Laundering Britain’s Past

Marilyn Butler

  • The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 1095 pp, £25.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 297 81207 6

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.

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