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Book Nook: If It Had Happened Otherwise (Ed JC Squire, 1932[fn 1])

Review by Liam Connell

A parlour game of the Might-Have-Beens.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Alternate history, the historian EH Carr famously declared, is merely “a parlour game with the might-have-beens of history.” [2] I would argue that that is an unduly harsh judgement – in fact, to study history seriously is to be intimately aware of contingency and the might-have-been, even if it is only to be aware that the might-have-been was not-bloody-likely.


Still, if you ever encounter the platonic ideal of Alternate History as a parlour game, it will be in If It Had Happened Otherwise.


This is a remarkable volume. It is, as far as I can tell, the first edited volume of counterfactual essays in the English language. Just as the counterfactual questions asked in modern forums like Sealion Press or reflect the interests of the modern reader, this is a window into how educated Britons and Anglo-Americans saw history in 1932. The British Empire is curiously absent, at least as a direct subject – none of these authors wanted to consider the success of the Indian Rebellion, or an Irish rising. There are no chapters on Greece, Rome, or indeed any history before 1491. All these chapters look at Western Europe and the USA; women barely feature except as figures to be loved or married by men. In other words, it’s material that you would expect to interest men from the elite of the Atlantic world, history they had likely studied in public schools and at Oxbridge or the Ivy League. Men who would play, as Carr sneered, intellectual parlour games.

The Parthenon in Greece. Not appearing in the book. Come on, is ancient Greece really of importance to historical parlour games?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And my God, these authors. Whatever else, this book doubtlessly has the best credentialed authors of any volume of alternate history. The book is keen that you know this; it is edited by Sir John Squire, and introduced by ‘Sir John Wheeler-Bennet, KCVO, CMG, OBE’. At least half the authors have titles: the Hon Sir Harold Nicolson, KCVO, CMG; the Rt Hon HAL Fisher; and some chap called the Rt Hon Sir Winston S Churchill, KG, PC.


Readers seeking diversity will be relieved to know that there is one American (Milton Waldman [3]), one Swiss-German (Emil Ludwig), and two Frenchmen (André Maurois and Hilaire Belloc). The intellectual range is further broadened by including professors from both Oxford and Cambridge (GM Trevelyan and AJP Taylor respectively).

The Bridge of Sighs in Oxford. The book is incredibly diverse, and includes work from professors from both Oxford and Cambridge.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Whatever else, these men could write. Readers of Sealion Press will be particularly interested by the way the different chapters play with different forms of presenting alternate history, forms that we still use today.


Philip Guedella’s If the Moors in Spain had Won, for instance, looks back at the history of a surviving Sultanate of Granada – and is a classic ‘scrapbook timeline’, consisting of excerpts from different history textbooks and volumes of edited documents. As a delver into archives myself, I was particularly amused by the section that’s an exchange of letters from the British minister of Granada to Earl Russell, written in impeccable Foreign Office style. Among other things, the minister is most irritated by the manner of Granada’s Grand Vizier, a canny figure by the name of Disraeli.


HAL Fisher’s chapter is a first person account of a witness to Napoleon’s arrival to his American exile; Harold Nicolson’s If Byron Had Become King of Greece purports to be ‘a review by an English clergyman of the Memoirs of Pietro Gamba, Duke of Negroponte.’


Milton Waldman’s If Booth had Missed Lincoln is a book review of a revisionist history book that claims Lincoln was a great statesman, not a would-be autocrat. Ronald Knox’s If the General Strike had Succeeded is a mocked up section of The Times, complete with mocked up masthead.


And so on.


It is certainly striking that as a piece of literature, this collection is more experimental than most other alternate history essays produced by mainstream publishers in the century since.


GK Chesterton’s If Don John of Austria had Married Mary Queen of Scots is uncharacteristically weak, very much more of a testament to Chesterton’s prolific output than to his perception. It is pleasingly strange however, being more of an essay on romantic love and the strangeness of wishing happier lives for long-dead monarchs than an examination of the actual what-if. Any reader who has ever encountered Internet monarchists drawing up elaborate family trees for imagined unions will be amused to see that Chesterton got there first.


The strangest chapter, however, is Churchill’s. If Lee had not Won the Battle of Gettysburg is what we would now call a ‘double blind what-if’, written from the perspective of a mirror-universe Churchill who is writing an essay that imagines the Confederacy losing the American Civil War. It is quite odd to read this essay and see the various devices that would be derided as cliché’s today. For example, historical characters swap roles – in this timeline, Gladstone becomes “the greatest of Conservative Empire and Commonwealth builders” while Disraeli is “the idol of the toiling masses”. In another cliché of civil war timelines, the victorious Confederacy proceeds to conquer and annex Mexico. The USA, Confederacy and British Empire eventually break from their escalating armaments race by forming “The English Speaking Association” which essentially forms an Imperial Federation, with common citizenship for all. In this timeline, there is no Great War – and in 1932, Kaiser Wilhelm is on the cusp of peacefully binding together a united European state.

Memorial of a slave owner at Gettysburg. Robert E Lee owned slaves, and inherited 189 slaves from his father-in-law, whose will stipulated that these slaves be freed after 5 years. It was only after the courts insisted he abide by the terms of the will that he reluctantly freed them, some 7 years later. The myth of the "kindly General Robert E Lee"? Vile nonsense if you happened to be a person of colour at the time.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Plausibility was clearly not a paramount concern for most of these authors. Knox’s chapter is essentially a satire of both the left wing and the British middle classes, for example. This is a book that really is Carr’s parlour game – a collection of sly historical allusions, idle wish fulfilment, and simple entertainment. This is not unusual; that description fits most alternate history you’ll find on the Internet today. But it concerns me as a modern reader that this book really does feel so in keeping with our little niche of the genre.


Churchill’s obsession with empire-building and the eternal rule of the English-speaking elite is not surprising; but it is disconcerting to think that his scenario is of a keeping with the map-painting fantasies of many writers today. The fact that there are no women or people of colour [4] among the authors stands out, and so too does the total lack of interest in history that happened in Asia, Africa, or indeed anywhere not being looked at by a European. There is also no interest in any person in history who had to work for a living; peasants don’t feature, but neither do labourers, artisans, or ordinary soldiers. The middle classes barely appear except to be politely mocked. Frankly, however, most modern collections are little more diverse. – perhaps the difference is that these days the genre has many authors who secretly dream of being knights and members of an imperial elite. The authors of this book were actual paid-up members of the establishment; they didn’t have to justify their existence, because they did not imagine that they needed to.


I would recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in our genre; at its best it is witty, and some of these chapters are genuinely light on their feet. Guedella’s If the Moors had Won in Spain is particularly strong. But read it also as a challenge. Observe its flaws and its lacunae. Note the snobbery, the lack of curiosity in a wider world. And ask: if these are the mistakes of 1932, how far have we gone to correct them in 2024?



Liam Connell has short stories in Alternate Australias and Apocalypse How?




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[1] According to my edition; online sources say it was published in 1931.

[2] Carr, E.H., What is History, 2nd Edition (1986, 1st edition 1961), p.96.

[3] There was apparently a US edition that included another chapter by the Dutch-American Hendrik Willem Van Loon, ‘If the Dutch Had Kept Nieuw Amsterdam.’

[4] There is a notable exception in Emil Ludwig and Philip Guedalla, Jewish authors in what is otherwise a very Anglican/Catholic establishment circle. 



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