The Mid-Victorian Generation 1856-1886. – Review

The Mid-Victorian Generation 1856-1886. – Review – book review

Albert J. Schmidt

The Mid-Victorian Generation 1856-1886. By K. Theodore Hoppen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. xix plus 787pp.).

This third volume in the New Oxford History of England series is said to approximate in time and substance Sir Robert Ensor’s England 1870-1914 of the original. That it barely does. Although Hoppen’s narrative begins a quarter century earlier with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, it also concludes much earlier, with the failure of Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill four decades later. We are left, as it were, without late Victorian and Edwardian coverage which may occur in a later volume. This matter of comparable size is noteworthy, for Hoppen’s work is huge as it is.

Perceptions of history and notions of about the craft of writing history have changed significantly since the first volume under general editor Sir George Clark appeared in 1934. Whatever agreement there might have been then about purpose and coverage has largely dissipated today. We are presently much more contentious about what should be included (indeed, added) and what deleted or diminished. We routinely apply theory in analysis and are often dismissive of narrative. Topics unthought of a half century ago now get top billing. Finally, there is presently less agreement about periodization, how to reconcile continuity and change. All this said–this reviewer concludes that Hoppen’s organization, coverage, and style are broadly creative.

Hoppen admits to defining this volume by employing three major themes: 1) the Mid-Victorian transformation of work from what it had been on the land to what it became in the factory and how this matter of work affected a majority of Britishers. Secondly, he focuses on so-called “multiple national identities”, or the constituent elements in the unitary state called the United Kingdom. Finally, 3) he explores “interlocking spheres” in order to define a “public culture” for the era. Here he shows how the arts, literature, science, economics, and politics “intermeshed”. His is a noble and generally successful attempt to avoid assigning autonomy to these topics.

Coherent structure is also a principal strength of the book. The author divides the work into five parts. The first, which provides a context, he labels Society and the State. Here he examines sub-categories (chapters) on agrarian, middling (profession/urban), and industrial work and worker themes before inserting a final one on the state and how it relates to the preceding three. Although Part II, “The Fabric of Politics”, consists of such familiar topics as Corn Laws, reform, parties and Palmerston, they are handled with notable insight and uncommon verve. Even rehashed themes come alive when punctuated with amusing incidents and clever phrasing, as noted below. Part III, which this reviewer regards as the best segment of the book, focuses on “Money and Mentalities”, which in turn features chapters on Maturing Economy, Living and Spending, The Business of Culture, Godly People, and The Evolutionary Moment. Under one heading the author passes from sex to sects, profitable culture to Spencer and Darwin!

Part IV treats “England and Beyond”, with a decided bias toward “beyond”. Here Hoppen recounts the condition of Scotland and Wales and, of course, Ireland in which the author employs his considerable expertise. Analysis of each goes far beyond and is vastly more sophisticated than anything contemplated a half century ago. His Ireland sub-category provides context and then a discussion of the Great Famine and the post-Famine world–the land, religion, and politics. Ireland pops up again, not surprisingly, in subsequent chapters on British politics, the final ones in the book.

Of course, central to Hoppen’s book is the scholarship which supports his theses. Citations of the most recent monographs and articles, an appended bibliography, an extraordinary set of maps, and numerous charts leave little doubt that this will be recognized as an indispensable handbook for understanding the period.

Having praised definition, structure, and scholarship this reviewer now argues that the author’s style in the broad sense contributes hardly less to Mid-Victorian Generation’s merit, certainly to its readability. Scholarship in enhanced by an innovative handling of old themes. Instead, for example, of providing meaningless digests of literary classics, Hoppen relates Dickens, Trollope, Eliot and others to the money culture which inspired their artistry. He can also turn a neat phrase as when he concludes that “Marriage conferred status, sanctioned legitimate sex, and, with luck, provided companionship, children, perhaps even love” (p. 318). He is no less capable of injecting humorous and meaningful anecdotes: Speaking of wives who shelter husbands from “the tedium of domestic affairs” Hoppen recounts how one patriarch, who had fathered sixteen offspring, engaged a small child at a party: “And whose little girl are you?” She tearfully exclaimed: “I’m yours, Daddy” (p. 316). He enlivens even a narrative on par ty politics by relating how the unflappable and indestructible Palmerston when in his late seventies was named co-respondent in a divorce petition filed by one O’Kane. Wags whispered: “While the lady was certainly Kane, was Palmerston Abel?” (p. 211). Gladstone was not amused.

Hoppen’s clever topical headings relieve the tedium as well as organize coverage as with the political duels between Gladstone and Disraeli, 1868-1880. Gladstone’s energetic initiatives ate entitled “Gladstone Sprinting” (p. 592) while Disraeli’s limp response is labeled “Disraeli Strolling”.

Hoppen, a professor of history at the University of Hull, has written extensively on English and Irish politics. [1] Here he has distinguished himself notably by his broad knowledge and eloquent articulation of the Mid-Victorian state and its “multiple national identities”.


(1.) Notably, Elections, Politics, and Society in Ireland 1832-1885 (Oxford, 1984) and Ireland since 1800: Conflict and Conformity.

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