In Victorian times a book was a book: a standard form of conveying whatever the author had in mind and, if the publisher so wished, he illustrated it. The publisher catered to something called the reading public. The reading public varied vastly in income, education, and intelligence, but it was assumed to be a unity. Today, as with the division of labor, the reading public has fragmented, and various kinds of books are produced for various groups of people. How, for instance, do we purvey history? In books written for scholars, in books written for the intelligent layman, in paperbacks for students and travelers, in countless new formats to satisfy different kinds of readers. We have even invented a form of book for those who can’t read.
This is the coffee-table book; and Coaching Days of England is surely a coffee-table book to end all coffee-table books. It should not have come to us straight from the printer and bindery. It should have been sent to an automobile plant to have wheels put on it. An elegant coffee table would buckle beneath the weight. Hold it you cannot: you can only put it on casters and trundle it around. One person cannot read it—it would be an indecent act of ostentation like eating a banquet alone; half-a-dozen people might simultaneously read it and arrange for the pages to be turned so long as a winch and tackle were handy. Read it? Impossible. You might—remembering Sydney Smith’s injunction about the fat widow—take a walk round it before breakfast always provided that you were in rude health and there were several stopping places for rest and refreshment on the way round. I doubt if adults can find a comfortable position to look at the pages. Only children have a chance of working their way through a page or two, kneeling on the floor, head down and bottom up.
It consists of many splendid engravings and prints on this Dickensian theme with accompanying explanatory statements covering every conceivable aspect of coaching. There are prints of every size and hue, a good number of them admirably reproduced in color. To fill up the pages there are reams of extracts from novels or publications by famous contemporary authors, Smollett, Surtees, Woodforde, Boswell, Mirabeau, Washington Irving, and others—but not, alas, the enchanting description of Tom Brown’s journey to Rugby which ends with the Rugby boys timing themselves by the coach running a measured mile. There is also an historical commentary by Anthony Burgess, spirited and informative. He is no sentimentalist: he points out how brutally the horses were treated, what blackguards the great coachmen usually were, how you froze on the outside of the coach or were nauseated inside by the smell of stale vomit, how the last great days of coaching were made possible by the science of road building introduced by Telford and Macadam, and the coaching inns decayed when the words “carriage,” “guard,” “booking-office,” and “coach” were associated with travel by railway. Veblen would have admired this book as an object of Conspicuous Waste, and it is indeed a remarkable production which will yield a good harvest of illustrations to hang in the hall. But it is hard to describe it as a book.
THE OTHER coffee-table book is by the medievalist Dr. Joan Evans. But it is not either on art or the Middle Ages, on which she has written with such distinction, but on the Victorians. That is the way with coffee-table books. The gimmick here is that Joan Evans was born a Victorian and can remember the Diamond Jubilee, so she is just the person to compile a book of extracts to illustrate the essence of the Victorian Age. Whether you think she has succeeded will depend on when you stopped reading about the Victorians, for if you have continued to do so until the present day you will find it an exceedingly old production. The “essence” which it distills is the vintage of 1934, excellent for wine, but hardly what anyone today expects to be offered when he asks what the Victorians were like. Practically every generalization which Dr. Evans makes in her short Introduction makes one shake one’s head. The Victorians, we are told, were humorless and smug, F. D. Maurice was dull, Victoria herself stupid and mindless, men were tyrannical and women weak, novelists lacked self-criticism (George Eliot, Henry James?), poets were obsessed by death, “such free-thinkers as there were” slavishly followed the French or the Germans, any interest in decoration in architecture was held to be soft and despicable—and so on. Dr. Evans tells us that she has omitted politics, music, science, fine arts, Ireland, and the colonies from her survey. Well, something has to be omitted, but some of these omissions are staggering. If one compares her extracts with those of Geoffrey Grigson’s brilliant anthology of the Victorians, one sees how well-known are those chosen for this book. Even among the handsome illustrations there are few which have not been reproduced in several other places before now. If coffee-table books are produced to confirm those who read them in their old comfortable prejudices and to reassure them that the picture they had of the past is exactly the picture that everyone accepts today, then this book will do very well. But for those who believe that the work of three decades of scholarship alter and indeed recast the past, then the impression gained from reading Dr. Evans’s Preface and abstracts is somber.
But perhaps it is not Dr. Evans’s fault at all, and it is impossible any longer to paint a portrait of the Victorian Age. Lytton Strachey was, of course, the first and most dazzling painter. Eminent Victorians was a polemic against Victorian culture. Published in 1918 it punctured the beliefs, the morality, and the religion of the age which, in the opinion of Strachey and his friends, had begot a world war. The essay on Gordon attacked imperialism and power politics which he considered to be a major cause of the war, and also the messianic evangelicalism which later invoked the name of God in justification of the war. Next Strachey chose Dr. Arnold as the epitome of headmasters in the public schools where this tribal God was worshipped. He selected Manning to emphasize that the pursuit of power was as destructive of goodness in religion as in politics. Finally, boldest stroke of all, he questioned the great movement that had salved the conscience of Victorian England—he struck at humanitarianism. He shattered the oleograph of the Lady with the Lamp and portrayed Florence Nightingale as a splendid and ruthless bird of prey who manipulated or exploited anyone who stood in her path, even her most devoted helpers.
Strachey’s selection of religion, imperialism, humanitarianism, and the public schools as themes to illustrate Victorianism was a singular act of imagination; and when to this he added his portrait of the Queen, he completed his picture which was then copied by imitators for over a decade. They seized on his injunction that the biographer should “row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.” But by following Strachey in regarding human beings as specimens, comic objects, the eminent and their victims alike, they forgot his other objective. Strachey believed that the Victorians had forgotten that people, individual human beings, matter. “They have a value which is independent of any temporal purpose—which is eternal and must be felt for its own sake….” To be eminent means destroying or exploiting others. Success does not matter in life. Tolerance, sanity, modesty, affection, and intelligence matter. You cannot respect individuals if you spend your time exploiting them in pursuing your ideals. If you force people to do your will, compassion dies. This was the moral of Strachey’s portraits of people.
WHAT TURNED THE TIDE was indeed another portrait but not of individuals. G.M. Young’s Portrait of an Age transformed the reading public’s attitude to Victorianism. The vast learning, the profuse allusions, the staggering feat of compression, made it impossible for any serious writer ever again to treat the Victorians as mere specimens. They did not disappear beneath the Blue Books, the parliamentary debates, the literature, and the periodicals of which Young was a master. They were set against their times, and he impressed upon his reader that they, like us today, were caught up in a tangle of insoluble social and spiritual problems which we did ill to mock. Young had a forerunner in Geoffrey Faber’s Oxford Apostles which, though it too employed the psychological method, suggested that Newman, Pusey, and Hurrell Froude in their youth were struggling with real and not intrinsically absurd dilemmas. Young thickened the texture of Victorian scholarship. American erudition was to make it thicker still.
The overpowering surge of American scholarship in the postwar years proved to be the answer to G. M. Young’s challenge. It was heralded in 1939 by Lionel Trilling’s work on Matthew Arnold, and Gordon Ray’s monumental four-volume edition of Thackeray’s letters and later his two-volume Life were characteristic in their thoroughness. So many American works of importance appeared, each displaying learning in depth, that it became ever more difficult to see the Victorian Age as a unity. The period had become multi-dimensional. Then in 1957 one of the great American university presidents, Herman Wells at Indiana, enabled three young scholars to edit a new periodical, Victorian Studies, as a focus for this thriving academic enterprise. The British often criticize American scholars for being obsessed by methodological problems. But in Victorian scholarship it is American scholars who have sailed ahead untroubled by methodological speculation, throwing their nets overboard, not to dredge up a curious specimen in the Strachey manner, but to haul in vast catches of fascinating material without worrying too much what effect their catch has on market values. The British are in fact the ones who have become absorbed by the questions: where are we going and what are we proving?
British historians doubt whether it is possible any longer to portray anything so one-dimensional as the Victorian Age; and they have shown a marked hostility to interpreting the age through the ideas of its well-known seers, prophets, and philosophers. No doubt this reflects a weariness with the procession of books which begin with the Utilitarians and Carlyle, and anatomize the works of each thinker until the spirits of the reader sink. No doubt it also reflects the ascendancy of the influence of Namier and, paradoxically, of Butterfield whom he regarded as an opponent. For if Butterfield is in no way hostile to the history of ideas as Namier was, both were determined to destroy the Whig interpretation of history, to see the past wie es eigentlich gewesen and not as a unilinear progression.
But it also reflects a determination to thicken the texture of history, and in the Victorian Age this has meant turning to the history of provincial cities, as Asa Briggs has done, rather than concentrating on London and national politics; analyzing lower-middle and working class patterns of life which differed widely throughout the country; scrutinizing the voting power and machines of the political parties rather than studying the ins and outs of West-minister; and diagnosing the religious temper of England not through Newman or Arnold but through Anglican organization, mid and late Victorian revivalism, and the interaction of religious movements upon political and social history. The elder statesmen of this movement, G. Kitson Clark and W.L. Burn, have taught that the clue to change in the era is not to be found in the ideas of Bentham, but in the way Victorian administrators were compelled to react to social problems such as public health or mass education. They reacted as administrators always react: piecing together solutions which went as far as they believed were politically possible, having regard to vested interests, the law, and the degree to which men thought government could legitimately interfere, without being under the spell of some theory. British scholars of the Victorian Age are accordingly impatient of more books being published which purport to analyze “what the Victorians thought,” still more so of studies of the great Victorian thinkers. If—so Kitson Clark argues—we want to increase our understanding of the times, it is the ephemeral sources of opinion which need to be studied and not “that self-conscious, self-confident minority who seem to have made history, whose voices, unless we are careful, are the only ones we are likely to hear from the past.”
TWO BOOKS on Victorian notions of time provide an interesting commentary on the debate. Jerome Buckley, the distinguished Harvard scholar in the history of Victorian ideas, utterly rejects this limitation on his freedom. He picks up a cornucopia, pours his card indexes into it, and empties it over Kitson Clark’s head. The musing of every poet, writer, and thinker of note on the subject of time appears to be quoted. Halfway through his book one is stunned into sullen acquiescence. The Victorians were obsessed by the idea of time and never ceased reflecting on it: well, yes. Their discovery of time gave a new depth to their sense of history: yes indeed. Many of them believed in progress: so they did. On the other hand many of them criticized the idea of progress: so they also did. By the end of the century some became convinced that progress was another name for decadence: yes, that is also true. These banalities are wonderfully illustrated and a great many interesting nuances are brought to our attention: so also are several crashing platitudes (“Tono-Bungay, though a novel of decadence, is not a decadent novel”).
Suddenly, however, the book picks up when Buckley begins to examine how Victorian writers related their own present to their past and to the past in general. There was the growth of autobiographical writing in novels, such as David Copperfield, and of autobiographies in general; the articulation of emotions of awe and bewilderment at the way the self changes, the world is changing, and the past is being forgotten and remembered, was indeed a characteristic contribution of the Victorians to the analysis of life. Yet even in these chapters one wishes that Buckley had discarded the large loose bags into which he drops his treasured quotations (“the Living Present,” “the Eternal Now”), and had substituted for them a precise analysis of some of the notions which he exhibits. The Victorians did not invent, but they certainly exploited to a degree unknown before, the emotion of nostalgia. A chapter illustrating that emotion would have been illuminating—or indeed a study of its treatment from Wordsworth to Proust.
Perhaps Buckley intended to stimulate younger scholars to explore some of the themes he illustrates rather than undertaking the task himself. For instance, he notes that Dickens does not seem aware of the metaphysical meaning of the feeling that what we are saying or doing had been said or done in a remote past, whereas Rossetti believed that this feeling gave some clue to the possibility of immortality. But Rossetti’s lines “I have been here before,/ But when or how I cannot tell,” arouse in the reader’s mind associations of a very different order: the ghastly bric-a-brac of theosophy, spiritualism, and of Henley’s “I was a King in Babylon,/ And you were a Christian Slave.” This book does not bring out the consequences of treating time as another dimension, consequences which led on one plane to philosophies such as McTaggart’s, in which both space and time were held to be self-contradictory and therefore not to exist, or on another to pseudo-sciences and to James Barrie. Still, it is a pleasure to contemplate such a profusion of Victorian utterances on time, and aweinspiring to calculate the number of Ph.D. theses that could come out of it.
JOHN BURROW’S work—which bears some of the stigmata of the thesis upon it—is a complete contrast. It takes a single aspect of the Victorian concern with time and precisely analyzes, according to the theory itself, how Evolution developed as an explanation of how society is transformed through the ages. Ever since Halévy, generations of Victorian scholars have set the stage for their own contributions by introductory chapters on eighteenth-century rationalism and the rise of utilitarianism, and it is hard to believe that an account as fresh, lucid, and readable as that of Burrow can still be written. He gathers together all the threads of the French Enlightenment and the Scottish school of intuitionists to show how the garment of mid-Victorian social evolution was woven from positivism, conjectural history, and the comparative method. The problem which the early nineteenth-century student of society had to explain was the existence of the savage and his relation to civilization. Today these explanations have been forgotten, and true to the present tenets of British historical scholarship, Burrow concludes that they have been forgotten because sociologists and anthropologists continue to make a Whig interpretation of their subjects and are interested in their progenitors only when they can be shown to have contributed something of importance to present-day social studies.
Another reason why they were forgotten was the overpowering impression made by Benthamism in the Thirties and Forties. For a time all the caution which historical study so often produces was cast aside; the pure milk of political theorizing was prescribed for the reform of institutions or the westernizing of India; and evolutionary theories of history and society were thrown into the shade.
They were to emerge in mid-century and in turn sweep utilitarianism into the shadows. Burrow very rightly comments that the Victorians wanted from social science something more than a technique for social engineering. They wanted an account of the human situation, an interpretation of the diversity of life, while at the same time maintaining the absolute validity of one mode of reasoning. Evolutionary social theories affirmed that mankind was one, but avoided the old eighteenth-century fallacy of declaring that human nature was always and everywhere the same. These theories provided the kind of secular theology which reassured people at a time when traditional theology was crumbling. They seemed to be infinitely more mature than the utilitarian doctrine which deduced a science of men and society from a few propositions about human nature. What is more, Burrow shows how they reverse the normal method of appropriating ideas. The Victorians were accustomed to see conservatives steal the Whigs’ clothes while bathing, but in this case the progressive theory stole a lot of the conservatives’ clothes. The most original contribution in this study consists of the analysis of anthropological studies in Britain and the particular way in which they were used both to sustain positivism as the prevailing sociological theory and, at the same time, to thicken that theory with a wealth of historical analogy. It is an excellent contribution to Victorian studies.
The last chapter ends on a query. When H. Stuart Hughes wrote his classic account of the sociological revolution against positivism and Marxism which took place at the end of the nineteenth century he made hardly a mention of Britain. He studied French, German, and Italian thinkers and novelists. That revolution left English social thinkers in a backwater. Why did this happen? Why was it so long before the ideas of Weber, Durkheim, and Pareto took root in Britain, why was sociology—as distinct from anthropology—so long excluded from the academic curriculum? The answer is beyond the scope of Burrow’s book though he alludes to it and examines some of the internal inconsistencies in the Victorian theories of social evolution. But in so doing he exposes one of the failings in studies of the kind which he is engaged upon. How far theories flourish, break down, or are ignored no doubt in part depends upon their internal consistency, their inclusiveness, and their success in appearing to answer the problems which at any given time excite men’s interest. But their vitality depends also partly on a country’s institutions and on its social structure. In Victorian England the universities were powerless to prevent the spread of evolutionary theories at a time when all major thinkers, such as Mill, Buckle, Spencer, Tylor, worked outside them. But in the twentieth century when higher studies began to be institutionalized within the universities, the departments of history, economics, and philosophy for years strangled the development of social studies. Why this was so would provide an interesting chapter in the history of the British Establishment.
May 18, 1967