Exactly a century ago, the trashing of Victorian England began. As the “Great War” that had all but destroyed Europe ended, Lytton Strachey, a minor essayist and member of the Bloomsbury set, published a slim volume of four biographical studies under the ironical title “Eminent Victorians.” His aim was to indict the giants on whose shoulders he stood. Strachey succeeded: The forebears whose Victorian virtues had inspired the nation that had just led its Allies to victory over Imperial Germany would hitherto be known primarily for one vice: hypocrisy.
That the attitude of the British toward their ancestors should have been held in thrall for so long requires explanation. The two great nation-states whose impact on the world has been, despite all vicissitudes, most evidently benign are the United States and Britain. The survival of Western civilization owes almost everything to the fact that these two peoples have upheld values and principles that other nations have either from time to time abandoned or never adhered to at all. To the former, this fact is a source of embarrassment and envy; to the latter, one of fear and hatred.
There are many, therefore, who have an interest in denying this fact. Hence the emphasis in the academy on the historical shortcomings of both the Americans and the British. The evils of slavery and colonialism, the defects of democracy and liberty, the social injustices and economic inequalities of the two major English-speaking peoples are allowed to obscure the underlying truth: that theirs, and theirs alone, was the providential task of pioneering, in theory and in practice, the free world, and ultimately of saving it from the fools and fiends who came close to ruining it.
During the century covered by David Cannadine’s book, France lived through two republics, two monarchies, two empires, two revolutions, and the Paris Commune. Germany and Italy had not existed as nation-states in 1800; both achieved unification only after revolutions and wars; both eventually proved to be unstable. The Romanov and Habsburg dynasties ruled over the Russian and Austrian empires respectively throughout this period, but little more than a decade later both would be gone. Though the American Republic proved far more robust in dealing with the challenges of modernity than most of the European states, it had to endure a bloody civil war to defend its integrity. Only the British avoided any major upheaval since 1700 (except in Ireland). There was nothing inevitable about the way in which 19th-century continental conflicts led to 20th-century global catastrophes. Still, the fact remains: But for the United Kingdom and the United States, these catastrophes might have proved terminal.
Professor Cannadine is an Englishman who teaches at Princeton, so he is well placed to interpret British history not only to his countrymen but to an American readership as well. He is, at 67, at the height of his powers and loaded with honors, including a knighthood, the presidency of the British Academy, and the general editorship of the Dictionary of National Biography. His wife, Professor Linda Colley, is no less distinguished; indeed, Victorious Century reads like a sequel to Britons, her pioneering study of national identity. The Cannadines are the ultimate academic power couple. The chronicler of the decline of the English aristocracy has become a kind of intellectual aristocrat himself; he is certainly a pillar of the transatlantic liberal establishment.
What, then, are we to make of Victorious Century, Cannadine’s magnum opus? It is, in the first place, curiously old-fashioned. In what is necessarily a highly condensed work of synthesis, most space is devoted to high politics. Cabinets are listed, policies dissected, reforms noted, statesmen judged. There is nothing inherently wrong with treating politics as a self-contained process propelled by party, privilege, and patronage, but it is an approach that tends to minimize the influence of ideas and culture on political dynamics. Cannadine is of course aware of extraneous forces, such as class and religion, but he is more interested in “top-down” factors than in “bottom-up” ones.
Second, Victorious Century is a belated example of what Herbert Butterfield called “the Whig school of history.” That is, he believes not only in progress, but in the right of posterity to condescend toward the past. “Whatever its real but mistaken nostalgic appeal in certain quarters,” Cannadine self-righteously opines, “the United Kingdom of the early nineteenth century was a world that we should be glad has been left behind.”
That seems to this reader a curious attitude for a historian to take towards the staggering achievements of that era: Along with the Industrial Revolution, the defeat of Napoleon’s continental empire, and the abolition of the slave trade came the creation of much of the furniture of modernity, from Romantic art and poetry to the male suit and the female novelist. It was also a period of dramatic and largely successful political reform: Such landmarks as Catholic emancipation in 1829 and the Reform Act of 1832 showed that the constitutional monarchy that had survived civil war and revolution in the 17th century was capable of adapting to a democratic age. One of several relevant books missing from the bibliography of Victorious Century is The Birth of the Modern (full disclosure: the author, Paul Johnson, is my father), which argues persuasively that the modern world emerged quite suddenly between 1815 and 1830.
Cannadine is in denial about the role of conservative statesmen in the global transformation that took place during the long period of almost unbroken peace between 1815 and 1914. That peace owed much, for example, to the able diplomatist Lord Castlereagh, British foreign secretary from 1812 to 1822. He worked alongside the equally gifted Austrian chancellor Klemens von Metternich to create a diplomatic system, known as the “Concert of Europe,” which would contain international crises and prevent a return to the unending wars of the previous quarter-century. Just as William Pitt the Younger had forged a series of alliances to resist French domination, so Castlereagh sought allies to cement the post-war settlement agreed to at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. Cannadine concedes that Castlereagh resisted the demand of the continental absolutists to intervene in the domestic affairs of smaller countries. Yet he follows conventional wisdom in belittling this great conservative reformer, who grasped the principles of realpolitik long before Bismarck. To sneer at Castlereagh for being “a firm believer in monarchy, aristocracy and hierarchy” is hardly a fair criticism of a hereditary viscount, later marquis. “So he has cut his throat at last,” gloated Byron at the news of his suicide. But it was Castlereagh who first inspired Henry Kissinger’s insight that “the fundamental problem of politics . . . is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.”
Victorious Century seems to take for granted Britain’s success in limiting the often violent demands of righteousness, by espousing what Gertrude Himmelfarb long ago called the Victorian virtues. This permeation of society with a secularized Judeo-Christian morality had a lasting political and economic impact. Not only was there little or no popular support in the islands for revolutionary ideas (with the partial exception of Ireland), but the combination of a formidable work ethic and strong family structures also enabled Victorians to manage the endemic problem of poverty in a rapidly multiplying population. Cannadine eschews comparisons with other societies, past and present, at a similar stage of development, which would have enabled us to see the British experience in a more favorable context. But he also assumes that the 21st-century welfare state has a monopoly of wisdom, underrating the unprecedented dynamism of our more enterprising ancestors. In fact, poverty and other social evils are now often caused by the collapse of the self-reliance conferred by the moral codes that Victorians erected, observed, and enforced. Indeed, this was the epoch in which the poor were discovered, at home and abroad, thanks to the astonishing growth of the press and the ascendancy of writers, such as Dickens, who were able to mobilize public opinion in favor of reform.
Cannadine does not ignore the rise of philanthropy in Victorious Century, but he is inclined to dwell on negative side effects of the incredible acceleration of change and accumulation of wealth made possible by the free market. Thus he repeatedly insists that life expectancy barely increased in the Victorian era. In fact, between 1841 and 1905, U.K. life expectancy at birth rose by an unprecedented eight years for men and nine for women. Life was still tough, but even for the poor it had immeasurably improved.
In this evolution — the opposite of the “immiseration” predicted by Marx — the key players were often conservatives, from William Wilberforce (who campaigned against the slave trade) and Lord Shaftesbury (who campaigned against child labor) to Benjamin Disraeli (who extended the franchise, passed many social reforms, and preserved the peace of Europe at the Congress of Berlin in 1878). Yet Cannadine is critical of the conservative cast of mind that predominated throughout the century, even when liberals such as Palmerston and Gladstone held office. It is as if he cannot quite forgive the British for preserving their traditions and inventing new ones, for hanging on to as much as possible of their way of life, even as their world was being turned upside down. He disapproves of Queen Victoria herself as a “Tory jingo,” but even he concedes that the British genuinely believed in their civilizing mission and that they governed their Empire for the most part with the willing cooperation of their subjects.
Unfortunately Cannadine gets one of the best-known imperial anecdotes wrong. In 1844, the conqueror of the Indian province of Sindh, General Napier, did not (as Cannadine claims) send a one-word dispatch: “Peccavi.” This learned pun (meaning “I have sinned,” or Sindh) was in fact the work of a teenager, Catherine Winkworth — evidence that girls’ education was making progress. She sent it to Punch magazine, which printed it as a factual report, so creating a myth to match Julius Caesar’s Veni, vidi, vici.
Victorious Century ends not with the death of Victoria in 1901 but with the election of a “New Liberal” government in 1906 that in Cannadine’s view broke with the “forces of inertia” and ushered in “a new time of hope.” Yet what came after was hardly a revolution. Take the case of that most eminent of Victorians, Winston Churchill: Having abandoned the Conservative party, he realized the limits of liberalism when, as a youthful home secretary in 1911, he came under fire from terrorists — then a new threat — at the “siege of Sidney Street” and felt obliged to mobilize troops against striking coal miners. Like his father, Randolph, Winston was not a liberal but a “Tory democrat”; he soon returned to the Conservative fold.
However frustrating it may be for Cannadine, the British were and have remained both instinctively skeptical of liberalism and fierce in defense of liberty. He describes Marx as an “incomparable observer of the nineteenth-century scene,” citing his dictum that “men make their own histories, but do not do so freely, under conditions of their own choosing.” In one sense this is a truism — we do not choose the world into which we are born — but in another it is profoundly mistaken, at least in this case. The British did make history freely: Unlike other, less adventurous peoples, they embraced the task of changing the world: occasionally by force, more often by example, and usually for the better. Had the Victorians been hypocrites, masking their greed by a show of virtue, they could never have inspired so many other peoples to adopt and adapt their civilization.