Has an age ever seemed more remote from its immediate successor than the nineteenth century seems to us? The characters of Dickens, for all their vividness, might just as well have been crafted on some distant planet. The prose of the period, read under the harsh light of contemporary expression, could have come from Cicero's Rome. Or, again, consider Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, signaling from his flagship, "England expects that every man will do his duty," and repeating over and over, as he lay dying, "Thank God I have done my duty." To the modern ear such words have An ancient ring and call up something deep in the recesses of history.
Unlike historians, history itself does not partition its significant developments into neat frames each precisely one hundred years long. Yet, there is something entirely whole about the nineteenth century or at least about that epoch that took shape soon after the French Revolution and kept its shape until the eve of the First World War. Under its great variety of enthusiasms, false starts, shifting loyalties, and celebrated paradoxes, we find a central core of truths about this period; a signature, as it were, that dates and defines every work that bears it.
The nineteenth century perceived itself in genuinely historical terms. It was, perhaps, the most self-conscious century of all. The commentators of the Renaissance