Nineteenth-century Britain: introduction

History, politics, and society in 19th century Britain

Study by:
Christopher Harvie

Reviewed by:
On 13 July 2009
Last modified:6 January 2016


Political, cultural, & social history

This introductory guide comes from a new series by Oxford University Press. They are written by specialists, aimed at the common reader, and offer an introduction to the main cultural and philosophical ideas which have shaped the western world. Christopher Harvie and Colin Matthew take head on the issue that the interpretation of historical events (even when we know the ‘facts’) is a political, an ideological issue. It was refreshing to see this form of Marxism still alive and well in their new Nineteenth-century Britain.

Nineteenth-century BritainThe early part of the century is dominated by the French revolution and Britain’s ambiguous role in the following Napoleonic wars. Thereafter, the emphasis, as one might expect, is on a steadily growing population, on urbanisation, industrialisation, and above all on trade. Theirs strikes me as a solidly traditional form of history – dominated by politics, government, law, and social reforms – though they do find space to mention writers, artists, and social philosophers whose ideas might have had an effect on the development of the nation.

This volume, like many of the others in this series, is like listening to a lecture delivered by a distinguished academic – but to an audience of peers. There are no concessions; details are not explained; and the reader is left to supply the context.

At the centre of the account and the century is the Great Exhibition of 1851 – just as the Festival of Britain was to be a century later. There’s a very strong sense of optimism and confidence. It’s a rich social tapestry: educational reforms; public health initiatives; the development of the railways; free trade; and the steady decline of religious belief.

I was rather pleased in a parochial sense to note the repeated prominence of my own home city of Manchester in the development of political radicalism.

They cite as illustrative evidence the work of the great Victorian writers – Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy.

The latter part of the book is devoted to a survey of the lower, middle, and upper classes, their habits, beliefs and their political affiliations.

The sense of a historical narrative picks up with greater and greater momentum towards the end, and the closing pages made me eager to pick up all the threads in its sister publication Twentieth-century Britain. This is a very interesting and attractive format – a small, pocket-sized book, stylishly designed, with illustrations, endnotes, suggestions for further reading, and an index.

© Roy Johnson 2005

Christopher Harvie and Colin Matthew, Nineteenth Century Britain: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp.1171, ISBN: 0192853988

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