“Yet Britain Set the World Ablaze . . . ”

David Cannadine launches Victorious Century by quoting Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”

This is the ideal epigraph for an account which opens shortly after the French Revolution and navigates between rival claims to show the Kingdom and its absentmindedly acquired Empire as they seemed, and really were, between the 1800 Act of Union with Ireland and 1906’s Liberal general-election landslide.

Another epigraph comes from Marx:

“Men make their own history, but they do not do so freely . . . but rather under circumstances which directly confront them, and which are historically given and transmitted.”

Someone has inserted “[and women]” into this—a tiny interpolation underlining how provisional history is, reminding us that the past is always battleground.

The untidy title—the “century” is really a century-and-a-bit—signals the complexity of that far-off, still close country so sentimentalized by the right and impugned by the left.  The period 1815-1914, the demarcation favored by other historiographers, is too neat, as...

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