AS HE contemplated writing a history of England, the 19th-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay observed that “I shall not be satisfied unless I produce something which shall for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies.”
It was a vaunting ambition, and Macaulay faced some predictable problems with his project. Not least, he struggled with the question how to integrate different themes within a whole. Although he promised to deal with social as well as political history, it was the latter that predominated, and the broader description of society was relegated to a single chapter.
Nevertheless, in its own terms, Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James the Second was an undeniable triumph. The first volume sold out within a fortnight. A second edition sold out within a month. A third edition sold out almost as swiftly. Not only did fashionable young ladies read his work, but — as his fan mail showed — ordinary working men, too.
Macaulay was a historian who wanted to compete with novelists. In his great history of England, we find a novelist — Peter Ackroyd — taking on the historians. Having polished off everything from the Stone Age to the Georgians in four slim books, he deals in his fifth volume with the 19th century alone. Twenty-eight short chapters take the reader from the Regency through to Queen Victoria’s death.
At its best, this book reads like a novel. Ackroyd has a brilliant gift of evocation: he can see the foggy, crowded, bustling places that he describes, and he can make the reader see them, too.
But this book also encounters some of the problems that Macaulay could not resolve. A single, representative page contains individual paragraphs on Irish revolutionary politics, on British liberalism, and on spiritualism, as well as one that reveals a somewhat superficial understanding of Macaulay himself. Tying together all this stuff proves horribly difficult.
Sometimes, the chronology does not quite work. Sometimes, there is a sense that Ackroyd is simply listing material for the sake of it. Sometimes, there are errors of fact: chapter 15 apparently opens in 1842, but it is clear that the author actually means 1852, for instance.
Nevertheless, Ackroyd’s gifts as a writer never wholly wane. As an entertaining and evocative study of the period — and as part of a bold attempt to survey the whole of English history — this book will be enjoyed by many.
The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.
Dominion: The History of England, Volume V
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