Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800 – 1906 by David Cannadine

The Blurb On The Back:

To live in Victorian Britain was to experience an astonishing series of changes, of a kind for which there was simply no precedent in the human experience.  This was an exhilarating time, but also a horrifying one.

In his dazzling new book David Cannadine has created a bold, fascinating new interpretation of Victorian Britain.  This was a country which saw itself at the summit of the world.  And yet it was a society also convulsed by doubt, fear and introspection.  Repeatedly, politicians and writers felt themselves to be staring into the abyss and what is seen as an era of irritating self-belief was in practice obsessed by a sense of its own fragility, whether as a great power or as a moral force.  Victorious Century is an extraordinary enjoyable book – its author catches the relish, humour and theatrically of the age, but also the dilemmas of a kind with which we remain familiar today. 

You can order Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800 – 1906 by David Cannadine from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Sir David Cannadine is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University and in this informative and easy to understand book he aims to set out a political history of Britain within an interlinked and international context but what makes it fascinating are the parallels with modern Britain (notably the Brexit issue with Ireland), which left me with an overriding impression that the more things change, the more they stay the same … 

Cannadine chooses to focus on the years 1800 to 1906 partly because he does not believe that any other historian of the period has used those brackets but also because people living at both points believed that they were in revolutionary times.  He also believes that the period allows him to show “the uniquely enduring institution of political authority, government legitimacy, popular sovereignty and national identity”, which remained constant as opposed to the trials and tribulations going on in European countries.  At the same time it was a century of opposites – featuring war and peace, prosperity and famine, and liberalism and repression.

The book takes a narrative approach, beginning with the 1800 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, which is appropriate because Ireland remains a constant thread throughout the century.  I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style and the way he builds on information in previous chapters to contextualise and explain events, e.g. from initial political concessions to Irish politicians through to the horrors of the Irish famine and the growing demands for Irish home rule towards the end of the century.  Cannadine is strong on identifying the weaknesses and faults in the British approach and identifying why they resulted in failure, although I did think that there was less of a sense of some of the personalities involved and how they influenced events, e.g. Parnell and Gladstone (in the case of the latter, I didn’t really come aware with a sense of why he was so determined to try and settle the issue).  I should say though that the lack of personalities is one of my main criticisms of the book as Cannadine seems more interested in accomplishments and failures than in what made these people tick.

Each chapter examines a set period:

  • 1800 to 1802
  • 1802 to 1815
  • 1815 to 1829
  • 1829 to 1841
  • 1841 to 1848
  • 1849 to 1852
  • 1852 to 1865
  • 1865 to 1880
  • 1880 to 1895
  • 1895 to 1905 
  • 1905 to 1906

Many of these periods are book ended by governments coming into power and then falling, which I thought was helpful as it helps to further contextualise what was going on in the times and why.  Having studied this period for A Level hem-hem years ago, a lot of what’s set out here rang bells for me, from the slow move to enfranchisement (for men, not women), Chartism, Gladstone and Disraeli, and Palmerston’s gung-ho foreign policy.  However there was also a lot on issues that I wasn’t particularly familiar with, notably the Napoleonic Wars, Balfour’s administration and Britain’s growing rivalry with the USA and Germany and although this is primarily a political history, Cannadine also takes the time to draw in economic and cultural history to give a sense of where the country was and how it saw itself proceeding (this is particularly noticeable in the sections where he mentions religion).

I have mentioned that I thought the lack of a sense of personality was a weakness of the book.  I have to say that while for the most part Cannadine’s use of referring back to previous events to provide explanations was helpful there were times when I was a little discombobulated by the jumping back and forth.  I also found it a little irritating how he would mention people drawn into Cabinet who then don’t feature at all in the events of the chapter (and in a couple of places, at all later on).  However I was also struck by some of the parallels between the issues of 19th century Britain and those of today – notably the relationship between Britain and Ireland remains an important issue thanks to Brexit but also the way in which issues of fair trade -v- protectionism and rights of workers (especially stagnant pay).

There’s a very good further reading section for those interested in learning more about the period.  I certainly came away from this book feeling that I had a better grasp on a key part of British history and I would definitely read Cannadine’s other books on the strength of this one.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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