'Victorious Century' book review: The peak of Empire

VICTORIOUS CENTURY
The United Kingdom, 1800-1906
By David Cannadine
Viking
Illustrated; 602 pages; $40 

If you belong to that minority of Americans who will follow the World Cup this summer, you will hear national anthems sung before each game, and see the players in white England shirts mouthing “Send her victorious / Happy and glorious / Long to reign over us / God save the Queen!” Our present queen has reigned so long that she broke the record of her predecessor for most of the period covered by Sir David Cannadine’s admirable new book, whose name makes “19th century” almost synonymous with “Victorian.”

 

And “victorious”? Any serious historian of Cannadine’s (and my) country in that epoch has a tricky balance sheet of profit and loss to compile. There were military victories, against Napoleon, the Russians and the Boers, not to mention numerous often defenceless peoples in Asia and Africa. There was astonishing material progress. Reformers won slow but steady political victory, so that from the time “Victorious Century” opens, when only a fraction of Englishmen could vote for a corrupt Parliament, by the time it ends six out of 10 men — though still only men — were enfranchised. More than that, it was also an age of astonishing literary fecundity and intellectual vitality, scarcely surpassed since.

 

On the other side, the mass of the people led wretched lives, and short ones, worked to death in the cramped, disease-ridden, filthy new industrial cities. And that was in England. Cannadine, the Dodge professor of history at Princeton University, takes his terminal dates from the 1800 Act of Union, which created “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” and the Liberal landslide at the general election of 1906, which finally led to the passing of Home Rule for Ireland and began the breakup of that United Kingdom.

 

For all the triumphs of Trafalgar and Waterloo, the following years saw unrest and bloodshed, political agitation and howls of distress from the desperately poor, who often resorted to violent resistance to change as their old livelihoods were swept away by new technologies. The great majority of the populace still laboured on the land; at midcentury the roughly two million agricultural workers were the largest employment group, followed by more than a million domestic servants, mostly women, although England would become one of the most urbanised countries in Europe well before the century was out.

 

Much of the narrative frame concerns high politics, and rightly so. A book like this one is particularly valuable in an age when history undergraduates often startle their teachers by their ignorance of basic facts. So it’s good to be reminded of the personal as well as principled conflicts among Wellington, Melbourne, Peel, Aberdeen, Disraeli and Gladstone, all of whom, one may say, seem towering figures by today’s dismal standards. Against the reforming spirit of the age there were contrary forces, the neoreactionaries of “Young England” and the high church revival of the Oxford movement.

 

Toward the end of the century, Sir John Seeley said with smug facetiousness that the British had acquired an empire, which by then extended over much of the globe, in “a fit of absence of mind.” What was true was the reluctance of successive governments for either war or expansion. Prime ministers found themselves — Lord Aberdeen in the Crimea and Lord Salisbury with the Boers — dragged into conflicts they didn’t much want. And there was continual tension between the British government and distant settlers from South Africa to Australia, with London trying to restrain the settlers and making at least a pretense of safeguarding the interests of the indigenous peoples.

 

And yet there was an underlying imperialist savagery, seen in the bloody suppression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, combined with cynicism. The English did not endear themselves to others by combining rapacity with seeming high-mindedness. If the governor of Hong Kong, who claimed that “Jesus Christ is free trade, and free trade is Jesus Christ,” was an extreme case, there was nothing “free” about the monstrous way China was forced to buy opium by the British.

 

As in that case, much of British commercial success had nothing to do with formal empire. By midcentury, “1,500 British mercantile houses were trading around the world, and nearly two-thirds of them were based outside the European mainland, with 41 in Buenos Aires alone.” As Cannadine says, the British had found the secret by which they could “operate as a global hegemon on the cheap.”

 

While the empire grew apace, so did production of the coal and ships that ensured British naval supremacy. And yet by the end of the century, a new boastful imperialism was qualified by a mood of apprehension, expressed by the bard of Empire himself. Kipling warned “lest we forget,” and imagined the day when “all our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”

 

Besides these alarms there was astonishing scientific advance, a steady decline in religion and also something wonderful. The “condescension of posterity” would be exceptionally misplaced for literature. During the one decade 1811-20 not only were Byron, Keats and Shelley writing and Jane Austen’s novels published, but Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope and George Eliot were all born. Maybe our vaunted contemporary writers will one day be rated as highly. We’ll see.

 

In Cannadine’s lucid account there is the occasional slip. He mentions the publication of Mill’s “Utilitarianism” in 1863, but not another and surely more important event that year, the meeting at a London pub that drew up a common code for association football. As A. J P Taylor said, “By it the mark of England may well remain in the world when the rest of her influence has vanished” — words that may be given further force this summer.


© 2018 The New York Times News Service


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