The union of England and Wales with Scotland that had been carried in 1707 had created a polity virtually coterminus with the island of Great Britain, but in 1800, the national boundaries of the United Kingdom were redefined and extended to encompass the neighbouring landmass of Ireland.
When I read the opening words of David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906, I found myself oddly unsettled, and it took me a long time to understand why. I remember reading a lot of histories like this when I first got interested in history back in the 1960s and 70s. In those days, this patrician tone was par for the course in anything that was meant to be taken seriously as history. I’m used to this somewhat laboured style, it wasn’t unfamiliar to me. And yet it felt wrong.
It was only as I got half-way down the first page (and half-way down the first paragraph) that I came upon this sentence:
This Act of Union was driven through in Ireland itself by the Lord Lieutenant (or Viceroy), the Marquis Cornwallis, and in Britain by the First Lord of the Treasury (and de facto prime minister), William Pitt the Younger.
This, I realized, was the first appearance by a person in this particular history. But these weren’t people, they were positions: title comes before name, and in the case of Cornwallis, there are three titles (Lord Lieutenant, Viceroy, and Marquis) but only a surname. Nothing humanizes these figures who are shaping the destinies of two countries. Indeed, nothing does humanize them: Cornwallis isn’t given a christian name anywhere in this chapter; neither man is described, neither man’s character is explained, we aren’t even given their ages (in the case of Pitt, “the Younger” is made to seem part of his surname rather than an attribute of age).
And this, I realized, was what I found unsettling about the book. History books these days don’t start like that. They start dramatically: “On the morning in 1783, when William Pitt the Younger walked into 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, he was just 24 years old.” Or they start descriptively: “Cornwallis was a beaten man, forever scarred by the events at Yorktown nearly 20 years before, but he had made a glittering success in his latest role as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.” Or they start in media res: “George III was having none of it. Pitt’s idea of a Union with Ireland was all well and good, he said, but Catholic emancipation was out of the question.”
History books nowadays begin in many ways, but two things are consistent: they are written to tell a story, and they almost invariably begin with people.
But not this book. This is an old-fashioned political history of Britain between the Act of Union with Ireland in 1800 and the election of the Liberal government of Campbell Bannerman in 1906. It is replete with names, hundreds of them, cabinet ministers, statesmen, campaigners and the like. But they are never more than names: if they ascend to the aristocracy (as so many of those in political office do) then they are only referred to by their title. No one is described (I think there’s a passing reference to Disraeli’s looks, but you could hardly avoid that, could you?), there is no attempt to get under the skin of any of them, to investigate motives, no moment in this very dramatic century is actually dramatized (I don’t think I have ever seen the Peterloo massacre dealt with so dispassionately).
Something of the quality of the book is displayed in the last chapter, when the publication of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells prompts Cannadine to a rare flight of fancy. For 30 pages he imagines what a visitor from 1800 would have made of the world of 1900. It is an interesting imaginative exercise, summarizing all that had changed over the course of the century. But for Cannadine, the very first thing his time travellers would notice was that “Britain’s position in the world was familiar, yet not quite the same.” Really? I would have thought that the very first things they would notice would be the clothes, the crowds, the smells, the monstrosities of trains and horse-drawn omnibuses and motor vehicles. The material things that represent all the ways that life had changed for ordinary people over the century. All of these things would open up discussion of population growth, urbanization, the development of new dyes, advances in technology and so forth. But no, “In the light of the many continental coalitions through which they had lived in the 1800s, the time travellers might not be surprised to learn that Britain had recently renewed its European commitment after a long period of detachment from direct involvement in continental affairs; but they might have been taken aback to discover that the recent military alliance had not been with Germany but with France.”
Don’t get me wrong, this is a fascinating book in many ways. There is a lot of rich detail. It is mostly political history: there is more detail about acts of parliament that succeed or fail, than there is social history about the way people live, and there is more social history than there is cultural history. But there is some cultural history, often presented in interesting juxtapositions: for instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is presented as part of the wave of popular unrest that included the Peterloo massacre. (Though it may be indicative of something that the very few errors that I spotted all tended to be associated with social rather than political history; for instance, unless things have changed dramatically over the last century and a half, New Lanark is not actually near Manchester.) It is worth noting, though, that Cannadine will provide some explanation of social and cultural changes, as if these aren’t his natural territory and he has to tread carefully; but when it comes to political structures, he often assumes that he doesn’t need to explain anything. Throughout the century, the person who is prime minister is chosen by the monarch regardless of the political make-up of parliament. Because of her antipathy towards Gladstone, Victoria seems to have several times tried to name Disraeli as prime minister even though the conservatives were not in the majority in the house. And this practice continued into the 20th century: Campbell Bannerman became prime minister in December 1905, before the election of 1906 that brought the Liberals a crushing victory. Now I don’t understand how this works, and I would have relished an explanation, but Cannadine doesn’t seem to feel that is necessary.
It is also, perhaps inevitably given its focus, a very masculine book. You can probably count on the fingers of two hands the women who are mentioned in the first 500 pages of the book. Even Victoria doesn’t get that much of a look in. We are told several times that she didn’t like Gladstone, but we’re not told that much else about her. Then, in the last few pages of the book, he launches into an account of the rise of the New Woman and suffragism in the latter part of the century, and all at once he multiplies by several times the number of women named.
I had to check: Victorious Century was first published in 2017. In many ways, it feels much older.