The fifth volume in the acclaimed author’s history of England.
Ackroyd’s (Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo, 2017, etc.) observation that nobody can live in an age outside their own because the smells, sights, and reality would be unendurable will awaken many readers to our similarities and differences. The 19th century saw something new springing up nearly every day. From the days of Wellington and Peel, Corn Laws, Catholic crisis, and bad harvests through Gladstone, Disraeli, and the Industrial Revolution, the only thing that was static was the plight of the poor, who never rose like the strengthening middling class. Likewise, the author cleverly points to the Irish problem as an English problem. They owned the land, ruled, administered, and never went away. The century saw few wars from Waterloo until the 1848 revolutions, which were described by Lewis Namier as a “turning point at which history failed to turn.” From that time onward, each great power was at war at one time or another. England had fewer wars but was constantly warding off threats to the empire. Happily avoiding quotidian life, military history, or too much economics, Ackroyd describes the character of the age perfectly. England was banker to the world; God and duty were two of the most important elements of the period; prose was the language of power; and politics were not a question of policy but of personality. “Cant was the moral cloud which covered the nineteenth century,” writes the author. “It was part of the age of respectability….Cant encompassed the politician who smiled while remaining a villain; cant was the language of the moral reformer who closes public houses on Sunday….Never has a period been so concerned to give the right impression.”
Though this installment doesn’t quite match the first four in capturing our imaginations, Ackroyd, as always, is well worth the read.