Leslie Mitchell

Great Expectations

Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World

By Ben Wilson

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 462pp £25 order from our bookshop

The late Raymond Carr was a hunting man. Unfashionable as this hobby now is, it offered some scope for analogy and metaphor. One particular passage expressed his approach to history in the form of a warning to those who make large claims about the past:

Of course without generalizations – about the class struggle, imperialism, dependency, etc. – provided by the terrible simplifiers, poor foxes like myself would be condemned to intellectual petit point devoid of pattern. Moreover we would be deprived of a satisfying experience, something to get our teeth into: snap go our foxes’ jaws, the back of the generalization is broken, and, licking our lips, we trot home to the kennel, the vixen, and the cubs.

As the title of his book indicates, Ben Wilson has no inhibition about making the sort of claim that would set Carr’s fox sniffing the wind. It is simply that the modern world had its roots in the crucial decade of the 1850s.

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