‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us ... in short,’ as Charles Dickens famously told the first readers of A Tale of Two Cities, it was a period very much like their own.
Dickens was right. John Stuart Mill once claimed that the two great ‘seminal minds’ of the period were Coleridge and Bentham, and in that brilliant yoking of opposites — the warm, creative current of Coleridgean thought and the chillier stream of Benthamite utilitarianism — is summed up all the contradictions and paradoxes that the Victorian age was heir to.
This is the fascination of the period. It was simultaneously the age of Archdeacon Grantly and John Henry Newman; of Cobden’s Manchester School and Disraeli’s Young England, of the Lancashire mills and the Eglinton tournament; of brash confidence and crippling anxiety; of stultification and thrusting modernity; of philanthropic energy and harsh indifference — and the challenge for any general history is to make some narrative sense of all this. Macaulay could look back 170 years ago with some complacency on a story of steady improvement; but no writer as steeped in Dickens and Dickens’s London as Peter Ackroyd is —‘London made Dickens, and Dickens made London,’ he has written elsewhere —is going to fall for any such Whiggish optimism.
In fact, if there is a unifying factor here it is just how grim the whole century and most of those who sailed in her can seem if you look at things through Ackroyd’s eyes. He has a soft spot for Canning, Peel, the early Gladstone and, oddly, that old ‘painted pantaloon’, Lord Palmerston; but when it comes to the country’s rulers, from the old, mad, blind George III and his ‘arch-mediocrity’ Lord Liverpool, to the spoiled and petulant Victoria and that mighty bollard of inertia, Lord Salisbury, that is really just about it.
He has more than a point of course — there is not a lot to be said for Prinny or William IV — and not much more for the aristocratic interest that for most of the century clung on to power. In the aftermath of the Corn Laws repeal an exultant Cobden might tell Francis Place to ‘bless’ himself that he lived in such times; but as Ackroyd rams home, every single step towards democracy, civil and religious liberty or free trade was bitterly opposed by the landed interests who resisted change of all kind.
The Whigs passed the Great Reform Act of 1832 for the same reasons that the Tories opposed it; the Tories passed the 1867 Reform Act to ‘dish the Whigs’; Robert Peel reformed the penal code in the 1820s to reinforce its rigour and not ameliorate it; and the Tories voted for factory reforms to spite the Free Traders. But when everything is conceded to Ackroyd, there feels something oddly lopsided about his account of the century. In many ways his trawl through English history has a comfortingly old-fashioned feel; and yet as one watches one minister give way to the next, damned with a spot or buried with a sneer, there is a nagging sense that something is missing here and that this something is the England beyond London and its politics, slums, diseases, violence and stenches.
If one of Ackroyd’s great strengths as a novelist and biographer has always been his ability to conjure up a physical sense of the past, his imagination, like his sense of indignation and compassion, feeds best off the dark misery of city life. ‘Dickens’s London’, though, was not London; London, whatever Ackroyd might wish, was not England; and 19th-century England, for that matter, was not Britain. The book certainly addresses the mass national movements and protests that marked the middle decades of the century; but anyone looking for the England that did not march on the capital with its petitions or mass at Peterloo — the England, say, of Cranford rather than North and South — will largely look in vain.
And farther afield, Wales also (not a mention) and Scotland might as well not exist. Ireland is here, because Ireland is always a good stick with which to beat England. The empire, too, is good for a chapter unambiguously titled ‘Blood Lust’. Women, similarly, get the statutory chapter called ‘Angels’, but, woman or man, you would probably not want to live in Ackroyd’s 19th century. ‘The truth is,’ he writes, ‘that nobody can live in an age to which he or she is not assigned. This is the paradox of gazing at Victorian painting or reading Victorian fiction. The reality would be disgusting.’
A gloomy thought from the multi-volume historian of England. But when almost the last word here goes to Oscar Wilde — the ‘subversive Other’ who exposes the hypocrisy, the cant, the dullness, the bigotry and ugliness of Victorian society — it is probably an inevitable one.