A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People?: England 1783-1846

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Clarendon Press, Feb 16, 2006 - History - 757 pages
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In a period scarred by apprehensions of revolution, war, invasion, poverty, and disease, elite members of society lived in constant fear of what they thought of as the 'mad, bad, and dangerous people'. Boyd Hilton examines the changes in politics and society in the years 1783-1846, and how the raffish and rakish style of eighteenth-century society, having reached a peak in the Regency, then succumbed to the new norms of respectability popularly known as 'Victorianism'. - ;This was a transformative period in English history. In 1783 the country was at one of the lowest points in its fortunes, having just lost its American colonies in warfare. By 1846 it was once more a great imperial nation, as well as the world's strongest power and dominant economy, having benefited from what has sometimes (if misleadingly) been called the 'first industrial revolution'. In the meantime it survived a decade of invasion fears, and emerged victorious from more than twenty years of 'war to the death' against Napoleonic France. But if Britain's external fortunes were in the ascendant, the situation at home remained fraught with peril. The country's population was growing at a rate not experienced by any comparable former society, and its manufacturing towns especially were mushrooming into filthy, disease-ridden, gin-sodden hell-holes, in turn provoking the phantasmagoria of a mad, bad, and dangerous people. It is no wonder that these years should have experienced the most prolonged period of social unrest since the seventeenth century, or that the elite should have been in constant fear of a French-style revolution in England. The governing classes responded to these new challenges and by the mid-nineteenth century the seeds of a settled two-party system and of a more socially interventionist state were both in evidence, though it would have been far too soon to say at that stage whether those seeds would take permanent root. Another consequence of these tensions was the intellectual engagement with society, as for example in the Romantic Movement, a literary phenomenon that brought English culture to the forefront of European attention for the first time. At the same time the country experienced the great religious revival, loosely described under the heading 'evangelicalism'. Slowly but surely, the raffish and rakish style of eighteenth-century society, having reached a peak in the Regency, then succumbed to the new norms of respectability popularly known as 'Victorianism'. - ;A scrupulously complete analysis of political and social change. - Charles Saumarez Smith, The Sunday Telegraph;History writing at its most compelling. - Adam Phillips, The Observer;The range, richness and complexity of Boyd Hilton's text are impossible to convey in summary, and hard fully to appreciate in a single reading. A mastery of the voluminous literature is complimented by an acquaintance with the sources which produce a wealth of illuminating quotation to catch the tones and inflections of the age...The analysis it offers, and the proportions and emphases which it adopts, will galvanize debate for years to come, and make it a contribution to history such as a safer survey, less ambitious in design, enterprising in argument, and integrative in technique, could not be. - Paul Smith, The Times Literary Supplement;The main narrative is interspersed with fascinating essays on science, religion, art, architecture and literature - a generous helping for the many people who will read this book for pleasure rather than profit. - Ben Wilson, The Spectator;Boyd Hilton has produced a tour de force that will stimulate interest in and guide understanding of the period for years to come. - Peter Borsay, BBC History Magazine;A lively and wide-ranging study...[a] comprehensive, intriguing and challenging volume that has proved well worth the wait. - Tristram Hunt, New Statesman;This book, like its companion volumes, takes for its subject English society as a whole, and the Byronic nudge of the title, as well as promising entertainment, is meant to alert us to the idea that the years before the Victorian Reform Acts were ones of violence, apprehension and 18th century debauchery. - David Horspool, The Guardian

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About the author (2006)


Boyd Hilton is Reader in Modern British History the University of Cambridge and has been a Fellow of Trinity College since 1974. He has served as Senior Tutor, Dean, and Steward of the College.

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