Reviewed by Rohan McWilliam (Department of History, Anglia Ruskin University)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2008)
Compression, Compression, Compression
The Blackwell Companions to History are now a firm fixture of university teaching everywhere. Each volume draws together about thirty leading historians to explore different aspects of a period or a theme. In hardback, the distinctive, black-spined volumes were clearly intended for university libraries but the paperbacking of these titles at a reasonable price represents a real bargain for the student, the school teacher, and the general reader. The Companions to British History have been published in collaboration with the Historical Association and the series is yet another example of how this organization has made a difference in terms of informing the wider public about serious history. I usually read these volumes by putting myself in the place of one of my students; the current review is therefore a co-authored piece by myself and my alter ego, an imaginary history student, consulting these volumes for an essay or a class. How does the Companion to Nineteenth-Century British History (new in paperback) rate? Chris Williams has assembled thirty-two leading specialists to inform readers about the way in which the historiography of the subject has changed. It should be said that the way that contributors interpret their brief varies. Some have simply provided descriptive essays about a topic but most of them attempt to describe the shape of recent debates. The quality of the articles is generally good although a few are a bit plodding. It is essential in a volume like this to make the arguments come alive. Too often the problem of trying to compress diverse and difficult lines of historiography into a twelve-page, compact essay gets the better of the authors. The student reader within me often needed more explanation of what was at stake in an argument. As a teacher, I want the student reader to feel inspired to read the historians described. Some articles passed this test while others did not. An article that really succeeds is the one written by Douglas Peers, who has the daunting task of investigating the whole of the nineteenth-century British Empire in just one chapter (admittedly one of the longest in the book). Peers provides a succinct account of the development of the empire during the nineteenth century but frames it with a discussion of what it means to talk about Britain as an imperial nation and the ways in which the empire still haunts Britain today. He goes on to tackle the key historians such as Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher but also finds room to write well about Edward Said and the significance of postcolonial theory for understanding the history of empire in the twenty-first century. Other essays that can be enthusiastically recommended include Heather Shore on crime, Aled Jones on print culture, and Iwan Rhys Morus on science. The subjects give some idea of the book's range. Williams structures the book in five sections. He begins with a series of articles that look at Britain's role in the world, including foreign policy, empire, and the military. The second section maintains the focus on power by dealing with political history. We then move on to articles about "Economy and Society" and "Society and Culture" before ending with a section on the component parts of the United Kingdom. The book does not go in for any notion of the "long nineteenth century" (say, 1780-1914) but assumes that the nineteenth century began with the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801 and ended with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Chris Williams makes a good claim for this dating as representing more than just a tidy solution to the problem of periodization (p. 7). Significantly, the book does not rely on or reflect on the category of "the Victorian" to any great extent (with the exception of Lesley Hall's chapter on "Sexuality" where Victorianism is much in evidence). The book does not seem to represent a particular agenda or school of thought, which is both a strength and a weakness. The articles are in the main not didactic but the reader will not come away with a settled impression of the nineteenth century. In this sense, the book is very much in tune with where we are. Many of the old schools of writing about the nineteenth century (such as Whiggish or Marxist interpretations) have come under attack and the clarity of the older historiography with its themes of the emergence of class society, the Victorian revolution in government, and the rise of democracy and party politics are now viewed in far more complex ways than they used to be. By its very nature, the volume under review cannot provide any new overarching synthesis (which would really require a single-authored work). However, the way it has been assembled does feature a few pointers to where we are now in nineteenth-century studies. The book does not feature a chapter on women or on gender as a whole (the closest to this is Sarah Richardson's chapter on "Gender and Politics" and Shani D'Cruze's on the family) but this is because a large number of the articles feature a gender dimension of some sort. The editor has asked contributors to consider "the ways in which constructions of gender ran through society at all levels" (p. 7) and many have responded. The book may signal a shift whereby historians are choosing not to focus simply on men, women, or gender issues as such but to build gender into all considerations of power, politics, and social structure. This perhaps represents a new and welcome development of the historiography inaugurated by the women's history of the 1970s. Rather less successful are the attempts to engage with the impact of postmodernism and the linguistic turn. The student reader within me found it difficult to work out what the arguments derived from critical theory were really about (or indeed to find entries on them in the index, although "Post-Structuralism" is there). Given that space is in short supply, the authors are not able to stand back and explain in sufficient detail the theoretical assumptions behind a lot of the work. There are almost as many references to Michel Foucault as there are to Marxism despite very little detailed discussion of either. One of the more successful essays in this vein is Simon Gunn's treatment of urbanization, which examines the field of urban history since H. J. Dyos and finds room for discussions of governmentality, modernity, and the flaneur. It should be said that social class remains an important category in the book despite the debates that have taken place since the 1970s. Martin Hewitt provides an excellent discussion of the subject, which sensibly concludes that, for all the problems of class analysis, it is very difficult to write about the nineteenth century without reference to it. I was troubled by the treatment of high politics in the book. Michael Turner is given the unenviable task of compressing the whole trajectory of parliamentary history into two chapters on "Political Leadership and Political Parties" (although parliamentary reform receives a separate chapter by Michael S. Smith). This means that none of the topics within get much treatment at all. The student reader within me, who is often required by both university and A Level syllabi to write essays on Robert Peel, William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, and Joseph Chamberlain, will find the discussions simply too brief to be useful. This was one moment where I felt the Companion was not lining up with how the nineteenth century is still taught (at least in some quarters). The book will not assist readers interested in questions of statesmanship. The editor claims that the "momentum behind the 'high politics' school has been lost in recent years" (p. 3), which I think is at least questionable as I look up at the recent volumes by Michael Bentley and Jonathan Parry on my bookshelf. I found it intriguing that the book has so little to say about Jeremy Bentham (just four scattered references) despite two very fine discussions of intellectual history by Gregory Claeys and Noel Thompson. Bentham is this book's dog that did not bark in the night. The older historiography (shaped originally by Albert Venn Dicey) in which Utilitarianism reshaped state and society is here replaced by a far more complex account as we discover in Philip Harling's account of the British state (although he quite properly finds room for Bentham and Edwin Chadwick along the way). Where the book does come into its own is in its commitment to a genuine four-nations history of Britain (although this is not by any means incorporated into all the articles). There are very strong assessments of the historiographies of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales by (respectively) Christine Kinealy, E. W. McFarland, and Matthew Cragoe. Chris Williams brings the book to a conclusion with a strong article on British identities, which discusses the issue of "Englishness" but I did wonder where the article on England itself was. I suspect that we will have to wait for another edition. It is also worth noting that there is no separate article on race although it comes into a number of articles. This was again one of the rare moments where I felt the book was out of step with the historiography as it currently exists. All collections like this have to be selective and it is churlish to focus on what is not here given that the editor has served up such a rich menu. The purpose of the book is to pay tribute to the intellectual wealth of historians of the nineteenth century. My student reader comes away with a real understanding of the multiple levels through which the nineteenth century needs to be understood and a feeling that all history is about debate.
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Rohan McWilliam. Review of Williams, Chris, ed., A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain.
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