Saturday, October 13, 2018

Review: 'Dominion: The History of England Volume V' by Peter Ackroyd

By Ben Wilson
1 September 2018

The name of Tomas Castro, a butcher from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, was on everyone’s lips in the 1860s and 1870s. Castro claimed to be the long-lost baronet Sir Roger Tichborne; he had come home to claim his title and estates. Radicals and the so-called artisanal class rallied to his support; here was a butcher cheated of his inheritance by a bunch of aristocrats and land agents.
His cause was discussed at mass meetings, mechanics’ institutes, popular debating societies and in public houses. He won the attention of music hall acts and the support of newspapers. Such was the interest that a group of publicans set up a fighting fund for him. When the butcher’s image was unveiled at Madame Tussauds, the queue to see it stretched down the street. Castro/Tichborne failed in his quest, despite leading a large march to Wapping in the East End, and was imprisoned after being found guilty of perjury.
The Tichborne affair is central to Peter Ackroyd’s dissection of Victorian society. From Charles Darwin to the scandalous weekly papers, Victorians were preoccupied by theories of heredity and inherited characteristics. The question “could a butcher really be a baronet, or a baronet a butcher?” gave that preoccupation vivid expression. The saga was delicious because it transgressed all the rules that kept respectable society together. But what exactly was respectable society?
Blackmail and fraud engrossed the public in this period too. “The reigning obsession was with what lay just below the surface,” writes Ackroyd, “a world of nervous tension where the conventions of ordinary life concealed the burden of secrets and of irregular relationships. This was a world of confused identities where no one had a secure home. This was the world of Tichborne.”
Before Tichborne there was the great “lunacy panic” of 1858. The public was gripped with the fear that madness was infecting the country with as much virulence as cholera. With it came another anxiety: apparently sane people were carted off to lunatic asylums by greedy relatives on the prowl for a premature inheritance. The worrying ease with which a person could declare a rich or annoying relative insane became a staple of popular journalism and the basis for Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Rumours swirled that Victoria was, like her ancestor George III, raving mad and restrained in a padded cell. Entrepreneurs marketed antidotes with names such as “Battley’s Drops” or “Mother Bailey’s Quieting Spirit”. They were the brand names for laudanum.
The lofty Edinburgh Review judged that the sudden prevalence of insanity “derived from the extreme tension to which all classes are subjected in the unceasing struggle for position and even life”. In Dominion, the fifth volume of his history of England, Ackroyd captures the anxieties that gnawed at people as the country hurtled through decades of tumultuous change. To be “Victorian” in the 1850s (the decade when the word was first minted) was to be at the cutting edge of turbo-charged progress. For us, “Victorian” means something different: a rigid, unchanging, hypocritical society, beset with stifling notions of respectability and rules of convention.
Explaining the gulf in the two notions of “Victorianism” is the theme that runs through Dominion. For Ackroyd, the English of the 19th century were bewildered by the ferocious pace of change and did all they could to give the rollercoaster ride the appearance of gentle domesticity, permanence and respectability. Scandals such as the Tichborne affair or the lunacy crisis rudely revealed the darker passions and deep anxieties lurking behind. Some Victorians in this anxious age fell back on spiritualism, with its panoply of levitations, ghosts, spirits, table tappings and telepathy. Others sought solace in a nostalgic view of medieval England, an image of permanence in a period when nothing stood still.
The Victorian veneration of all things domestic and “respectable” represented solidity, security in a slippery world. As one writer observed: “In the middle classes we note an almost universal unfixedness of position. Every man is rising or falling or hoping that he shall rise of fearing that he shall sink.” No wonder people thought they were going mad.
Ackroyd takes us on a whirlwind tour of political reform, ceaseless foreign wars and industrial revolution. We go by way of familiar landmarks such as the Reform Acts, the Corn Laws, the Crimean and Boer wars, the political duels between Gladstone and Disraeli. Peppered with apposite quotes and illuminating vignettes of the protagonists, it is all deftly done. The incidental details stand out in these high political set pieces. After one lengthy cabinet meeting, the ministers were called back by the prime minister, Lord Melbourne, as they filed out. “Stop a bit,” he said. “What did we decide? Is it to lower the price of bread or isn’t it? It doesn’t matter which, but we usually all say the same thing.” Decades later, Disraeli wrote to the Queen describing the ageing Gladstone’s effect over the Commons: “The new members trembled and fluttered like small birds when a hawk is in the air.”
Nonetheless, it is Ackroyd’s depiction of an anxious society in the grip of rapid change — industrialisation, fast urbanisation, the impact of the railway and the electric telegraph — that is most riveting. The giddiness of change was encapsulated in Manchester, the population of which grew from 75,000 to 303,000 in the first half of the 19th century. Ackroyd draws a picture of the boom towns of the Industrial Revolution with their clatter of industry, rows of unsanitary slum housing and impenetrable smoke.
The mayor of Middlesbrough asserted that “the smoke is an indication of plenty of work — an indication of prosperous times — an indication that all classes of workpeople, even those in the humblest station, are in a position free from want. Therefore we are proud of our smoke.” “If it was set at the right tempo and cadence,” Ackroyd responds acidly, “this could be a significant Victorian hymn.”
Ackroyd reserves most of his sympathy for the poor. In a fascinating description of a music hall, he conjures up a bright world of comedy and laughter amid darkness. The Cambridge Music Hall opened in Liverpool in 1866, during a time of mass unemployment and typhus. “Drink and the music hall were the solace of the people. It was the will to live in a world not at all worth living in. When all else fails, put on a pantomime.”
Dominion: The History of England Volume V by Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, 416pp, £25

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