While reading the fifth, and latest, volume of Peter Ackroyd’s splendid history of England, which deals with the Victorian age, I was struck by the extent to which the atmosphere of the late nineteenth-century nation, which Ackroyd captures so evocatively, mirrors our own troubled and anxious times. Whether or not the study of history allows us to avoid the mistakes of the past, this kind of insightful history allows us, at least, to recognise a recurring pattern.
Ackeroyd sums up the situation in the 1880s, in a way that seems very reminiscent of our own situation: The perils of the times, in an age of bewildering change, seemed infinite. To reach adulthood was itself an achievement. No one, except a few of the highly favoured, was ever completely well. It was a highly nervous age… (p. 322)
Contemporary writers, quoted by Ackroyd, described this feeling: Wilkie Collins described ‘these days of invidious nervous exhaustion and subtly-spreading nervous malady. John Morley stated ‘all is in doubt, hesitation and shivering expectancy’. (p.323)
If we despair of the state to which Brexit has reduced the country, we can note with Ackroyd that In 1888 another writer, Elizabeth Chapman, wrote of ‘a general revolt against authority in all departments of life which is the note of an unsettled, transitional, above all democratic age’. (p. 323)
And if we are worried by the extent to which social media magnifies our concerns, here is Ackroyd to tell us that it was said by Arthur Young in his Travels of the 1880s that the new electrical telegraphs created ‘a universal circulation of intelligence, which in England transmits the least vibration of alarm from one end of the Kingdom to the other’. Nothing seemed very far from chaos. (p. 324)
It is, of course, too easy and superficial to say that nothing is really new, and that we’ve seen it all before. If we take take seriously Luciano Floridi’s view that we are entering, for the only time in history, into the infosphere, in which we will a blended ‘onlife’ of the physical and digital worlds, then we cannot say that it was just the same in Victorian days. It was not. But there are echoes. There are resonances. There are precursors. There are analogies. And all of these are useful in helping find our way in confusing times.