'How I Saved The British Empire' subtitled as 'Reminiscences of a Bicycling Tour of Great Britain in the Year 1901' is a comic novel set amidst the tensions of great power rivalry in the years leading up to World War One. It purports to be an account by D'Oyley de Vere Biffen - the third son of an arch-typical (and somewhat dysfunctional) aristocratic family from the fictional, but all so real, Studleigh Manor. He is something of an aimless third son approaching his 21st birthday where he will lose his so far cossetted life-style and is threatened with having to sail off to furthest Borneo to live out his life as a missionary in the furthest reaches of the empire. He plans one big adventure as something of his own 'Grand Tour' using the latest technological wonder of the age - a bicycle! Thus his plan for a 'Bicycling Tour of Great Britain' is put before his initially sceptical family.
The novel weaves the fabric and history of the British Empire throughout the book from start to finish - whether it be the father off 'adding bits to the British Empire' in the army, or the Cook's husband who was widowed as a result of the Ashanti War, or the mysterious Pedner who seems to know more than he lets on but was supposedly decorated fighting the Zulus. The hinterland for the book and its characters is provided by the late Victorian age which saw the Empire reach its zenith in power and geographical spread. Its direction and subtext is the arms race between these European and American empires as they sought military advantage and dominance over one another.
The author recreates the social distinctions and mores with cutting wit and biting satire. Examples include the narrator's somewhat imperious and unreformed mother coming out with statements like "cycling is much more suited to his class than ours" or the narrator's observation about her that 'globes and atlases raised the unpleasant spectre of how many foreigners there were in the world'. Not that the narrator is a bastion of liberal enlightenment himself "The Indomitable did not have any braking mechnanisms as these were cumbrous and, I was assured, were mainly a requirement for the fairer sex". He also tries to keep his 'baser thoughts' under control in true Victorian style by keeping a 'manual of self-correction' which may actually be giving him more pleasure than he'd care to admit.
Despite the reservations of his ultra-conservative mother, the narrator finds that various members of his extended family take an interest in his planned cycling tour. They insist that Pedner, supposedly an old soldier who had served with his father, accompany him on his tour. Pedner takes a keen interest in the training, preparation and route of the tour and seems to take control of the whole exercise from start to finish. The training regime is particularly comic as our previously cosseted hero attempts to wrestle with the latest technology under the harsh taskmastering from Pedner. His brothers and uncles - especially those connected with shipping and the Admiralty give further advice and guidance that sees Pedner steer the tour towards the ports of the Southern Coast and the army training grounds in Salisbury Plain.
Once the tour has begun, our hero finds himself pushed towards some strange company in the form of an American brother and sister who seem to have an equal fascination in the ports and military facilities of Southern England. The woman, Elizabeth Lillywhite, appears to take a romantic interest in the apparently well-connected and knowledgable D'Oyley de Vere Biffen - althouth he finds that this supposedly demure lady to have a disturbing interest in the macabre which somewhat unsettles him. Their small group is further expanded by the Northern European Mr Ericsson who is keen to share his views on the British Empire and its likely demise in the very near future. Our somewhat oblivious hero is made privy to all sorts of seemingly sensitive information through strange meetings arranged by Pedner or by his uncle at the Admiralty or even in finding bizarre maps and pictures in the frame of his bicycle! He becomes aware that something strange is happening around him, but cannot seem to join the pieces together.
The reason that this book was a particular joy for me was because the denouement takes place in and around my home town of Plymouth. Although there may be a few unintentional geographical issues that a local may spot, the setting for the culmination of danger and action towards our hero takes place in Cornwall within sight of Devonport Dockyards is a truly suitable location for the storyline and especially for the secret that lies at the heart of this book. It is nice that I can picture the places described so clearly as much of it is on my doorstep and I know well.
All in all, this is a rip roaring read that combines the espionage of Erskine Childers with the comedy of Saki. Although it is a modern book, the author does a great job of taking you back into a quintessential caricature of Edwardian England with all its oddities and foibles. These, of course, provide plenty of ammunition against the hypocrisy and arrogance of the era, but also illustrates some of its naivity and innocence - in a world before global war shifted perceptions once and for all. And it is the threat of war that is at the heart of this book - for all its fun and frivolity - and if you want to know how D'Oyley de Vere Biffen saved the British Empire - you'll just have to read the book for yourself!