The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 
by Paul Johnson.
Weidenfeld, 1095 pp., £25, September 1991, 0 297 81207 6
Show More
Show More

Paul Johnson’s thousand-page book is geared to the present age of long print runs and mass marketing. It is one of the currently popular narrative histories written by Britons who position themselves mid-Atlantic, in order to address the American reader. At a thousand pages Johnson’s book is longer than Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1988 (subtitle, ‘Economic Change and Military Conflict, 1500-2000’), or Simon Schama’s Citizens, 1989. At first glance it looks as if the reader gets a smaller return, a mere 15 years of history at a point when, on the face of it, nothing dramatic was happening. In fact, the big problems Johnson offers to explain prove familiar, the same late 20th-century preoccupations addressed by the other two. ‘The Birth of the Modern [political world]’ is a conventional 20th-century way of viewing the French Revolution – the event and idea on which Schama wrote a long, critical footnote. In one sense, Johnson’s book, picking up at the point of revolutionary France’s defeat, reads like Citizens II. Meanwhile his subtitle, ‘World Society’, offers the access to geopolitics and to the total explanation that made Kennedy so seductive.

As an epic chronicle of events and personalities The Birth of the Modern has the crowd scenes and bustle of the historiography of its period, the age of Scott, Guizot, Thiers and de Tocqueville. The language, on the other hand, practised, vigorous, unreflective and rather characterless, belongs to modern serious journalism. Johnson’s four interweaving themes – ‘big’ politics, commerce and trade, warfare, the arts – even roughly correspond to the sections of a modern newspaper. His treatment of sport is short by modern standards, but more than made up for by a rich provision of insider gossip on the lives of the famous, which is probably the explanation for the book’s newspaper-like readability.

For all their popularity, Kennedy and Schama write as academics, building on and reviewing the range of recent work in their fields. Johnson’s stance as a kind of historical journalist puts some difference between him and them. Far from using the labours of academics, he in effect cold-shoulders the professionals except for anecdotes and basic facts. His footnotes are revealing in their reliance on 19th-century memoirs and letters and on early to mid-20th-century middlebrow biography. In the Introduction to Citizens Schama praised 19th-century narrative history, and regretted the influence on 20th-century history of the social sciences, with their drive to generalise. All the same, scientistic theories on matters such as participatory democracy in an age of big capital investment, or the semiotics of state-controlled culture, surfaced at times within Schama’s clever scene-painting and his profiles of personalities. Johnson, whose dislike of general ideas evidently goes a great deal further, never discusses the theory of what he is doing, but sticks to facts and chaps with the singlemindedness of an ideologue.

An intriguing fact is that the book’s weight remains your usual reason for putting it down. Otherwise it’s surprisingly easy to read on about early 19th-century industrial and technological revolutions, in a series of profiles of, say, Davy, Faraday, Babbage, the Brunels – the self-made men and their machines. They emerge just sufficiently distinguishable from one another and from the politicians and artists they are seen rubbing shoulders with – who in due course appear in clusters of profiles too. While never sounding remotely experimental, Johnson has learnt the techniques of the guest appearance and the sound-bite, and even if his survey is of Britain rather than ‘world society’, it serves his purposes very well. Intriguing connections are set up, though never pressed far: chemistry, and its relevance to Turner’s painting and Shelley’s poetry; lithography and the piano, two Trojan horses that brought the arts into the hitherto philistine middle-class European home.

Johnson’s anecdotes and even his jokes conform to journalistic propriety. They aren’t there just for colour or to display the community’s diversity, but are targeted as in a newspaper on the private lives and hidden weaknesses of public figures. He deftly lifts the curtain on the emissaries of the leading nations to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Britain’s Lord Castlereagh, the future suicide, was remembered at home by Lady Morgan for ‘his cloudless smile ... his untunable voice and passion for singing all the songs in The Beggar’s Opera’. In Vienna he behaved like the Ulster Protestant he was, staying in with his wife and household on a Sunday to sing hymns to a harmonium. But he made more of an impact on European mores by sporting the well-cut black coat and black trousers of London’s Regency dandies, a relief to the eye among the coloured and braided uniforms, the display of male waist, calves and the limbs between. Austria’s Metternich, on the other hand, adored parties, masked balls, moonlight scampering in and out of upper-story windows. He was said to like his romantic comedies ‘dampened with sentimental tears’, and most of all to like ‘Russian ladies with soulful countenances’. Rather surprisingly, these two representatives of the victorious Allies got on very well, and, anticipating Versailles or Yalta, carved up the globe into spheres of influence or of neutrality.

When Johnson has to describe how institutions work, he can expose the limitations of the revealing anecdote. On 25 May 1811, while Catholic Relief was debated in the House of Commons, every Irish member present was (it seems) intoxicated. It’s not clear why we learn this, rather than anything of the debate, or of what led up to it, or of the franchise more generally. Even more inconsequential is the appearance hereabouts of some parting advice one mother gave to her son, the young Scottish MP James Fergusson, as he set out for Westminster: ‘Never expose yourself, James, to be tried for a rape, for your broad shoulders will cause a jury to think it probable you made the attempt, and your face will make it manifest that it must have been against the will.’ But it’s rare for Johnson to give such a vivid glimpse of two people for whom he has no other use. Equally, though the period had its rent-a-quote men, most notably Sydney Smith, he resists the temptation to overuse them. Among the best of his lesser wits is Agnes, estranged wife of the Anglican educationalist Joseph Bell. She persecuted her husband ingeniously by endorsing her letters to him on the outside with jokes about his meanness, and bombarded likely tradesmen with uncovenanted warnings, such as her advice to Bell’s landlord to ‘look sharp’ about the rent.

The rich and titled, then as now, lend themselves best to Diary treatment. The royalty of the day went out of their way to oblige the press, particularly George III’s sons, who between them, as the Duke of Wellington observed, insulted every gentleman in the country. Where modern tabloids found a topic in the Duchess of York’s bottom, cartoonists of the day reverted to the Prince Regent’s belly, particularly in the era (1816) when he discarded his corsets to reveal a spare tyre of Falstaffian dimensions. On his accession to the throne as George IV, his quarrel with Queen Caroline made spectacular multi-media entertainment for a season, and threatened to bring the Government down. George’s own personality emerges more tellingly in Croker’s story of his state visit to Dublin, during which he demonstrated his gallantry by kissing a thousand Irish ladies at a monster reception. Shortly after he had retired, an unexpected reserve of ladies was discovered, ‘and with great good nature the King ... came back into the Presence Chamber, and went through the ceremony of kissing 300 ladies more’.

There would be room for a book that really examined the period’s inventive gossip, how it circulated and what effect it had, but this is only intermittently the book Johnson is writing. The big story in his view of the world has to do with big politics, a subject on which his targeted readers have preconceptions. After Waterloo, Britain finds herself in the position of the leading world power, a role for which she is equipped by her strong political institutions, her wealth and her enterprise culture. It is the position of America after World War Two, and the comparison between the two periods is one that Johnson frequently makes.

The good guys of 1815 are already the Anglo-Saxon powers, as Johnson keeps calling them. Britain and the US are discovered in Chapter One fighting a sporting sort of war which culminated in the Battle of New Orleans. America’s victory enabled them to settle down together as equals, in that ‘special relationship’ which is the most constructive force in the modern world, and the true topic of this book. Separately, their experiences around 1820 were not identical. Britain was getting less politically corrupt, Johnson considers, and America more so. But the resemblances far outweighed the differences, as they have continued to do. The economic graph of the 1820s (as of the era beginning in the 1950s) is a rapidly rising curve, punctuated by short sharp slumps. A political spectre lurks, thus far in the shadows – ‘Demos’, the ignorant mob, for ever its own worst enemy.

Strongly governed, by practical men who knew what they were doing, Britain (like America a century later) had the will, the moral authority and the military power to act as policeman of the world. Well before there was any thought of joint task forces, they even tended accidentally to act in concert. The adventure that took America’s marines ‘to the shores of Tripoli’ was an expedition against Mediterranean pirates that anticipated both countries’ later efforts to clear pirates from the South China seas, and President Reagan’s strike on Tripoli in 1986. When in the 1820s America adopted the ‘Monroe doctrine’ excluding European powers from the Americas, it worked because Canning, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, had the same foreign policy, and a navy which could enforce it.

Johnson’s projected readers may agree with his readings of modern politics most of the time, but on the historical record he seems aware of likely points of resistance. In Hollywood movies of a generation back, Spartacus, Moses and even Robin Hood were played by Americans, while Nero, Pharoah, King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham had British accents. To use an American for the hero was only natural, but the hiring of Britons to play a specifically political kind of villain says something particular: namely, that American mythology has quite sharply distinguished the two national histories. More recently, American students have tended to uphold sanctions against South Africa and to take the now fashionable courses in post-colonial culture-criticism. Johnson pushes against identifiable resistance when he sets out to persuade Americans that 19th-century British empire-building and modern ‘peace-keeping’ are basically similar exercises, and equally virtuous.

The main device in his laundering of Britain’s past is the star treatment accorded two exceptionally attractive colonialists, either of whom could be played without incongruity by Kevin Costner. Between 1817 and 1824, Stamford Raffles opened the first of the great modern free ports at Singapore, while researching in his spare time the anthropology, flora and fauna of South-East Asia. He lost his first wife to the tropical climate, and his great collection of specimens to a fire at sea on the voyage home. More realisable and still more wildly adventurous was William Moorcroft, who trained as a doctor and became a pioneer veterinary surgeon in London, until he gambled away his capital at the races. Appointed to supervise and improve the stock of horses in British India, Moorcroft in 1810-11 and 1819-25 made two extraordinary journeys through the Himalayas, with the aim of buying in the horse-markets of Central Asia.

Moorcroft emerges humane as well as brave, a man who kept stopping to perform operations for trauchoma along his route. Yet he was an imperialist all right, a pioneer in the ‘Great Game’ Britain and Russia played for influence and access to India’s North-West frontier. If Moorcroft’s sudden death in Bokhara was caused by poisoning, some spy sent by the Tsar is an obvious suspect. Johnson adds a characteristic footnote to this episode, claiming that the Russians were still playing the Great Game in the 1980s when they gambled the security of their own empire on an Afghan adventure.

Like Parliament, empire can’t in the end be treated satisfactorily via the doings of a few individuals. Johnson has to describe what led to the Opium War with China, and here the shadow of Noriega and the modern drug barons falls on his efforts to secure our sympathies with the West. Weren’t the Chinese and Japanese authorities acting within their rights, and in their right minds, when they tried to curtail the trade of the East India Company? No, says Johnson, because free trade was an unassailable benefit, and anyway opium in the form of laudanum was still legally on sale in London. He portrays British merchants and ship’s captains with clean consciences, and a Peking Government capable of all kinds of mistakes, of which incomprehensibility was eventually the one that mattered.

All Western observers, Johnson insists, despised the Chinese Government. Its conduct in relation to them ‘ranged from the stupid to the outrageous’. It tried to put them off, by executing malefactors in public under the Westerners’ windows. It was a theocracy, and increasingly unstable, thanks to local successes by popular religious cults and by secret societies such as the Triads. Worst of all, and here Johnson exposes one of his recurrent nightmares, it was ‘that worst of all systems, a society run by its intelligentsia’, a literary intelligentsia at that:

The system was obnoxious because it placed scholars at the top, followed in descending order by farmers, artisans and merchants. What it meant in practice was that the country was ruled by those who were good at passing highly formalised examinations. So early 19th-century China, with its rapidly increasing population, had many of the symptoms of underdeveloped Third World societies today, especially an overproduction of literate men (not technocrats or scientists) in relation to the capacity of the political and economic system to employ them usefully. The educational system trained Mandarins for official life in its narrowest sense, not for anything else, least of all commerce.

It’s a key passage, illustrating the economy with which Johnson groups together literati, theorists and foreigners, all the people he most dislikes.

The world c.l820 contained real empires, Johnson suggests, traditional, archaic and (unlike the British) cruel. In the half-paragraph he gives to Africa, he quotes the missionary Robert Macgregor, explorer of the Niger, welcoming the arrival of the steam-driven gunboat, ‘carrying the glad tidings of “peace and goodwill to all men” into the dark places of the earth which are now filled with cruelty’. Johnson endorses – or at least allows – the mission view of Africa as a world of ‘slavery, cannibalism, human sacrifice and other unspeakable evils’. His Japan, even more sinister, is an empire already shaping up as the fearsome war machine of the l930s and 1940s.

Shouldn’t it seem odd that no foreigners appear in modern times to have got the hang of good government? Not if you accept Johnson’s thesis that the world’s troubles derive from the glamour of the French-revolutionary model, including the compelling form it took under Napoleon Bonaparte, in the eyes of most European intellectuals. Napoleon is the book’s evil genius, the forerunner of both Hitler and Stalin, the architect of the first modern totalitarian super-state, of the Grande Armée, and of the originary holocaust of modern times. His example stimulated Fichte and Hegel to develop a cult of state authority, and the Frenchmen Saint-Simon and Fourier to envisage more eccentric utopias. Meanwhile the practical experiments of men like Bolivar in South America showed that it was always likely to be a short and bloody step from liberation to despotism. Compared with these, Shelley in Britain and the Decembrists in Russia did little actual damage, though they plotted it. Britain’s trade-unionists, machine-breakers and rick-burners, yet more misguided collectivists, were at this time launching the tradition of throwing their spanners into the wheels of progress.

Since most people in the world are not Anglo-Saxons, a book which begins upbeat sounds increasingly glum towards the close. By this time Johnson has handed out insults, rather in the manner of Britain’s princes, to all the foreigners he has occasion to mention, including the new nations decolonised only after 1950. You might think that the Anglo-Saxons themselves deserve some of the blame for the world’s problems, since on this showing they have failed to sell their package, of constitutional government and free trade, to any other people, including the many millions liberated by British steamboats from rule by slave-traders and cannibals.

Histories inevitably convey opinions; it’s not logical to fault popular histories for making theirs populist and ultra-plain. I hear Johnson’s simplicity as superficiality and his xenophobia as rudeness, but I doubt the relevance of this as a criticism of this type of book. So what on his own terms might be wrong? The offer to describe, even to explain, ‘World Society’, when the book seriously tackles only Britain, or Britain-and-America, and the failure to get to grips even with the British as a national entity, a people with an image of itself.

Johnson’s conception of society rests on a fairly simple individualism. The French Revolution has introduced a false social theory which is collectivist; Britain, the most progressive of the old regimes, is seen on the contrary as the aggregate of its best individuals, leaders in various competitive activities, all of whom ‘make a contribution’ as they strive to realise their own talents. Johnson’s ‘citizens’ are in effect typical producers. They make ideas, books, paintings, technical inventions – forms of personal property which will be traded around, and so add to the wealth of the nation. Or, in disturbing cases, threaten it, where these men of genius resemble the literary intellectuals who fostered stagnation in China or brought revolution to South America.

Production has its ideological as well as its material dimension; the arts, especially literature, make this particularly visible. The Chinese theocrats whom Johnson so despises were keenly alert to the fact that free trade entails a trade in ideas. His book often gives the impression that he harbours similar suspicions, and that there might well be literary censorship in Johnson’s Republic. But then his thinking in this field is full of contradictions. When discussing painting and music, he gives so much attention to technology and to marketing that he comes near to enlisting in the modern left-wing school of cultural materialists, presumably without knowing it. Elsewhere he tries to filter ideas out of art, or to make them seem like a distasteful fungus, as when he remarks that romanticism became politicised in the 1820s.

The pages he devotes to literature are his most mediocre; he gives the impression that of all English writers in the period, he has read only Jane Austen with any attention. Given the range of his interests, he needed to tackle current poetry’s strong, continuous relationship with politics, and above all with economics. The presence of so much culture in this book would begin to make sense if he used the fact that British publisher-booksellers had already achieved a revolution in book-marketing in the second half of the 18th century. It would have been logical to write about the huge sales of Byron’s poetry and Scott’s novels as highly significant cultural symptoms of the transition to middle-class democracy. Instead Johnson gives much of the space allotted to literature to Wordsworth’s campaign literature on behalf of his Tory patron’s sons in Westmoreland in 1818, and even then gives no precise idea of what Wordsworth actually wrote.

He might have solved his impasse over the forms of the social in modern society, if instead of fetishising production he had noticed how neatly the idea of circulation gathers together his semi-detached themes, from banking and travelling down to gossip. Circulation, a metaphor familiarly used of currency, of newspapers, of partygoers, fits things which move on their own trajectories – and also interact, but without the slur of collectivism. If, on the other hand, the word suggests the human body, a single pump drives the circulating blood, and the system looks reassuringly subject to central control. The irony is that leftist critics often invoke the metaphor of circulation, as used of both banknotes and blood, in order to show that ‘discourse’ tends to confirm existing structures of power.

Johnson could have been spared his more paranoid visions of imminent break-up, if he had reconciled himself quite early to writing a cultural history. Could he ever have written a coherent study of modern Western society in one of its post-revolutionary phases, drawing lessons that really might seem topical today? There must be a vacancy for a talented culture-critic on the right. But it had better be one with more feeling for the contradictions and in directions with which a great cultural epoch confirms and denies the spirit of its age.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences