Try to cross the Trumpington Road at about 9am in Cambridge term-time and you risk death by a 1,000 bicycles as the natural scientists turn up to do their stuff. I recall life being a bit quieter round the examination schools in Oxford, for the lectures to historians, which happened within, were voluntary. One member of my college was so assiduous an attendee that he allegedly had to ask for directions to take his finals there.
Why this burbling? It is because the premise of the new Short Oxford History of the British Isles is that each of the contributors (there are seven, in a brisk 299 pages) gets the chance to set before readers a really good lecture on his or her chosen topic. An introductory chapter and envoi by the editor frame the whole. Now, he would have had no difficulty in drawing me to his lectern, for it is Colin Matthew, one of the most loved and lucid figures in the Oxford firmament, who died recently. His writing in this volume shows just how great a loss his death was.
Oxford needs a success in this big multi-volume history business, as its History of England series is, to say the least, creaking. So is there a jinx on producing big volumes on centuries (this is one of a projected series) and giving a take for a generation on such a massive chunk of this historical past, and presumably trying to define the national past? If the task is in some quarters thought well-nigh impossible, this is a bold and promising attempt to tell us it ain't so.
The volume's chapters cover some predictable areas - "Society and economic life" (Martin Daunton), "The empire and the world" (a story ploddingly told, and with not much world in it, by Andrew Porter), "Literature, music and the theatre" (Kate Flint) - along with slightly more surprising associations, "Cities, architecture and art (Andrew Saint), and d'accord , "Gender, domesticity and sexual politics" (Janet Howarth).
Of course, writing a book about a century has its absurdities. "It was a period of extremes of weather" (for the record, coldest 23F, warmest 100F, with a day of humiliation and fasting in Wales in 1879 to stop the rain). How do you meaningfully chart a century's achievement in art when you have to include William Blake (active until 18) and Aubrey Beardsley? How do you do the job at all with but one illustration in your chapter?
This is not history with the politics left out, and hurrah for that if they are as well handled as they are here by Matthew on "Politics and public life". The editor captures exactly that arresting, provocative, informative tone that one would hope to hear from the best of lecturers, together with some sweeping generalisations all his own. The speed of communication brought about a new age of public opinion. Matthew gives two illuminating examples. A murderer making off from London Paddington was apprehended at Slough in 1844. The disaster of Majuba Hill was known about in London within eight hours of its happening. When working-class crowds gathered in France or Germany, it meant trouble; in Britain, it meant a football match or a race meeting. Matthew has a tendency to illustrate every human experience of the century with reference to a certain W. E. Gladstone, but this is surely excusable from such an expert and given that Gladstone not only inhabited 89 per cent of the century, he arguably was it.
What view of the 19th century emerges? This is a volume, one is glad to say, with the perspective of another fin de siècle on the century it surveys. There is a lot less condemnation or opprobrium than one would have found in a Lytton Strachey or an H. A. L. Fisher. There is much more of a kaleidoscopic rather than a monolithic illustration. It is intriguing to read that in a supposed age of progress, wife-beating was made a crime only in 1858, and that in 1855, 41 per cent of brides were unable to sign the register - and even less, 23 per cent, in Scotland.
Overall, the promise of the blurb on the back - that this century was Britain's moment - is well served. Perhaps a little myopically so - there is little comparison with the state of income tax, goat breeding or powder-puff manufacture in any other 19th-century nation, but perhaps you are meant to fork out for the publisher's European volume for that. We get lots of Tennyson in Matthew's introduction, and in his conclusion, the strong sense that by 1900 Victorian Britons realised they could not quite go on as they had. And given the lines of "Locksley Hall" quoted by Matthew, that is perhaps no bad thing.
The notion that a brisk chapter can serve the purpose of a lecture is a slightly fraught one. What lecturers do not seek to do is to tell you everything - surely the job is to enthuse you to find out more for yourself. A slightly fuller, and perhaps annotated selection for further reading might have been nice - always a good thing to pick up at a lecture. On the whole, however, had the examination schools rung with this crew in 1983-86, there is a chance that the hazard to traffic from incoming bicycles might have been known even in Oxford High Street.
Andrew Robinson teaches history at Eton College.
The Nineteenth Century, 1815-1901
Editor - Colin Matthew
ISBN - 0 19 873144 2 and 873143 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 342