A History of 19th-Century Britain Without the People

A History of 19th-Century Britain Without the People

The View From Whitehall

David Cannadine’s new history of 19th-century Britain focuses on high politics to the exclusion of nearly everything else.


As the British political establishment rushes blindly toward the Gadarene cliffs of Brexit, movie theaters are awash with films portraying the days when the country stood alone against the might of Europe—movies like Dunkirk, Churchill, and Darkest Hour. Meanwhile, Brexiteers paint an alluring picture of a golden future that will revive the greatness of Britain’s past, above all the days when the United Kingdom was an imperial superpower that dominated the world. Before publication, the title of David Cannadine’s book was changed from The Contradictions of Progress to Victorious Century; with its new title, the book is now surfing high on this wave of nostalgia.

“For much of the time,” Cannadine writes of his chosen period, “it was an era of national greatness, global reach and imperial aggrandizement, which in our devolved, downsized, post-imperial, post-Brexit Britain, is experientially unknowable and imaginatively all but irrecoverable.” In those days, Britain led the world politically and economically, in an age that was very “unlike our own diminished times and limited horizons.” In Victorious Century, Cannadine underscores the central myth of Brexit: that Britain has always been wholly unlike other European nations. The Victorians, he asserts, were right to think that their country was “unique, exceptional and providentially blessed.” Indeed, the book barely provides comparisons with other European countries at all, thus implicitly confirming the thesis of British uniqueness even where it is not really sustainable.

Of course, Cannadine is too good a historian not to realize that there was a dark side to all this, in terms of social inequality, poverty, and exploitation at home and, at least early on, the “toleration” (as he puts it) of slavery in the British Empire. Indeed, pointing such things out is characteristic of his approach, which involves putting forward one argument but then qualifying it by propounding an opposing argument in the next paragraph, so that the reader frequently ends up not knowing what the author really thinks. But Victorious Century says hardly anything in detail about the economic problems and social inequalities that beset Georgian and Victorian Britain; most of the book is devoted to telling the story of the political efforts to overcome them. Misery and deprivation appear not in their own right, in any descriptive or analytical treatment, but, in the main, merely as the objects of legislative reform.

This is because the book’s understanding of historical method is resolutely old-fashioned, as insular in its approach as it is in its selection and presentation of facts. For, in defiance of all the developments in historical method that have taken place across the world over the past half-century, Victorious Century is centered on high politics, to the virtual exclusion of everything else. The ever-shifting political alliances and alignments are narrated in bewildering and frequently tedious detail, as we go through a seemingly endless series of British cabinets, most of them filled with carefully identified but justly forgotten aristocrats, and the various laws they steered through Parliament.

One wonders if this is really necessary. After all, it’s easy enough to look up, on sites like Wikipedia, the names of ministers, the composition of governments, and the provisions of the bills and acts they promoted; surely what the historian needs to do is to wield the broad brush of historical interpretation, rather than focus on the fine-grained depiction of political events. It all reminds one of the approach of Lewis Namier, a historian whose grindingly thorough research on high politics at the accession of George III in the mid–18th century prompted his disciples to produce, some decades later, one boring account after another of the ins and outs of the cabinets that followed. What Cannadine presents in Victorious Century is essentially a narrative in the same mold, only much better written. Yet, precisely because of its intensive focus on the cabinet intrigues and political doings in Westminster and Whitehall, the book is not an easy read. This is not least because, despite mention of the “larger than life” personalities who fill the story, we never find out how their quirks and foibles helped shape events. A few choice quotations and a handful of anecdotes about the key figures would have sufficed, but we don’t get them. High political history, done in a way that pays attention to personal traits and relationships—such as in The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s recent account of the diplomatic run-up to World War I—can add a new dimension to our understanding of events, but here we don’t get any of these things. The politicians who populate Cannadine’s book—even the greatest of them—remain just names, individual pieces on the chessboard of politics, as lifeless as the wood or ivory from which the pieces are commonly made.

Industry, culture, society, science, and the economy appear from time to time in brief sections of a few pages apiece, before the relentless enumeration of cabinets, elections, ministries, and laws resumes. The popular discontent of the early decades of the 19th century, with its Luddites and machine-breakers, its rioters and strikes, gets four pages of coverage. But this is not much more than the three pages assigned shortly afterward to the career and opinions of the obscure early-19th-century colonial secretary Lord Bathurst. When Cannadine deals with the economic “distress” of the “labouring classes” following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he does so to discuss not the realities of unemployment and destitution, but their impact on high politics and parliamentary legislation.

The voices of the great mass of ordinary Britons are heard throughout this book only as distant cries echoing down the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. The rick-burning activities of the agrarian protest movement culminating in the so-called Swing Riots (after Captain Swing, the movement’s mythical leader) are viewed entirely from the perspective of the government. “Britain may have avoided major political upheaval between the 1790s and the 1840s,” Cannadine writes, “but these were, nevertheless, exceptionally challenging decades for those in authority, and they were also disruptive and disrupted for virtually everyone else.” Were these decades not also exceptionally challenging for the poor, downtrodden, and oppressed? (Or, as Cannadine calls them, dismissing virtually the whole of society in a throwaway phrase, “everyone else.”)

The people are missing even from the book’s descriptions of the nation’s great capital city. An account of the growth of London as a metropolis focuses on the erection of grand buildings and the development of middle-class suburbs, but says next to nothing about the city’s cramped and decrepit “rookeries” (or tenements), the subject of so much impassioned rhetoric in the novels of Charles Dickens, the century’s greatest writer. But then Dickens himself gets only a few passing mentions, nothing in detail. When it comes to the people who lived in the world outside Whitehall and Westminster, Cannadine prefers to focus on the upper classes and the bourgeoisie, as portrayed in the novels of Anthony Trollope. His account of what he calls the annus mirabilis of British publishing, 1859, lists Samuel Smiles, John Stuart Mill, and Charles Darwin, and has a whole paragraph on George Eliot; but he does not mention Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, published the same year, despite Cannadine’s use of the novel’s famous opening sentence (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) as an epigraph for his own book.

There is a very brief allusion to the rise of working-class culture in the 1880s, but the claim that it was “in many ways profoundly conservative” is backed up only by the statement that this was “evidenced by the number of pubs in working-class districts named ‘The Earl of Beaconsfield’ or ‘The Lord Salisbury’”—names most likely given not by their working-class customers but by the brewers who owned them (or, if they were free houses, by their petty-bourgeois landlords).

Similarly, when Cannadine refers to “unacceptable levels of poverty,” he means unacceptable to the various Royal Commissions that investigated them, not to those who had to endure such conditions. Another brief section on poverty toward the end of the 19th century presents the results of the famous social surveys by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree, yet it links them not to the lived experiences of the poor but rather to the emerging debates among the political elite on “degeneracy” and “national efficiency.”

The book’s predominant perspective is revealed once again in the sections on women’s lives in the 19th century. For example, the subject of women and gender gets eight pages in the middle of Victorious Century, but they’re mostly on Florence Nightingale, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Mary Seacole, and, of course, Queen Victoria. Yet a great mass of modern research has been published over the past half-century on the social history of ordinary women, as well as on gender, sexuality, marriage, motherhood, and ideals of femininity. This work is almost completely ignored.

And when Cannadine does deal with matters of birth, marriage, and death, he gets it spectacularly wrong. “Most people,” he says, referring to the first three-quarters or so of the century, “died before they were forty,” a claim he returns to on more than one occasion. He even seems to imagine a kind of mass die-off for almost everybody who reached that age; discussing the death of Albert, Queen Victoria’s prince consort, Cannadine states that “most nineteenth-century Britons died at about Albert’s age (he was forty-two).”

In the middle decades of the century, life expectancy in Britain was indeed around 40. But “life expectancy” means life expectancy at birth, and 40 is an average. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, some 15 percent of all children born in Victorian England died before the age of 1. But once you got past the dangerous early years, you could expect to live a lot longer. Anyone who survived to the age of 5 could expect to live, on average, to the age of about 55. If you survived to the age of 25, you could expect, on average, to live into your early 60s. And if you reached the age of 50, you could expect to live, again on average, until the biblically allotted age of 70. All of this is very well-known, and can be found in any standard textbook on Victorian medical or demographic history. It beggars belief that Cannadine should get such a basic fact of social history so wrong.

What caused Cannadine to narrow the focus of his book so drastically? What made him throw away the sophisticated techniques and tools of his trade, which he displayed with such brilliance in his early work—in his studies on war and death, grief and mourning in the 20th century, for instance, or on the rituals of royalty in the 19th? Partly, I think, it’s because in his research—from his first big and important book, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, to Ornamentalism, his brief but suggestive later study of class and status in the British Empire—Cannadine has always focused on the upper classes. But in writing a general survey for a series like “The Penguin History of Britain,” it is vital to widen one’s focus and look at society as a whole, and this book, I am compelled with great regret to say, signally fails to do that.

More importantly, perhaps, over the past couple of decades, Cannadine has risen fast and high in British public administration. Among other things, he has been director of the Institute of Historical Research, a member of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, and commissioner of English Heritage as well as chairman of its Blue Plaques Panel (the body that decides which figures from the past to memorialize with blue plaques on a wall of the houses where they lived). He is currently president of the Friends of the Imperial War Museum, a member of the Bank of England Banknote Character Advisory Committee, and a trustee of august bodies too numerous to mention, including the Royal Academy and the Historic Royal Palaces charity. Last year, Cannadine was elected president of the British Academy, the national body for the humanities and social sciences.

None of these positions is a sinecure, to put it mildly. And during his tenure in each, Cannadine has been an undoubted force for good—presiding over major improvements at the National Portrait Gallery, where he was a trustee and then chair from 2000 to 2012; pressing successfully to reduce the waiting time for the release of documents in public archives from 30 years to 20 as a member of an independent review panel; and intervening powerfully in the debate over teaching history in British schools with a major investigative project, published as The Right Kind of History in 2011. He is also a polished and compelling lecturer and a talented and entertaining broadcaster, delivering sharp and witty commentaries for the long-running BBC radio series A Point of View.

As if all this weren’t enough, Cannadine is general editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the “Penguin History of Britain” series, and “The Penguin History of Europe,” and he has done much of this from the United States, where he is the Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University. His energy and dedication are simply awe-inspiring, worthy to be ranked alongside those of the greatest of the great Victorians. It is not surprising that he was knighted for his service to scholarship in 2009—a fitting tribute to the leading place he has earned for himself in the public life of the humanities in Britain.

But all this accomplishment has come at a price. It has left him, it seems to me, with insufficient time to think over the problems involved in writing a book such as this one, and insufficient leisure to spend the days, months, and years in libraries and archives required to give it any real depth or to ground it thoroughly in the current state of historical research. More seriously, perhaps, he’s come to identify with the establishment to such an extent that he now appears to see British society in the 19th century largely through its eyes. As a consequence, he displays here a narrow, cripplingly myopic vision that does serious injustice to the millions of ordinary Britons who should have been the subject of this book, as they have been the subject of most of the research carried out on the period by other historians over the past few decades. In the end, it doesn’t really do David Cannadine justice either. Reading this book, one would hardly guess that, at his best, he is a historian of genuine originality, sparkling wit, and acute perception. And that’s a real pity.

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