Revaluations: “The Greatest Victorian”

Bagehot's Historical Essays

edited with an Introduction by Norman St. John-Stevas
Anchor, 478 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Walter Bagehot
Walter Bagehot; drawing by David Levine

The current intellectual fashion in cultural and social matters calls for simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications and ambiguities that, in the past two or three decades, have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and responsibility. One is reminded of the distinction between the “once-born” and the “twice-born: the once-born, simple and “healthy-minded,” having faith in a beneficent God and a perfectible universe; the twice-born in awe of His mystery, impressed by the recalcitrance of society and the anomalies of social action.

In Walter Bagehot one may see a reconciliation of the two modes. A political commentator who stopped just short of being a political philosopher, a social critic without the appurtenances of today’s sociologist but with more imagination and wisdom, accorded the title of “The Greatest Victorian” in an intellectual competition that has not since been equalled, Bagehot was not only, as he said, “between sizes in politics,” he was between sizes in everything. He was that rare species of the twice-born who could give proper due to the rights and merits of the once-born. And he did so not by a denial of his own nature but by virtue of the very subleties, complications and ambiguities that informed his nature.

The “dark realities” of life, to which he alluded several times, had an obvious personal as well as social reference. His mother, to whom he was deeply attached, had recurrent fits of insanity, and his half-brother was feeble-minded, both predeceased him by only a few years, so that his entire life was passed in their shadow. “Every trouble in life is a joke compared to madness,” he once remarked. And elsewhere he wrote: “We see but one aspect of our neighbor, as we see but one side of the moon: in either case there is also a dark half which is unknown to us. We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.”

Yet there was nothing tragedy-ridden about Bagehot, either in his person or in his ideas. The point about the twice-born, and preeminently about Bagehot, is that the “dark realities” are only one-half of reality—we all have rooms to ourselves but we do also all come down to dinner. Mr. St. John-Stevas, in his otherwise admirable Introduction to this edition of Bagehot’s Essays, distinguishes between Bagehot the “mystic” and Bagehot the “man of the world,” the one revealing itself in his private life, the other in his writings. But this is to deny the peculiar quality of the man and the genius of his work. For the characteristic of both was the ability to combine the disparate, to keep in focus at the same time both sides of the moon. Bagehot was as much a man of the world as one could want; a man, indeed, of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.