A sparkling account of 19th-century Britain offers lessons in the age of Brexit Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906 by David Cannadine
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
To order Victorious Century for £25.50 go to bookshop. theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.