In 'Dominion,' nineteenth-century England is exciting place to be – but not pleasant

Peter Ackroyd's book is a clear-eyed assessment of the later stages of the British Empire.

Dominion By Peter Ackroyd St. Martin's Press 400 pp.

It takes just a few pages for Peter Ackroyd to let readers know he won’t be getting weepy over Victorian England. His clear-eyed assessment of the later stages of the British Empire includes an early nod to an era of humor and sadness, spirituality and modesty — and a warning to those who might romanticize that past.

“Their world is not ours,” Ackroyd writes. “If a twenty-first century person were to find himself or herself enmired in a tavern or lodging house of the period he would no doubt be sick — sick with the smells, sick with the food, sick with the breath of others and the general atmosphere all around.”

Over the course of 400 pages, Ackroyd proves the point without leaving room for debate. Nineteenth-century England is often an interesting and exciting place to be, but pleasant isn’t a word that comes to mind. Neither does comfortable.

Among other things, the people of England endured grinding poverty, punishing conditions in plants and factories, a dearth of rights for women and children, and deadly diseases such as cholera. During the cholera epidemic of 1831-32, Ackroyd points out just how miserable the disease could be: Sufferers “often decided to take what was known as ‘the cold water cure’ by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.”

So, no, it wasn’t all afternoon tea and scones.

Ackroyd takes readers through a blizzard of changes and innovations, including the first transatlantic telegraph cables, penny postage rates allowing for affordable correspondence nationwide, rapidly expanding train networks to move people at unprecedented speeds, the arrival of electricity, internal combustion engines, and, eventually, the automobile.

And for those who may forget that people almost always think their contemporary lives move at an overwhelming pace, “Dominion” reminds us that what we think of as quaint was mind-blowing to the Victorians. Newspapers became ubiquitous, pumping out a steady stream of current events, catastrophes, and controversies. Long work hours, whether in factories, on farms, or in government, left people frazzled. Constant, paralyzing fog, bustling London crowds, scarce sanitation, polluted air and water, and unrelenting noise in an increasingly mechanized world exacerbated the dizzying rate of change.

Ackroyd quotes a contemporary observer who complained of life “without leisure and without pause … we have no time to reflect where we have been and whither we intend to go.”

Queen Victoria floats in and out of Ackroyd’s account, careening from seclusion after Prince Albert’s premature death at age 42 to a long series of snits involving various prime ministers. Victoria reigned for 63 years, but, according to Ackroyd’s assessment, she didn’t do a whole lot.

William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, who both served as Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in Parliament, loom over numerous political machinations and stalemates through much of the century. And, as Ackroyd explains in crisp detail, Parliament managed to make progress with reform in the areas of voting, education, health care, and labor. The author is careful to note that the progress, while significant, still left England far short of an equitable society.

The poor in London, Ackroyd writes, “are our forebears, the unknown people who lived and died in a world which offered them little but misery and disease.” As an acclaimed biographer of Dickens, the author is a trusted authority when he explains how and why Victorian life was often more dire and painful than the social exposés that populated so many of Dickens’ novels.

Colonization in India and elsewhere during the 1800s turned disastrous and, even when it wasn’t, the means were almost always savage and discriminatory. That’s why it’s called colonization, right? The Irish suffered through the potato famine and ineffectual, half-hearted relief efforts by Parliament.

Failed potato crops caused the deaths of more than a million Irish in six years. “The policy of England towards Ireland had always been characterized by a kind of shifty ignorance, and this was particularly true of the Famine,” Ackroyd explains.

Throughout “Dominion,” he aims various darts at figures in the story. Death does nothing to blunt such instincts. Remarking upon the passing of Lord Palmerston, Ackroyd writes, “He was part of the furniture of his age.” Elsewhere, Lord Liverpool, “in the face of all this discontent, finally made up his mind and died.” And as for King George IV’s decline? “This was the moment when the king began his slow but inexorable journey to the grave with the unspoken wish of his people that it might be concluded sooner rather than later.… Nobody mourned him. No one cared.”

“Dominion” is Ackroyd’s fifth volume in his ambitious biography of England. Spanning 1815 to 1901, the book sets the table for a final volume covering the 20th Century and the early years of the 21st. His works include 18 works of fiction and more than 30 works of nonfiction, including biographies of Chaucer, Poe, Shakespeare, and J.M.W. Turner, among others. Ackroyd remains a graceful, stylish, and prolific writer as well as an attentive historian. 

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