Bring back the 19th century

Miles Taylor

  • British Society 1680-1880: Dynamism, Containment and Change by Richard Price
    Cambridge, 349 pp, £40.00, October 1999, ISBN 0 521 65172 7

Like the Swiss, British historians prefer their centuries to begin at a different time from everyone else. The 18th century has always begun in 1688 and, depending on your taste for military matters, the 20th century usually starts in 1914 or 1918. Even the 19th century continues to defy logic. Despite the territorial completion of the United Kingdom in 1801 and the death of Victoria almost exactly one hundred years later, historians still opt for a split at 1815 and an end in the 1880s. So in choosing to conclude his new survey at 1880, Richard Price joins a long tradition of irreverent timekeeping. Except that, according to Price, it is not the 19th century that ends in the 1880s, but the ‘long’ 18th century. In recent years the lifetime of the distinctive political regime and social structure which emerged under the House of Hanover in the early 18th century has been extended by historians to encompass the reigns of George IV and William IV. Now Price wishes to stretch the elastic a little further and bring in the Victorians as well. He argues that neither the advent of Parliamentary democracy in 1832 nor the coming of free trade in 1846 saw off the dominant features of the Hanoverian era. Only with the expansion of empire and the growth of central government in the last quarter of the 19th century did Britain become recognisably modern. There is plenty to commend in this approach, but it is also fraught with danger. With such a long 18th century, I begin to fear for the 19th. The Victorians are not simply being put in their place: they are being taken out of the picture altogether.

What is this long 18th century which has encroached on so much of the historiography of the Victorian era in the last two decades? There are two versions of it, one of which is static, the other dynamic. The static version presents us with an ancien régime model of the economy, society and political establishment of the period between 1688 and 1832. Cherry-picking from the revised estimates of economic and demographic growth produced in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and devoting much attention to the religious thought of the day, this account denies that there was a natural evolution of liberal democracy and an individualist market culture during this period. Until the late 1820s divine right and Anglican orthodoxy remained the norm, the paternalist landed aristocracy went unchallenged and demands for radical change were confined to a few noisy Protestant dissenters. The dynamic version of the long 18th century emphasises the transformation of Hanoverian England – an imperial state at war for much of the period – as the fiscal and military demands of the country’s foreign policy wrought a domestic revolution in finance and banking, invigorated Parliament as public consent was required for increasing levels of tax revenue, and obliged the gentry and the clergy to take seriously their social responsibilities as magistrates, guardians of the poor and all-round improvers of public amenities, for fear that instability at home would undermine British power overseas.

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