When Did Britain Become Post-Victorian? image

When Did Britain Become Post-Victorian?

David Cannadine's Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 strikes me as a fairly old-school sort of history book: a careful account of politicians and laws, men in suits and the Acts they passed. It is top-down history, and the contrast with bottom-up accounts of similar periods, like those of Tim Blanning, Eric Hobsbawm or Niall Ferguson, is very striking; instead of a chapter on roads or harvests or trade, we get a chapter on Lord Liverpool's government or the 1906 election. It is clear, solid, illuminating and often lucid stuff, but you don't—at least I didn't—get a feel for the century in the way that you do in many other accounts, and the effect is a little textbookish: worthy, but hardly (as the Guardian claims on the cover) "sparkling."

Until, that is, the final chapter, when the book suddenly springs into life by imagining what time-travellers from 1800 would make of 1906. This is the bit of the book that anyone interested in the period should read, and the part in which all the trees we have seen in the previous five hundred pages start to coalesce into a wood. We read about what was like in cities and on farms, for men and women, labourers and artisans, parents and children. Literature finds its place in the story, and so do music, theology, science and art. As readers, we start to imagine what life was like for the 99.9% of nineteenth century Brits of whom we have not heard, and it is like a breath of fresh air.

Then, in the epilogue, comes a fascinating (and unexpected) payoff when it comes to the way the Victorian legacy is handled in our own day. Britain, Cannadine argues, only became truly post-Victorian in the 1960s, and that sheds a great deal of light on much that has happened—and much that has been said about what has happened—in the last fifty years (emphasis added):

Just as nineteenth-century Britain had been ruled by eighteenth-century men until 1868, when Derby was replaced by Disraeli, so twentieth-century Britain was ruled by nineteenth-century men until 1963, when Macmillan was superseded by Douglas-Home, who in turn would be followed by Harold Wilson. Indeed, there were many ways in which the late-Victorian United Kingdom lasted and lingered until the mid-1960s: in its great-power pretensions, global empire and imperial monarchy, in its heavy-industrial economy, moral code and gender relations, and in its outward conformity to Christian ethics. The nineteenth century cast a long shadow. Only since the 1960s has Britain significantly de-Victorianised, de-imperalised and downsized, and begun to come to terms with that ‘recessional’ that Kipling so prophetically foretold in 1897.

This, Cannadine suggests, “may explain why in recent decades it has become fashionable to denounce Victorian Britain more energetically and systematically than Lytton Strachey ever did, for espousing a set of assumptions that seem at best alien, at worst deplorable, and for being (among other things) sexist, misogynist, homophobic, racist, classist and imperialist.” (This is not to say that it did not espouse those things, merely that there are good cultural reasons for our constant, superior and sometimes shrill insistences that it did—and for downplaying those aspects of it which would lead to a more nuanced, balanced and historically credible portrait). The Victorians are still, perhaps, closer than we think.

← Prev article
Next article →