By Will Barber Taylor
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. There were revolutions in transport, communication, work; cities grew vast; scientific idea made the intellectual landscape unrecognisable. This was an exhilarating time, but also a horrifying one.
In his major new book David Cannadine has created a bold, fascinating new interpretation of Victorian Britain. This was a country which saw itself as 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 extraordinarily enjoyable book – its author catches the relish, humour and staginess of the age, but also the dilemmas of a kind with which we remain familiar with today.
David Cannadine is one of academia’s most relatable and enjoyable historians. His work is filled with the zest of engagement which should fill any book about history. To bring the past back to life is not an easy thing; it requires dedication and an ability to turn what would otherwise be dry documents to life. To do this to a whole century is an even greater feat – unlike a biography or the history of a particular role or of one event to cover a century requires the same skill as writing a great epic or a TV soap. You have to keep your audience’s interest as a vast cast of characters move on and off the stage at various points, never dwelling too much on one or the other in case you lose the focus of your narrative. Cannadine does this expertly.
What is particularly striking about Cannadine’s work is that unlike other histories of the 19th century, such as those produced by A.N Wilson or others, is that his history of the Victorian period does not being in 1837 and end in 1901 but begins in 1800 and ends in 1906. Cannadine’s work, rather than focussing on one monarch, brilliantly approaches the period through its politics – beginning with William Pitt’s creation of the United Kingdom and ending with the Liberal landslide of 1906, finishing the Victorian political status quo for ever. This allows the reader to fully embrace how much changed during the 106 years covered in the book and prove how vital the Victorious Century was to our development as a modern nation.
Ultimately, Cannadine’s new work may not change the general public’s perception of the Victorian era as one of smog, soot, suppression, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper but his work will certainly make those who read it re-evaluate their preconceptions about this period. Whilst I may quibble over some of Cannadine’s assertions – particularly in the first chapter which deals in part with the late 18th century – the book is phenomenally good and I would highly recommend it.
With thanks to Penguin Publishing.