Boyd Hilton’s archly titled A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? covers English history from the loss of the first British Empire in 1783 to the dramatic repeal of the Corn Laws that until 1846 had protected the landed classes from the chilly blast of free competition in the international grain markets. It is the latest volume in the New Oxford History of England, a series intended to replace the original thirteen volumes of the Oxford History of England published between 1934 and 1965. Edited by the venerable Sir George Clark, these appeared at a time when academic history was still a cottage industry and when there was broad agreement about the subject matter of English history. This first series, which focused on the political history of the nation, offered the student and general reader a canonical account of the subject as seen from the academy. Only the final volume, written by the maverick A.J.P. Taylor on the twentieth century, betrayed much of the individuality of its author. (I recall much derisory comment about one of Taylor’s footnotes on the use of contraception.)
The New Oxford History, whose nine volumes have been published either side of the millennium, appear in very different times. Academic history has become a major industry with a daunting output of monographs, articles, and theses, and the subject matter and the very idea of English history have come under dispute. The New Oxford Histories have adapted to these changed circumstances. Faced with the almost impossible task of summarizing the mass of modern scholarship, many of them aspire to interpretation rather than synthesis, and admit to partiality rather than comprehensiveness. But like any creature that evolves, they still betray some of their earlier features, most notably a preference for political history and a claim to authoritativeness that comes with the imprimatur of Oxford University Press. The success of the series is partly explained by the selection of authors, nearly all of whom are best described as at the peak of their powers. Certainly this is true of Boyd Hilton. Few books show to more effect the erudition and brilliance of the author, and few bear such a distinctive authorial stamp.
Hilton is best known for his studies of Tory economic policy after the Napoleonic Wars and of the effect of evangelical religion on early-nineteenth-century economics, philosophy, science, and politics. His chief interest is in the workings of parliamentary politics and their relationship to larger religious, moral, and social values. So though he begins with a summary of economic history and ends with the radical Chartist movement that advocated the enfranchisement of the working classes, most of his account consists of alternating chapters dealing with parliamentary politics and with the values of the ruling classes.
Readers of A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? can be forgiven if they do not realize that late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain was the first great laboratory of the so-called “new social history,” which concentrated, in E.P. Thompson’s famous …