'Victorious Century: 1800-1906, The United Kingdom' review: Fresh perspective

Victorious Century: 1800-1906, the United Kingdom

Victorious Century: 1800-1906, the United Kingdom  


A writer and historian explains why 19th century Britain was the best and the worst that a nation could be

Any critic faced with yet another new volume on Britain’s 19th century past would be forgiven for feeling unenthusiastic about the book at hand. For, the ‘long nineteenth century’ — during much of which Britain held political and economic sway over large parts of the globe — had been an era which engendered a prodigious volume of scholarly literature, and from a plethora of disciplinary perspectives, those of history, politics and literature being the chief ones.

David Cannadine’s book makes its way past this critical apathy by defining the British ‘nineteenth century’ itself differently. In the prologue, Cannadine proclaims this ambitious difference, which sets him against such towering specialists like David Thomson, Llewellyn Woodward and Robert Ensor, and bounds his 19th century not with the customary dates of 1815 and 1914, but with those of 1800 and 1906. By thus choosing to begin with the union of Great Britain and Ireland and end with the General Election, Cannadine aims “to break new ground, and to offer new perspectives” to “the British experience of the nineteenth century”.

Global pre-eminence

One chief take-away from the book is the largely convincing analysis of why Britain came to achieve the global pre-eminence that it enjoyed for most of this time span.

Compared to other European nations, Cannadine notes, Britain enjoyed remarkable geographical cohesiveness, a relative lack of military entanglements and, above all, an enviable political stability — factors that contributed both to its domestic prosperity and to the success of its imperial missions.

Talking of Britain’s stable polity, the author underlines the importance of the constitutional continuity that the U.K. experienced during this time: the Westminster legislature, Cannadine points out, was an institution of political authority, popular sovereignty and national identity that endured like no other political institution anywhere in the developed world.

Parliamentary democracy

This unique continuity of its governing structures is the main reason Cannadine cites of approaching the history of the U.K. via its politics, and of enclosing that history within the bounds of two parliamentary events. Indeed, in the author’s estimation, two of the most valuable legacies that the British 19th century has bequeathed to the world are political in nature, namely, the concepts of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

While delineating a largely political history of the U.K. the author, however, does not neglect to consider the impact of major cultural developments, like the advent of modern science and the flowering of that uniquely 19th century creation — the British novel. Indeed, in his account of the rise and fall of the British Empire, Cannadine takes care to point out that the modern world is beholden unto 19th century Britain for much that it takes for granted today, namely stamps, photographs, telephones, sewers, policemen, department stores, matches, museums and galleries, restaurants, golf, tennis, and redbrick universities.

This celebration of 19th century British innovations is offset by the recognition of the racism, the snobbery, the misogyny and the homophobia that were some of the major socio-cultural characteristics of the then Britain. This perception of the British 19th century as both the best and the worst of times validates Cannadine’s use of Dickens’ words on France during the Revolution, culled from A Tale of Two Cities, as one of the epigraphs to his book.

Colonialism and after

While tracing the contours of the U.K.’s unique history during the 19th century, Cannadine also brings out how Britain’s experience of the processes of colonialism and nation-building across its ‘Empire’ and of transformative changes within was “merely one nation’s version and one imperial iteration of what was happening in many other parts of... the ‘Western world’”.

In the last analysis, Britain’s pre-eminence was merely an accident of history, the author maintains, thereby justifying the second epigraph to his book, one that quotes Karl Marx on the way destinies are shaped by “circumstances” that are “historically given and transmitted.” Considering the scale of the xenophobic snobbery, greed and violence that were involved in Britain’s colonial exploits this extenuating stance seems to indicate a defensiveness that some might find indefensible. Perhaps, it is this sensibility that also makes Cannadine explain the rise of Indian nationalist leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, in terms of the ‘white man’s burden’.

In all, however, Victorious Century is a worthy contribution to 19th century studies, one that goes quite some way in demythologising the British 19th century even while making it come alive for modern readers. It blends an impressive quantum of historico-cultural erudition with a keen awareness of global politics to indicate the ways in which the experience of 19th century Britain is relevant to today’s world, and the ways in which it is not.

Victorious Century: 1800-1906, The United Kingdom; David Cannadine, Penguin Random House, ₹1,799.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 5:26:35 AM |

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