.

In the movie, the figure of Robbie embodies the elements of this larger social transformation. He is the son of one of the estate's many housekeepers, the dispossessed offspring of the vast social stratum of domestic workers who populated Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. For reasons which are never made clear the master of the house paid for Robbie's education, which eventually took him to Cambridge University and, as the film opens, to the prospect of a future career in medicine. Robbie occupies an entirely unstable social location, inhabiting both "upstairs: and "downstairs," but at home in neither. As much as the bomber he sees flying overhead whilst relaxing in his bath (echoing the anxieties expressed by Baldwin when he informed parliament three years earlier that "the bomber will always get through"), Robbie himself is a presentiment of a world yet to be born. He represents an early incarnation of that decisive figure of the welfare state, "the grammar school boy," lifted out of his position of social subordination thanks to his ability to pass exams, and catapulted into the unreadable cultural environment of the middle and upper classes. Robbie's diction, we can see in the movie, has been recast to resemble that of the possessors rather than that of the dispossessed, with attire to match. But his presence "upstairs" - notwithstanding Cambridge - is dependent entirely on the whims of those whom his mother continues to service. That he falls for Cecilia, the elder daughter of the household, and that she reciprocates his love, represents the first breach in the social harmony of the apparent idyll projected in the movie, a liaison underwritten by their shared disregard for the sexual taboos of the gentry.

In Atonement the viewer is presented with a dramatic shift from the opening, where a feminine hedonism predominates, to the latter part of the film, dominated by images of military collapse on the beaches of continental Europe, of young male bodies torn apart by shells and bayonets, and of the everyday, numbing privations that those on the home front were forced to endure.

In Atonement, Robbie is caught up in the military defeat of 1940 at Dunkirk, when British forces in northern France and Belgium were forced to retreat to the beach-heads and seek, if they could, any kind of vessel to take them back across the English channel and home to safety. This defeat marked the culmination of the policies of the pre-war Guilty Men, symbolizing the ineptitude and lack of will of those charged to govern. That the rescue of the major part of Britain's fighting forces depended, not on the arrival of the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force, but on the improvisation of a civilian flotilla - pre-war pleasure steamers, tiny sail boats and so on - signalled more than anything the bankruptcy of Britain's ruling elite. This military defeat, and the debacle which followed in getting the troops back home, came to be perceived less an honourable sacrifice on behalf of nation and people than as proof of the disarray of the old regime.

Politically, the shift which followed was embodied in the arrival in May 1940 of Winston Churchill as prime minister, prepared to take on the enemy overseas with renewed determination, and to fight, if necessary to the bitter end. Churchill's military resolution was evident. His determination to break up the old order at home, even as the precondition for winning the war, is more doubtful. But while he occupied himself with the military strategies one can say - at least - that he let others in his government proceed with the necessary domestic transformations.

The lives of both Cecilia and Briony, the privileged daughters we encounter at the beginning of the film, take on a drastically different hue as the story unfolds with the coming of war. Cecilia moves from the family mansion to a room in Balham, an undistinguished, proletarian neighborhood of South London. Both sisters work as nurses, inverting the social world into which they had been born. They are the ones who now wash and scrub and clean, as many such young women of their class indeed did.

"The wall between the living and the living," wrote Elizabeth Bowen in her novel of the Second World War, The Heat of the Day, "became less solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned." In the 1940s "The wall between the living and the living" did indeed begin to collapse, forced as much as anything by exigencies of living with the imperatives of bombs and rationing and perennial shortages. The lived realities of wartime came to provide a bedrock of justification for introducing those social reforms which would serve to locate everyone fully as a citizen, and which worked - as a consequence - to dismantle the old order.

Politically, these events culminated in the great Labour election victory in 1945, after hostilities had ceased. Labour were elected with the mandate to make the social reforms which had come in the wake of the war a lasting reality. A new world came into being, in which the uniformed domestic servant became a thing of the past and country estates survived only by becoming zoos or funfairs.

For many who had been brought up as scions of the old system, these were troubling times. In the movie, despite Cecilia's new life as a nurse in Balham, one can't quite believe that she is the truest symbol of the new world unfolding. Her inherited poise and sense of social command never diminishes. And if this is so, in the end she learned nothing from that very understated English revolution of the 1940s.

Bill Schwarz teaches in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. His three-volume Memories of Empire will be published by Oxford University Press over the next two years. He is an editor of History Workshop Journal.