IN MANY ways, it is hard to believe that there is only one David Cannadine: Dodge Professor of History at Princeton; President of the British Academy; editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; author in the past few years alone of biographies of King George V and Margaret Thatcher, a study of Churchill and Bristol, and a bold revisionist account of world history.
It is surely easier to imagine a small community of Cannadines — perhaps engaged in shift-work — producing all this activity than it is to accept that a single individual could do so much, and do it so well.
Now he has done it again. The Penguin History of Britain (general editor: David Cannadine) is perhaps the closest we have to a universal national story. Replacing the distinguished, much-read, but now outmoded Pelican History of England, with its eminent roll-call of authors, this new series has produced some genuine classics — from Robin Fleming’s Britain After Rome to Susan Brigden’s New Worlds, Lost Worlds on Tudor life.
Cannadine’s Victorious Century, which explores Britain between 1800 and 1906, is almost the last in the sequence to appear. But it is certainly well worth the wait. Stylish, learned, and lucid, it achieves an almost impossible task: synthesising the staggering amount of material written by or on the Victorians to produce a rattling good read as well as a consistently intelligent thesis.
Foregrounding politics — and perhaps a little less sensitive to the nuances of religion than many Church Times readers would hope — Victorious Century confidently guides its readers on a global tour, taking in debates in Parliament, colonial wars, social crisis, and industrial and economic progress.
Perhaps most importantly, and unlike its predecessor volumes in the Pelican History of England, and even most of the other contributions to the Penguin History of Britain series, this is a far from Anglocentric performance: rather, Cannadine seeks to show that British history in this era can be understood only as part of a wider world story.
It is a bravura performance — and one that could have been written only by Cannadine. Throughout the book, the attentive reader can pick up on echoes of his many other projects: his early essays on the evolution of civic rituals and coronation rites, his first books on urban history and the decline of the aristocracy, and his later studies of everything from popular literature to the development of the school curriculum, as well as the additional research he has somehow managed to do.
Above all, in its extraordinary erudition, its élan and enthusiasm, its bursts of humour, and its serious-mindedness, Victorious Century is a triumphant addition to the works of a historian operating at the height of his powers.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Acting President of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906
Allen Lane £30
Church Times Bookshop £27