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       The Victorious Century

The United Kingdom, 1800-1906


David Cannadine


The Penguin History of Britain, vol. VIII

London: Allen Lane 2017

Hardcover. xxi+601 pages. ISBN 978-0713998146. £30


Reviewed by Charles Giovanni Vanzan Coutinho

New York





Sir David Cannadine is one of the historical profession’s marvels: President of the British Academy, general editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, prodigious scholar of modern British history, whose prose style reminds one of nothing else but what Sir Kenneth Clark once referred to as the ‘Mandarin English’.(1) And amazingly at the same time has (in the words of the Burlington Magazine) ‘impressive sales figures’ for the many books that he writes.(2) In short Sir David is one of the figures who in a more civilised age, would be referred to as one of the ‘Great and the Good’. And to impress one even more, Sir David has just come out with a fat (over five hundred pages of text) history of the United Kingdom. A volume in the Penguin History of Britain, the book unfortunately suffers from the publisher’s refusal to have the text littered with either footnotes / endnotes or an index, much less a bibliography. Sir David endeavours to remedy this form of barbarism by writing a five-page bibliographical essay, which makes up for its shortness by its sheer elegance and the information provided to the reader.

With all that being said, how does Sir David handle this crucial, one-hundred and six years of British history from the Union of Ireland with England and Scotland to the catastrophic defeat of Balfour’s Tory Party by Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberals? The short answer is very impressively. As this is thankfully a book in which ‘high politics’, if not ‘takes command’, certainly is for the most part, front and centre throughout this volume. Sir David providing the reader with a beautiful tour d’horizon of Britain and its empire in the midst of the life and death struggle with Napoleonic France. Noting for anyone who is suffering for mistaken nostalgia for this Britain of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington: ‘The United Kingdom of the early 19th century was a world that we should be glad to have left behind’ [46]. Expertly, Sir David delineates why it was that Britain and its allies won and Napoleonic France lost what may perhaps be called ‘the second hundred years war’ [50-60]. The principal reason (other than that Napoleon decided to invade Russia in 1812), being that Britain was able to prodigiously raise huge amounts of money to subsidise its Continental allies in the crucial years 1812-1814. The upshot of France’s defeat was a Britain in 1815 which possessed an empire which totalled ‘one-fifth of the inhabitants of the globe’ [101].

With the final defeat of Bonaparte, Sir David next attends to that almost revolutionary transformation of an ancien régime type state to the minimal, night-watchman state of Peel and Gladstone so beloved of all good 19th- and 20th-century liberals. In his description of the dismantling of the fiscal-military state Sir David, building upon the recent scholarship of Boyd Hilton, delineates how a ‘half decade of recession and protest’ led to the reformist, more self-confident Britain of the early and mid-Victorian period.(3) His mostly favourable view of the leading Tory political figure of the first quarter of the 19th century, Lord Liverpool, being supported by William Anthony Hay’s new political biography.(4) In his recounting of the crisis years of 1828-1832, Sir David shows how what appeared to some (including some historians who should know better) as a pre-revolutionary situation was in fact no more than another instance of the triumph of British common-sense, empiricism and reformism. Sir David noting the amusing upshot of the great reform bill of 1832, being that the British system of parliamentary representation remained ‘anomalous, inconsistent, restricted and oligarchic’ [163]. Regardless, overall Sir David characterises the 1830s as the ‘pivotal decade in the history of the nineteenth century United Kingdom’ [173]. With the temporary decline of the reformist ethos in the 1840s, the text draws the reader into a minute but exceedingly interesting discussion of the fall of the man (Sir Robert Peel) that A.J.P. Taylor once described (not without some degree of merit) as ‘the orange Peel’.(5) Albeit there would be many, not only Taylor, but also Bagehot, who would have found Sir David too sympathetic to Peel, who it could be argued was in too many ways, too clever by half.(6)

With the triumph of the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851, with the near simultaneous deaths of Wordsworth, Peel and the Duke of Wellington, Sir David expertly outlines the ‘condition of England’ at the very height of its power and wealth vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The event was, he argues in retrospect, a symbol of both the United Kingdom’s industrial might and a nation not quite at ease with itself. In particular, the growing drift towards secularism was in many ways a source of underlying concern to many mid-Victorians, even before the publication of Darwin’s The Origins of Species. Something to which Sir David’s text undoubtedly gives undue emphasis, as the book’s coverage of the Oxford Movement in particular seems to be almost non-existent. In keeping with his concentration on high politics, Sir David illustrates in his trademark elegant fashion the growing rivalry between Disraeli & Gladstone, in what was initially politically speaking the age of Palmerston (1855-1865). With the death of Palmerston, followed closely by the unifications of Germany and Italy (and it could be argued, prior to Palmerston’s death, the United States after the end of its Civil War), a new, more perplexing and less stable and settled world was emerging. With this background, the parliamentary warfare conducted in connection with the Second Reform Act of 1867 becomes more understandable given this less harmonious atmosphere. Although Sir David shows that per contra to the anxieties of such opponents as Robert Lowe and Lord Cranborne (the future Lord Salisbury), the Reform Act ‘may have widened the franchise more considerably than Derby and Disraeli had originally intended, but it was hardly a radical measure’ [339].

With the recurring Premierships of Disraeli to Gladstone and back again (1868-1885), which are suitably covered, the reader receives a complete and comprehensive account of these two great political figures in and out of office. However, Sir David tends to ignore Gladstone’s religious proclivities, with the temporarily retired statesman in the early to mid-1870s spending his time writing a passionate attack on the decrees of the First Vatican Council. And with the passage of time Sir David brings the reader to the late Victorian era, in which the dominant political figure was Lord Salisbury, whose important essay in the Quarterly Journal in 1883, suitably titled ‘Disintegration’, the author explicates for the reader as providing a leitmotif of the entire era: one in which the one-time certainties and confidence of the high-Victorian period no longer seemed to be true, as by the turn of the 20th century Britain had been surpassed economically by certain measurements by both the United States and Imperial Germany [392-394,449-450] a state of affairs belied by the improved quality of life as well as the standard of living for most of the population of the United Kingdom and of course by the triumph of the ‘new imperialism’ of the 1890s. Sir David ably highlights this for the reader by employing H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine as a yardstick to delineate the manifold differences in every sector of British life circa 1906 as compared to those found in the early 19th century. Regardless of which, Sir David ends the book with a suitable downward-looking quotation from Kipling’s Recessional, pointing out that as he puts it: “global greatness…and imperial dominion…do not endure and…do not last” [530]. To sum up: The Victorious Century, despite a few unimportant weaknesses, and the odd decision to end the book in 1906, rather than the more conventional 1914, is a book of tremendous erudition and learning, written by a past-master of the historical art form.(7)


(1) Kenneth Clark. Moments of Vision (1981) : 143-159.

(2) ‘Editorial: Publishing Art History’. Burlington Magazine (September 2018) : 715.

(3) On England before 1832 as an ‘ancien régime’ type state, which Sir David does not quite endorse, nor quite rule out either, see: J.C.D. Clark. English Society, 1688-1832 : Ideology, Social Structure, and Political Practice during the Ancien Régime (1985). On the fiscal-military state, see: John Brewer. The Sinews of Power : War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (2000). Boyd Hilton. A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England, 1783-1846 (2016); Theodore K. Hoppen. The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-1886 (2000).

(4) William Anthony Hay. Lord Liverpool : A Political Life (2018).

(5) A.J.P. Taylor. ‘Sir Robert Peel’, in From Napoleon to the Second International : Essays on Nineteenth Century Europe. Edited by Chris Wrigley (1993) : 120-122.

(6) Walter Bagehot. ‘The Character of Sir Robert Peel’, in Bagehot’s Historical Essays. Edited by Norman St. John-Stevas (1966) : 212-213 & passim.  

(7) These included the following (in no particularorder of importance): a) Count Cavour was not ‘charismatic’. Something that Denis Mack Smith’s biography brings out repeatedly. See: Denis Mack Smith. Cavour (1985) : 51-52, 184-190 & passim; b) there was no ‘balance of power’ in Europe after 1815. See: Paul Schroder. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 (1994) : 527-537 & passim; c) Lord Curzon was not ‘disappointed that the Liberal Government refused to extend his term as Viceroy’. In fact he resigned his position in August 1905, five months before Balfour’s resignation; d) Lord Cromer did not resign as Agent-General in Egypt because ‘his authoritarian approach grated with Campbell-Bannerman’. In fact Cromer was Campbell-Bannerman’s first choice as Foreign Secretary, over Sir Edward Grey. See: Roger Owen. Lord Cromer : Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul (2004) : 326-347.


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