All too many surveys of history start with soaring language that stresses how the period being examined was one of great change. Refreshingly, Boyd Hilton’s contribution to the New Oxford History of England series does not do this, focusing instead on the continuities of English history from the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century. While acknowledging the dramatic demographic growth of this period and the economic transformations it spawned, he argues that the political revolutions of the late eighteenth century fueled an embrace of neo‑conservative ideologies that proved remarkably enduring throughout the period.
Hilton's argument shapes not just his interpretation of these decades, but his presentation of it as well. Arguing that a "politicization of society" took place during this period, he provides more political narrative than previous authors in the series have for their volumes. These chapters provide an insightful analysis of the period, particularly with regards to the political ideologies of the period. He supplements this with a superb bibliography at the end, one that offers a stimulating analysis of the historiography on the period.
Yet judged by the standard of the series, the book is something of a disappointment. The predominance of the political narratives crowds out other aspects of the era, most notably the dramatic technological changes so critical to it; these are usually addressed only in their consequences, and incompletely even then. A more persistent problem, however, is the author's presentation of historical arguments in the text. Often Hilton presents the varying interpretations of a topic or a personage with little sense as to his own opinion on the issue. While some may value the opportunity to make their own assessments, his effort at even‑handedness deprives the reader of the sort of informed judgments that have made the series such a valuable tool for understanding English history.
These flaws do not detract from the book’s many strengths so much as contrast them in stark relief. Boyd’s sections on politics and (especially) political ideology make this book an essential study of the period. It is only when compared to the other volumes in the New Oxford History of England series that its deficiencies become apparent.