Editor’s Choice October 2006

The Path of Least Resistance

What to read this month
A Mad, Bad, & Dangerous People? by Boyd Hilton (Oxford).

This, the latest volume in the New Oxford History of England, chronicles what were among the most perilous and certainly the most wrenching sixty-odd years in that nation’s existence: the period from the end of the American War of Independence, in 1783, to the repeal of the Corn Laws, in 1846. England’s struggle with France, which Hilton avers was “possibly the most dangerous war in its history,” lasted a generation, put an astonishing 20 percent of its men of military age in uniform, and spurred a nationwide, authoritarian clampdown on dissent. Industrialization blighted the country’s North and Midlands; prompted the majority of its population to shift from the country to putrid, overcrowded, and unregulated towns and cities, with their dark, satanic mills; and caused a demographic calamity: a generation was literally stunted, and life expectancy in industrializing areas dropped to levels unseen since the Black Death. Pummeled by recurring famine and subject to ferocious economic volatility, Britain faced revolution at home on top of invasion from without, as the most formidable working-class protest movements and the most protracted period of social turmoil in its history engendered among the middle and upper classes what Hilton characterizes as “a constant sensation of fear.” Hence the book’s title, a half-clever allusion to Lady Caroline Lamb’s famously spot-on appraisal of her former lover, the pervy über-cad Lord Byron—“mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—meant to contrast with that of the previous volume in the magisterial series, Paul Langford’s brilliant, beautifully written A Polite and Commercial People, which focuses on the consolidation and cultural influence of the middle classes in Georgian England.

The writ of the Oxford Histories is to concentrate on high politics, and Hilton, a Cambridge historian, deftly analyzes party maneuverings and realignments, the dominant political personalities, and the parliamentary and ministerial developments that put England on the path to political modernity—including the conduct of the wars with France, imperial policy, Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery, the circuitous evolution of parliamentary democracy, the triumph of free trade, and the origins of social-welfare policy aimed at mitigating the deleterious effects of industrialization. But he does so much more. Ultimately, his book is a triumph of intellectual history, yet Hilton begins with a virtuoso evaluation of British commerce, finance, and industrialization, from which he then dissects changes and continuities in social structure, confirming the arguments of those who see in this era the ascendancy not of manufacturers but of what the historians P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins have called “gentlemanly capitalists.” In the sweeping chronicle that follows—from the cool deliberations in Whitehall, to the Swing riots in Kent, to the sewage-clogged basement tenements of Liverpool, to Regency London’s dandified West End clubland, to Afghanistan’s bloody and icy Jagdalak Pass—he draws on the phenomenally vast and unusually contentious scholarship on the late Georgians and early Victorians written these past few decades (his feline, nearly sixty-page bibliographic essay attests to his energies as a reader and to his unusually sound and frequently tart judgment). He also inventively exploits such sources as scientific treatises, children’s books, and even the needlessly intricate, seven-decades-in-the-making Great Trigonometric Survey of India. (Conceived in 1799, it was, Hilton contends, “an enormous waste of taxpayers’ money but, like NASA today, that was part of its attraction.”)

Throughout he writes with cheeky grace (“it is hard to see the Vindication as a feminist tract, if only because the author obviously despised her own sex as much as she resented the other”), a rare psychological acuity, and a sharp eye for the telling detail. In explicating the change in the social balance of power from the aristocracy to the haute bourgeoisie, for instance, he points out that it became fashionable for landed sons to take legal qualifications even though they had no intention of practicing law—an example of the old elite adopting the status symbols of the new. Moreover, he’s unafraid to cut through a thicket of academic rigmarole: his no-nonsense analysis of the controversial notion of “separate spheres—the idea that a central, even defining, aspect of middle-class life was its division into a public, outward-looking sphere of the marketplace and politics, inhabited by men, and a private, inward-looking sphere of home and family, to which women were relegated—brings a healthy dose of economic reality to a debate that’s been as gratuitously theoretical as it’s been jargon filled.

But what makes this book a model of the historian’s art is Hilton’s ability to reveal both the complex and subtle relationships among religious, economic, scientific, and political thought, and the impact of those relationships on politics and society. He’s well trained in this approach, having written an outstanding book—The Age of Atonement—on evangelicalism’s influence on social and economic thinking, and here he illuminates the ways in which Britain’s evangelical revival affected nearly every aspect of private attitudes (toward child rearing, for instance) and public life (from party politics to the antislavery crusade to the proliferation of such “improving” organizations as the Friendly Female Society, for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows, and Single Women, of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days). But he substantially broadens his scope to elucidate with both precision and creativity the ways political economy informed and was informed by Christian theology, and the political ramifications and affiliations of competing scientific theories, methods, and approaches (John Stuart Mill, for instance, embraced phrenology as “an attack on ruling-class assumptions about free-will individualism,” even as the science’s “doctrines were used to rationalize emerging industrial society, and to discipline the workforce”). Finally, in what amounts to a trailblazing marriage of intellectual and political history, he explicates the philosophical and scientific bases of political casts of mind and government policy. The book owes its success to Hilton’s intellectual sophistication and, perhaps even more crucially, to his consistent refusal to exercise the condescension of posterity, as he evaluates with rigor and discernment the profoundly alien mentalities and sensibilities of what is maybe the first “modern” society.

Finally, alas, this book’s publication provokes an indictment of American academic historians: the same publisher’s projected eleven-volume series, the Oxford History of the United States, was inaugurated more than forty years ago, but so far only five volumes have been published, and not one of the titles will have been written by the historian to whom it was originally assigned. What’s worse, not only are the Americans unconscionably tardy; their entries conspicuously lack the intellectual refinement, analytical sharpness, and stylistic verve characteristic of the English series. Compared with Hilton’s or Langford’s work—or, say, the volumes by Robert Bartlett, Gerald Harriss, Michael Prestwich, or K. Theodore Hoppen—the books in the American series are, with two exceptions (James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and, most notably, Robert Middlekauff’s Glorious Cause), bloated and intellectually flabby.

Presented by

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In