From raffishness to respectability

A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846

January 26, 2007

There is a great gulf between Boyd Hilton's huge and impressive volume in the New Oxford History of England - note the capital "N" in the series title - and two volumes in the old History that in part it supersedes, J. Steven Watson's The Reign of George III, 1760-1815 , published in 1960, and E. L. Woodward's The Age of Reform, 1815-1870 , published almost a generation earlier, in 1938. It is not only that the dates of the periods covered are different. The whole approach is different. The difference reflects the diverse developments in the professional pursuit of history since 1938. Yet it also reveals the extent to which Hilton, a highly experienced and distinctive historian, has left his own stamp on the volume. Deliberately rejecting the staid and the conventional, he is well equipped to take in his stride skirmishes and scandals, cults and myths. Who else would have chosen a title ending with a question mark? Who else would have added to his volume a densely packed bibliography of more than 60 pages that is at the same time historiographical - in the best Cambridge, not Oxford, tradition? Who else would have so elaborately and successfully integrated political, economic, social, intellectual and cultural history?

The old Oxford histories were departmentalised. This one is not. In the old histories, the chapters on literature and science would have consisted mainly of famous names. Here both these sections of chapters are engagingly treated. Nevertheless, the particular arrangement of Hilton's book involves considerable repetition and does not entirely solve the difficulty of combining analysis and narrative. Moreover, the daringly provocative title, which focuses on a general theme, the change from raffishness and rakishness, aristocratic attributes, to general respectability, does not bring out the diversity and width of the author's chosen topics, evidenced not only in his text but in his footnotes. The general theme is that in the turbulent years between 1783 and 1846 there was a "moral revolution" - an earlier historian, Harold Perkin, gave the adjective and the noun capital letters - that had respectability at its core. Hilton relates the revolution to the evangelical revival on which he is an authority, but now calls the revolution "subliminal", claiming that "about 1850", beyond the terminal date of his volume, "England's mad, bad and dangerous people woke up, as it were one morning, to find themselves respectable". I prefer the original Perkin version. For me, there never was "one morning", just as there never is, whatever the period, any "at the end of the day". Nor in my perspective was the process that Hilton traces "subliminal". There was "Victorianism before Victoria", although the "ism" was introduced into the language well beyond Hilton's terminal date. Even use of the adjective "Victorian" was still to come.

Beginnings and endings are as difficult to date as times of waking up. I was the first historian to take the year 1783 as the opening date of a volume in an English history series, but I was never easy about how far back I should go before 1783 to explain what was happening in the crucial decade of the 1780s in politics and economics. Hilton copes with this challenge particularly well. As for my own terminal date, 1867, which I greatly prefer to 1846, I was fully aware that in 1867 more questions were still being asked than answers given.

Hilton himself states in his preface that his book has taken a third as long to write as the events that it describes took to happen, and this in itself creates problems. Each new event changes our historical orientations. Hilton's cross-references to Margaret Thatcher and, indeed, John Maynard Keynes now tend to obtrude. It is more pertinent in the 21st century to note that William Hague published a rightly admired life of William Pitt in 2004 and that a 20th-century politician, Douglas Hurd, is working on the life of Robert Peel. At a time in our century when most politicians ignore history - to their peril - these recent endeavours are encouraging.

It is fascinating that Hilton, who never ignores the role of personalities, is uncaptivated by either Pitt or Peel. Pitt, in particular, emerges from scrutiny stripped of his "virtue". Even his "executive-mindedness" is for Hilton suspect: Pitt wanted the credit for setting up inquiries by the Commissioners for Examining the Public Accounts (1780-86), but was not "keen to act upon them". Charles Fox comes out better. Even Addington (later Sidmouth) receives praise, if limited praise, as a prime minister.

"Pitt's main tricks were rhetorical," Hilton claims, and must have owed much to artifice. In the first place he was adept at making Fox look "highly irresponsible in business".

One personality whose achievements and limitations are central to Hilton's analysis, William Huskisson, is particularly well portrayed. Described when young - by Pitt - as "one of the ablest men in the Kingdom", Huskisson had an awkward and prickly temperament, which along with his non-aristocratic background held him back in politics. Yet on major matters relating to policy, the currency, the corn laws and the colonial system, he demonstrated all the gifts of a statesman. Indeed, Hilton suggests that he might have inserted in the title of his fourth chapter, "Politics in the time of Liverpool and Canning", the name of Huskisson. In 1830 when Huskisson lost his life in the first publicised railway accident, killed by Stephenson's Rocket, the political consequences were profound. The prospects of the Canningites, who had been led by Huskisson since Canning's death in 18, were greatly improved. Hilton's judgment on a famous Canningite survivor, Lord Palmerston, are scathing, and there was far more of Palmerston to come.

There is relatively little in this volume on foreign policy after 1815, but one war, once dismissed as "small", now stands out in contemporary perspectives. Lord Auckland, Governor-General of India, unlike his predecessor who believed in the "moral regeneration of India", put his trust in force: Persia and Russia were in his mind. Troops dispatched to Afghanistan in 1839 took Kabul, a British puppet emir was installed and fiscal reforms on British lines were introduced. Local chieftains rebelled, however, the British consul was shot and hacked to pieces, and in 1842 between 12,000 and 16,000 troops under British command perished on the Jagdalat Pass. Only one lone medical officer made his way back to base. Echoes still ring out, although, as Hilton observes, there was surprisingly little sense of shock back home. The first news of what had happened in January did not arrive in London until April.

There are now echoes, too, in what was said in Hilton's period about patronage and about "Old Corruption". He describes how a party system came into existence, but it seems now of almost equal interest when the system is being challenged to learn how Pitt created 91 new peers between 1783 and 1801 compared with only 43 new peers created between 1760 and 1783 before he came into power. Nineteenth-century radicals became preoccupied with preferment and with patronage, and the 1832 edition of John Wade's Extraordinary Black Book , first published in 1820, listed in 700 formidable pages "places, pensions, reversions, sinecures, nepotism and pluralism in the Court, the Church, the Privy Council, government departments, colonial establishments, municipal corporations, guilds, fraternities, the judiciary, the military, and so on".

Hilton rightly closes the main part of his volume with an analysis of one of the 19th-century "isms" that was so acknowledged at the time, for example by Thomas Carlyle, Chartism. After setting out a range of interpretations by other historians, as is his wont, he offers his own interpretation, for me only partially true. In most of its peaceable activities Chartism belonged to a provincial and especially Northern industrial culture rooted in Non-conformist chapels and Sunday schools.

Kennington Common, of course, was still to come. For Hilton, "the final act of Chartism", "though not a fiasco, sufficiently diminuendo for the upper classes to present it as such". In my own perspectives it was not the final act. Nor was the Great Exhibition of 1851 a new beginning.

Historical processes take longer than "wakings-up". There was to be much talk of "anarchy" in the 1860s, but there were many signs that England had "settled down". Hilton mentions Thomas Arnold and Thomas Hughes as he looks forward in a last chapter called "Afterwards', but he does not mention Matthew Arnold. He refers in the chapter to a mid-Victorian "euphoria'. The word is as dangerous as "subliminal". Contradictions were not disposed of in 1846 or in 1867.

Lord Asa Briggs's history of the House of Longman from 1724 to 1990 will be published this year.

A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846

Author - Boyd Hilton
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 784
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 822830 9

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