A sparkling ac­count of 19th-cen­tury Bri­tain of­fers les­sons in the age of Brexit Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury: The United King­dom 1800-1906 by David Can­na­dine

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Maya Jasanoff Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Con­rad in a Global World is pub­lished by Wil­liam Collins.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Charles Dick­ens wrote in 1859, imag­in­ing France on the eve of rev­o­lu­tion. He may as well have been de­scrib­ing Bri­tain dur­ing his own cen­tury. It was an era when in­dus­try en­er­gised and en­riched, but pol­luted and pro­le­tar­i­anised; when men en­joyed ex­pand­ing po­lit­i­cal rights but women’s free­doms were cur­tailed; when some re­joiced as the Bri­tish em­pire flung pink arms across the world, but oth­ers re­sisted. It was a “Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury”, as David Can­na­dine en­ti­tles this sparklingly in­tel­li­gent sur­vey, for a United King­dom whose hege­mony ri­valled that of the US and China to­day – but a cen­tury of con­tra­dic­tions for the peo­ple who lived in it.

Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury opens in 1800, with the pas­sage of the Act of Union with Ire­land, and with Bri­tain strug­gling to pre­vail against France in what Lord Corn­wal­lis, who had presided over the loss of the Amer­i­can colonies, called a “bloody and hope­less war”. No­body in 1800 could have rea­son­ably an­tic­i­pated Bri­tish vic­tory over France, let alone its global hege­mony. But the in­dus­trial, fi­nan­cial and de­mo­graphic mo­men­tum was in Bri­tain’s favour. Pro­duc­tion of iron and tex­tiles surged, the pop­u­la­tion boomed, and an in­creas­ingly ef­fi­cient state ap­pa­ra­tus of bor­row­ing and tax­col­lec­tion funded an ul­ti­mately suc­cess­ful war ef­fort. If Napoleon said his army marched on its stom­ach, Welling­ton’s marched to Water­loo on the pub­lic debt.

Tri­umph, when it came, granted Bri­tain dom­i­nance in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, but it didn’t feed peo­ple or give them jobs. Pop­u­lar protests chal­lenged high prices, high taxes and the “Old Cor­rup­tion” of a gov­ern­ment that made them so. Au­thor­i­tar­ian crack­downs – vividly at the Peter­loo mas­sacre of 1819, and furtively, via in­form­ers and se­cret agents – ended up am­pli­fy­ing rad­i­cal­ism as much as re­press­ing it.

The post­war pop­u­lar ag­i­ta­tions and po­lit­i­cal show­downs cul­mi­nated in the 1832 Re­form Act. In the whig in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­tory, the great re­form an­chored a “vic­to­ri­ous cen­tury” in terms of ex­pand­ing democ­racy – es­pe­cially be­cause, un­like other coun­tries in the western world, Bri­tain marched to­ward uni­ver­sal man­hood suf­frage through a peace­ful se­ries of par­lia­men­tary acts. But the much-vaunted whig lib­erty came with re­stric­tions at­tached. The great re­form de­lib­er­ately didn’t en­fran­chise work­ers, a de­fi­ciency the Chartists sought and largely failed to re­dress; rather, Can­na­dine ar­gues, its most sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect was to con­sol­i­date a mod­ern two-party sys­tem pegged to elite and bour­geois in­ter­ests. The 1867 Re­form Act en­fran­chised “re­spectable” work­ing men but si­mul­ta­ne­ously and ex­plic­itly ex­cluded women. By the end of the 19th cen­tury, Bri­tain had one of the most lim­ited fran­chises in western Europe. All told, the po­lit­i­cal story of the 19th cen­tury, as Can­na­dine tells it, was less about the rise of the work­ing class than the fall of the no­bil­ity.

The “vic­to­ri­ous cen­tury” was, pre­em­i­nently, Vic­to­ria’s cen­tury. Born a few years af­ter Water­loo, she was named af­ter her mother, though might as well have been named for the mo­ment. As­cend­ing to the throne in 1837, the “head­strong and wil­ful” young Queen ex­er­cised a de­gree of in­flu­ence over the po­lit­i­cal process and choice of gov­ern­ments that would alarm any Bri­tish sub­ject to­day. As she ma­tured

into the black-clad ma­tron of pop­u­lar iconog­ra­phy, she presided with en­thu­si­asm over the ex­pan­sion of a global em­pire. She died in 1901 as em­press of In­dia and sov­er­eign of one in five peo­ple in the world. The princely state of Hanover had long since ceased to ex­ist.

One of the plea­sures of this im­mensely read­able vol­ume is its em­pha­sis on high pol­i­tics. The great 19th-cen­tury states­men – Pitt, Peel, Palmer­ston, Glad­stone, Dis­raeli and the now largely for­got­ten Earl of Derby – strut through these pages as brac­ing re­minders that you can’t fully un­der­stand power with­out look­ing at the in­di­vid­u­als who hold it. Can­na­dine’s at­ten­tion to par­lia­men­tary pol­i­tics also lets him un­spool the wran­glings over Ir­ish home rule, eas­ily the most di­vi­sive is­sue in later 19th­cen­tury pol­i­tics, and re­plete with lega­cies and les­sons for the age of Brexit.

An­other sat­is­fac­tion lies in Can­na­dine’s poly­mathic com­mand of the cul­tural life of the pe­riod. There was the sen­ti­men­tal­ism of penny nov­el­ettes, the melo­drama of the tabloid press and

the tawdry aes­thet­ics of choco­late boxes. But Vic­to­rian Bri­tain also gave rise to the re­al­ism of Ge­orge Eliot, the lin­ear el­e­gance of Wil­liam Mor­ris and the clair­voy­ant fan­tasies of HG Wells. An age of moral con­dem­na­tion of poverty and the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of male “gross in­de­cency” was also an era of free love, so­cial­ism, athe­ism, Dar­win­ism, vege­tar­i­an­ism and spir­i­tu­al­ism.

It was, fi­nally, an age of cap­i­tal­ism, when new con­cep­tions of the role of pro­duc­tion in shap­ing so­ci­ety would give rise to ways of think­ing about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the peo­ple and the state. Can­na­dine con­cludes with the Lib­eral land­slide of 1906, a mo­ment rich with con­tra­dic­tions: a gov­ern­ment es­pous­ing pro­gres­sive so­cial pol­icy yet be­holden to aris­to­cratic in­ter­ests; an econ­omy of re­mark­able strength yet flag­ging against new ri­vals; a UK split by the Ir­ish ques­tion; an em­pire big­ger yet more con­tested than ever.

As epigraphs to Vic­to­ri­ous Cen­tury, Can­na­dine pairs Dick­ens’s “best of times, worst of times” with Marx’s dic­tum that men and women “make their own his­tory, but they do not do so … un­der con­di­tions of their own choos­ing”. Can­na­dine com­bines eru­di­tion with orig­i­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion and grace­ful writ­ing. One leaves it grate­ful to have left the worst times be­hind, yet with the un­easy recog­ni­tion that many of their tough­est con­tra­dic­tions re­main em­bed­ded in our own.

The story of the cen­tury was less about the rise of the work­ing class than the fall of the no­bil­ity

624pp, Allen Lane, £30

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