Mistaken Identity

Gertrude Himmelfarb respects minds that are of two minds. The heroes of Victorian Minds are either men of principled ambiguity or men who effect a change of heart as well as a change of mind. Heroes like Edmund Burke, whose defenses of conservatism are more liberal than liberalism, and who may be the greater as a writer because he is susceptible of a “double reading.” Or Thomas Malthus, whose second edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population quietly but drastically reversed the argument of his first edition. Or John Stuart Mill, because he had a heavy bear who went with him—“the other John Stuart Mill” who was “anything but the perfect liberal” and who even had the courage to come in his last years to an open expression of theism. Or Lord Acton, appalled at the doctrine of papal infallibility but refusing to quit the Roman Catholic Church because to do so would be to make out that for the first time the Church was acting wickedly—whereas through all its history it had perpetrated wickedness. Or Walter Bagehot, with his “divided nature”: “that rare species of the twiceborn who could give proper due to the rights and merits of the once-born.” Or James Anthony Froude, with his “ambivalent set of motives” toward Thomas Carlyle about whom he wrote with such lacerating candor. Or John Buchan, whose biographies of Montrose and Cromwell emanate from one who is himself a “complicated man torn by conflicting ideas and emotions.” Or Benjamin Disraeli, whose very opportunism about the Reform Act of 1867 constituted a magnanimity of liberalism scarcely to be found in the Liberal Party.

Such are the men whom Victorian Minds venerates. Those whom it rebukes are the men whose single-mindedness is a doctrinaire threat to the mystery and complexity of life. Jeremy Bentham, for the glacial logic that planned the Panopticon—intended to be not only the most secure of prisons but also the most profitable (to that other Jeremy Bentham who offered himself as the contractor as well as the inventor). Or Leslie Stephen, whose unbelief is of no interest because he was unable to imagine belief. Or Gladstone, whose “failure of imagination came from a crucial and characteristically Liberal failure of nerve.”

But though these men are rebuked, they are not Miss Himmelfarb’s villains. Her villains are historians. For men who act badly, she has some pity; for men who badly praise the acts of others, she has none. In this she represents the most severe of her heroes, Acton, whose views on Döllinger’s culpability she summarizes:

The historian who condoned a crime was perpetuating it throughout history. His guilt was greater than that of the original perpetrator of the crime not only because the effect of his sin was more enduring but also because his motive was less pressing. The sin of the historian was gratuitous, willful, total. “To commit murder,” Acton noted, “is the mark of a moment, exceptional. To defend it …

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Letters

Couples May 9, 1968