Monday, February 25, 2019

"Dominion" by Peter Ackroyd

You might want to call this “everything you wanted to know about British parliamentary history in the 19thcentury, and then some.”

British author Peter Ackroyd is beginning to approach the end of his multi-volume history of England. Each of the first four volumes has a one-word title (followed by a long subtitle): FoundationTudorsRebellion, and Revolution. The single words of the titles serve as both descriptions of the content and summary themes. 

The fifth and most recent is Dominion: The History of England from the Battle of Waterloo to Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It covers most of 19thcentury British history. If there is a primary focus to the volume, it is the push and pull and British politics and parliamentary changes that occurred during the century. 

We follow, in detail, the rise and fall and occasional resurrection of all of the prime ministers and the governments. We see the considerable amount of political activism that occurred during the period, like the Chartist movement that sought, among other things, universal male suffrage. We read about the political protests, often fueled by the industrial and technological changes, that sometimes ended in bloodshed. Dominionalso includes succinct accounts of the significant wars Britain experienced during the Victorian period – the Crimean War, the rebellion in India, and the Boer War.

Ackroyd writes with a comprehensive view and a rather sparkling (and witty) style. A history like this one and its cohorts is not an easy thing to write; in a sense, the author has to hold together all of the information being covered even as he’s writing about a specific event or month or year. 

But Dominion is different from its predecessors. The difference is both significant and surprising, and it lies in what is not included. The previous volumes have covered literary and cultural history, in addition to political, technological, and military events. Dominion has a few scattered quotes from Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackery, George Eliot, and a few other literary figures, but that’s all that’s included. To get two-and-a-half pages on a music hall performer and essentially ignore what Victorian England produced in literature is not a minor omission. The previous volumes included literary history.

Peter Ackroyd
So what you will not find in Dominion, except for the occasional quotation, is Dickens, Thackeray, Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, the Brontes, and others. Dickens fares slightly better than the rest, but only slightly. Even popular culture is shorted, with a single reference to Gilbert and Sullivan and none at all to Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes stories.

The author is one of Britain’s most prolific popular historians. In addition to his history of England series, he’s also written biographies of Charles Dickens and the artist J.M.W. Turner, among several others; a history of London (and a history of London beneath the streets); and many other works. 

Dominion stands as an in-depth and lively summary of 19thBritish political history. In that regard, it is comprehensive and well-written. But it is disappointing that Ackroyd didn’t turn his keen eye to the literature of the period as well.


Top illustration: Queen Victoria, who gave her name to the period.

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