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July 27, 2006

A Time of Transformation: A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846 - Boyd Hilton

Posted by Jeremy Black

A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1846
by Boyd Hilton
Pp. xxv+757. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, £30

How best to present history is increasingly an issue for historians uneasily aware as they are of changes in the public culture of knowledge. Tombstone volumes of this type so often go wrong because they have to cover so much, or intimidate by their length. My mother indeed looked at this book and said it was too long for her. A pity, because this is a particularly fine example of the type, wide-ranging in scope, ably organised, judicious in reflection, and throughout interesting.

For me the test is not the pace on those sectors with which I am comfortable, but the subjects that generally do not excite, and here again it is pleasant to report that Hilton pulls it off. He is as fair a guide on class and ideology, the latter covered in a highly comprehensive manner, as he is on the nuts and bolts of politics which take up four of the ten chapters. The latter emphasis is defended on the grounds that the late eighteenth-century revolutions had led to the flourishing of political ideology and that this had politicized society as a whole, a remark that can be critically probed, but that offers a cogent explanation.

If there is a criticism, it is that the local and regional dimensions, while not neglected, are underplayed. Furthermore, a book on England might have something more to say on relations with Scotland and Wales, although Ireland gets good coverage. The writing is arresting:

Disraeli crucified Peel in 1846, but Peel was more than a little willing to shed his own mediatorial blood
. There is a fine grasp of general trends. For example, Hilton addresses the mid-nineteenth century shift in mood, linking social groups, politics and ideas in a clear fashion.

This is a book that emphasises modernity and looks forward instead of stressing continuity. Indeed, Hilton starts from the premiss that neo-conservative ("Throne and Altar") ideology, far from representing an ancien régime was a new development following the American and French revolutions and that it was a reaction against the "progressive" ideologies associated with those events. This is a valuable perspective, although it underplays the impact of the end of the Stuart challenge and the reconciliation of dynasty with political Anglicanism that followed George III's accession in 1760.

Hilton correctly argues that it is misleading to suggest that political allegiance was mainly a case of material self-interest. Instead, as he suggests, William Pitt the Younger won the support of capitalists as much because his rhetoric flattered their self-esteem as anything, while high farming sometimes appealed or repelled for cultural rather than economic reasons.

The eighteenth century is now covered in this series, with Julian Hoppit's A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727 followed by Paul Langford's A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783. Although too long for most students, these volumes offer much to those teaching and reading about the period, and the lengthy bibliography (59 pages) in Hilton's book is particularly helpful.

Hopefully OUP can now think about how best to present this century in a comparative European context, but, in the meanwhile, it is a real pleasure to record that my concern about the time it would take to read this book proved misplaced and inappropriate.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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