Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906. By David Cannadine. Allen Lane; 602 pages; £30. To be published in America by Viking in February 2018; $40.
IN THE 19th century, Britain’s old enemy France was vanquished. Britain was industrialising faster than its European neighbours, while preserving its monarchy and parliamentary system. It slowly grew more democratic and added more patches to its imperial map. Iron, steel, cotton and steam enriched Britons at home as globalisation took off.
By mid-century two-fifths of traded manufactured goods were produced in the United Kingdom. A quarter of global trade flowed through the country’s ports. In 1851 Britons had an average income 65% higher than the average German and 30% higher than the average American. In 1900 Britain governed around a quarter of the world’s people, with military spending under 4% of GDP. Prime ministers of the era gave their names to Melbourne, Wellington, Palmerston North in New Zealand, Port Stanley in the Falklands and Salisbury, now Harare, Zimbabwe. Georgetown, Guyana and Victoria, Seychelles were named after the century’s monarchs.
But to many subjects it did not feel so glorious. As David Cannadine shrewdly identifies in “Victorious Century”, his volume in the Penguin History of Britain series, economic turmoil often fuelled political discontent. The 1820s, 1830s and 1840s were marked by severe slumps. Luddites rioted against technology, ordinary people protested for political rights under the banner of Chartism, and more than 1m Irish starved in potato famines. Later, Britons worried about the newly united United States and Germany overtaking their economy. Politicians of the 1880s had to deal with Irish anger against landlords, fuelled by a new and sometimes violent nationalism, and mass strikes by trade unions, no longer banned.
The century’s most successful prime ministers, both Tories, each won four elections: Lord Liverpool was in office from 1812 to 1827 and Lord Salisbury discontinuously from 1885 to 1902. Each had to deal with unrest. Liverpool curbed civil freedoms, while Salisbury expanded the empire and tried to rally Britain for Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee. Rudyard Kipling saw only pessimism: “Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”
Imperial doubt lay just beneath the jingoism. Humiliations in Afghanistan, India, Jamaica, South Africa and Sudan came decade by decade, and the best known war poem marked another one, Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”. He and other poets found inspiration from the decline of faith: in 1851 half the country still went to church. Arthur Clough and Matthew Arnold wrestled with their doubts in print, and by 1900 agnosticism and indifference were gaining sway.
Mr Cannadine seems right to argue that pessimism is the key to understanding the Victorians, with the 1880s and 1890s marking the high tide of both their arrogance and their fears (see article). Their moral panics make more sense in this light, explaining why laws against gross indecency (in effect, homosexuality) were passed in 1885. Mr Cannadine offers a comprehensive analysis, in particular, of high politics. Some of the big characters of the age are lost—Dickens and Brunel are somewhat absent—but he knits together the often diverging grand imperial, national and social histories with skill.