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Rohan McWilliam, The Victorians Are Still With Us

2015 May 19

Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.  He is the author of The Tichborne Claimant: A Victorian Sensation (London: Continuum, 2007) and is currently writing a history of the West End of London. Contact: rohan.mcwilliam@anglia.ac.uk

High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain, by Simon Heffer, London: Windmill, 2014, xvii + 878 pp., £12.99 (paperback), ISBN 9780099558477

We seldom lack heirs to G.M.Young.  When it comes to the Victorians, every age throws up its portrait of an age.[1]  But producing a wide-ranging account of Victorian Britain these days is becoming increasingly difficult.  The historical literature is now so complex and diverse that it is difficult for academics to describe the shape of the period.  Many of the textbooks we employ with students do not represent the scholarly literature as it is currently is.[2]   Perhaps significantly, two of the major recent overall assessments of the Victorians have come from figures outside the academy, fearless of academic pieties but with a full-blooded relish for the Victorian mind and an evangelical sense that this was a period of transformation with consequences for the way we live now.  The novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson argued in 2002 that ‘The Victorians are still with us because the world they created is still with us, though changed’.[3]  Now we have the journalist Simon Heffer’s blockbuster treatment of the same subject, High Minds.  Neither book is hugely original or contains much that will surprise those well versed in the Victorian world.  They do not make us see the subject anew but this does not make them less interesting or unworthy of consideration.  I read Heffer’s new book for its assessment of the Victorians but with an eye on what it says about the Tory mind today.

With a book like this, it is difficult not to review the author as well as the book itself.  Simon Heffer is a leading rightwing journalist who has written for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.  He is the scourge of liberal Britain who often savages David Cameron’s compromises and accommodations with the centre ground of British politics.  At the same time he has another life as a biographer where he abandons his blimpish grandstanding in the press for books which have a more serious purpose.  He has written biographies of Enoch Powell and Thomas Carlyle, a rather intriguing pair.  High Minds is part of this trajectory.  There is much in it to admire for (let’s put it delicately) those of us with different political views.

One also has to say something about the book’s length: 878 pages.  It is a ‘loose, baggy monster’ that made a notorious Kindle refusenik like myself begin to wonder if the time has come for a rethink.  I ended the book with the smug feeling that the only people who would have read it cover to cover were me, Simon Heffer and the copy editor.   Certainly, the skills of journalistic economy that Heffer normally deploys in the press are not evident here.  But then producing a book shaped like a brick somehow captures something of the Victorian mind.  The size is part of the argument.  The Victorians emerge as stately, prolix, eager for detail and scornful of superficial judgements.  Heffer has read lightly and erratically in the secondary literature (many key Victorian historians don’t appear in the bibliography).  On the other hand, he is heavily immersed in some primary sources, particularly Hansard and the personal papers of some leading figures.  The book has little to say about empire, foreign policy or Ireland, just one of the ways in which it does not chime with current scholarly preoccupations.  It make no claim to be comprehensive.  Heffer, perhaps characteristically, offers a vision of Victorian Britain as viewed by middle-class intellectuals, reformers and Westminster politicians.  One suspects the author would not regard it as a criticism if the suggestion was put to him that this is a bit old fashioned.

High Minds covers the period from 1830 to 1880.  In so far as there is a thesis, it demonstrates how the creation of a temperament based on the promotion of intelligent reform and good character shifted Britain away from the economic maelstrom of the 1830s and moved it in more civilised directions.  It begins with an architect of that temperament, Dr. Arnold of Rugby.  Boys in his charge (as well as his son Matthew) learned that life had ‘momentous meaning’ (24) and moral purpose.  Arnold’s earnestness is much to Heffer’s taste.   The book is essentially made up of pen portraits of eminent Victorians, some of whom are treated critically but none with Stracheyan derision.  If the book has a hero, it is arguably Prince Albert who embodies the high-mindedness of the age.  Characteristically, Gladstone is admired whilst Disraeli receives far less respect; his lack of belief in anything but Disraeli sets him at odds with the book’s overall theme.  He is too like the fudgers and compromisers that Heffer would despise in the twenty first century.   The book has far less to say about industrialists, financiers and business people and is surprisingly uninterested in larger economic questions.  We gets chapters on the Godly mind, the doubting mind and the rational mind.  The book is well written, though some of the chapters on political matters do get a bit ponderous.  His accounts of Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League are fairly routine.  To his credit, Heffer never denies the huge amounts of poverty that existed.  Engels’s account of Manchester in the 1840s is employed and only his belief in a revolutionary future receives critical treatment.  The book has its limitations but it is not a whitewash.

Heffer clearly admires philanthropists like Angela Burdett Coutts who really comes alive in his account.  The intellectual battles between Mill and James Fitzjames Stephen are well documented whilst religious conscience is an ever present theme.  Heffer’s idea of reform includes the struggle for women’s rights.  He is particularly good on architects like Gilbert Scott, the people who made the Victorian world in a very profound way (artists get far less consideration).  The battles over the Gothic style and the ambition of the Great Exhibition set the tone of the age.  Palmerston, one senses, does not do too well in Heffer’s scheme of things but then he disliked the Gothic.

This may be the first History book to bear something of the intellectual imprint of David Cameron’s government (which Heffer often derides).  Cameron talks of the Big Society in which neighbourliness and the voluntary spirit are meant to be a replacement for the allegedly cold, centralised welfare state of Clement Attlee.  The Big Society has proved a difficult concept to sell on the door step but the implication of Heffer’s book is that the government should look at the Victorian legacy (I imagined Iain Duncan Smith taking some pleasure from these pages).  One can’t help noting that the book ends in 1880.  The kind of approach documented here with its emphasis on the voluntary spirit came to prove inadequate to the needs of the British people but Heffer never deals with this or attempts to spell out the implications of his work. In some respects the book feels like a throwback to the Victorian Values debate of the 1980s (when Sir Keith Joseph wrote the introduction to a new edition of Samuel Smiles’s Self Help).   Yet the figures documented in Heffer’s book do not feel like embryonic Thatcherites for the most part.  The entrepreneurial spirit is devoted to the common good and to the ideal of public service rather than the pursuit of profit.  The Melmottes and Merdles of the period remain off stage.  Heffer concludes that the defining figures of the Victorian age were always driven by more than the celebration of Mammon.  They were in pursuit of an ideal of perfection.  In our times, both the left and the right could do with a certain high mindedness.


[1] G.M. Young, Portrait of an Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936).

[2] But see Susie Steinbach, Understanding the Victorians (London: Routledge, 2011).

[3] A.N. Wilson, The Victorians (London: Hutchinson, 2002), p.1.

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