Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Knopf, 253 pp., $19.95
Over the past forty years Gertrude Himmelfarb has devoted herself to the study of Victorian thought. She has written books on Lord Acton, Charles Darwin, and John Stuart Mill. She has composed a substantial monograph on nineteenth-century English attitudes to poverty; and she has written numerous essays on individual authors of the period. Her earlier collection, Victorian Minds (1968), ranged from Edmund Burke to John Buchan, but its center lay in Victorian England; and the same is true of her new batch of reprinted essays, though their chronological span is wide enough to embrace Jeremy Bentham (born 1748) and Michael Oakeshott (still with us).
The literary merits of Professor Himmelfarb’s work are obvious; and it is easy to see why her occasional pieces should be worth reissuing in more durable form. She writes with exceptional lucidity. Her essays are admirably digested and cunningly organized. She is a mistress of the revealing quotation and her own prose is cogent and frequently aphoristic. There is nothing obtrusive about her scholarship. Indeed she writes as one who is well-read rather than deeply learned. She does not disdain to draw most of her evidence from standard biographies or easily accessible texts; and she has relatively little new information to offer those already familiar with the period. But although her essays are not works of original scholarship they excel at turning familiar material to penetratingly independent use: in the present collection, only the chapters on Macaulay and Disraeli seem to have nothing very fresh to say. Her interpretations do not always convince the experts; indeed one particularly well-informed reviewer described her view of John Stuart Mill in her On Liberty and Liberalism as “wrong-headed and meanspirited.” But her writing is always direct and accessible, rather in the tradition of the great literary reviews of the Victorian era itself.
What is it about Victorian thought that Miss Himmelfarb has found so consistently engrossing? Essentially, it is its high moral seriousness. She does not scoff at its pruderies and repressions, its bowdlerized Family Shakespeare, or its sexual inhibitions. Rather, she looks back “with something more than nostalgia” at a morality that, as she puts it, “dignifies and civilizes human beings, removing us from our natural brutish state and covering, as Burke said, our ‘naked shivering nature.”’ In her view it does not detract from the Victorian ethic that many of its upholders were hypocrites, preaching restraint but practicing self-indulgence. On the contrary, she regards it as a considerable achievement to have converted people to the extent of making them feel obliged to mask their passions or inclinations. Concealment was better than open indulgence.
Miss Himmelfarb holds no brief for the spontaneity of unchecked impulse. Absolute liberty, she declares, corrupts absolutely. Moral inhibitions and a respect for social convention are wholly admirable. Moreover, what, for her, gives mid-Victorian morality its special poignancy is that it was in so many cases a morality lacking any religious prop. For those Victorians who had lost their faith still …