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.1 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.”2 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 retained their sense of duty. “If anything the loss of religious zeal resulted in an intensification of moral zeal.” George Eliot abandoned her religion, but she continued to see church-going as a “recognition of a binding belief or spiritual law, which is to lift us into willing obedience, and save us from the slavery of unregulated passion or impulse.” For Leslie Stephen, irreligion presented no obstacle to a rigorous moral code. T.H. Huxley was attracted to the theory of evolution, but he was convinced that, though man had an animal nature, it was an ethical duty to keep that nature under restraint. As Nietzsche remarked of his English contemporaries: “They have got rid of the Christian God and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality.”
Mid-Victorian intellectuals may have often been godless, Miss Himmelfarb says, but they were united in sharing the “recognition of something to be lived for beyond the mere satisfaction of self.” Many of them, like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and John Stuart Mill, lived private lives of some irregularity. But they were anything but hedonists or libertines. On the contrary, they agonized over their irregularities and either (like Dickens) denied them altogether or (like Mill and George Eliot) did what they could to minimize the offense to respectable society.
These Victorians who abandoned religion but stuck to morality were, as Miss Himmelfarb stresses, sustaining a precarious balance. The end of religious consensus had made things difficult for those who wished to retain a sense of duty in a world deprived of the traditional supports for such an attitude. Theirs was “a culture living on sheer nerve and will”; and it was not accidental that their intellectual community suffered “a larger proportion of nervous breakdowns, it would seem, than almost any other.” Perhaps inevitably, it proved impossible to sustain this moment of uncertain equilibrium, when religion had loosened but morality stayed firm. In the most striking of her new essays, entitled, after Nietzsche, “A Genealogy of Morals,” Miss Himmelfarb portrays the era of earnest mid-Victorianism as a halfway stage, a temporary resting point on the route to spectacular moral decline.
This decline is symbolized by the contrast between Evangelicalism and Bloomsbury. The Evangelicals of the early nineteenth century combined religious piety with moral zeal. The mid-Victorians had moral zeal but no religion. The denizens of Bloomsbury had neither morals nor religion: they lived unashamedly for themselves. As J.M. Keynes later confessed, they “repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions and traditional wisdom,” valuing only personal affections and aesthetic pleasure. Disdaining public affairs, they were for the most part memorable for their private lives, which were distinguished by narcissism, egotism, and compulsive promiscuity. (Miss Himmelfarb is particularly severe on Keynes, whose homosexual, “childless vision” was, she thinks, reflected in his economic thought, which put a premium on immediate and present satisfactions.)
The precarious balance of mid-Victorianism was thus well and truly overthrown; and the consequences of life without religion finally revealed. Just as the Clapham Sect had given an Evangelical tone to the cultural vanguard of the early nineteenth century, so, a hundred years later, Bloomsbury became the chic model of how to live selfishly. Moreover a direct genealogy linked one to the other. Miss Himmelfarb emphasizes the dreadful irony that the pious Evangelical, Hannah More, should have been the godmother of the great-aunt of E.M. Forster, the homosexual novelist who hoped that he would have the guts to betray his country rather than his friend, and that James Stephen, an eager convert to the Clapham Sect, was the great-grandfather of Vanessa Bell, who lived in a ménage à trois with Clive Bell and Roger Fry, subsequently bearing a child by Duncan Grant, the homosexual lover (and cousin) of Lytton Strachey.
It can be seen that Miss Himmelfarb is no admirer of sexual liberty. In another essay she depicts the sexual tangles of the utopian William Godwin and his circle. In Victorian Minds she described Godwin as “notably inconstant in his affections and querulous in personal as in intellectual affairs.” Now she reminds us of his premarital liaison with Mary Wollstonecraft and the fate of his offspring: his daughter Mary eloped with Shelley; his stepdaughter Jane bore a child by Byron; his daughter Fanny committed suicide from unrequited love for Shelley. Shelley’s own wife Harriet committed suicide in an advanced state of pregnancy after being abandoned by her lover, a groom. All this is included by way of sardonic commentary on Godwin’s Political Justice, which had described marriage as the “most odious of all monopolies” and looked forward to the diminution and ultimate elimination of human sexuality. It took years of bitter experience to weaken Godwin’s belief in the possibility of this and other forms of perfectibility.
One of the main themes of Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians is thus the value of conventional sexual morality. The other is the importance of a liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic policy, and the threat which is posed to such a policy by any reformer with one obsessive, guiding idea. In Victorian Minds, Miss Himmelfarb had a memorable essay entitled “The Haunted House of Jeremy Bentham.” It described the hideous model prison, or “Panopticon,” in which the utilitarian reformer proposed that future prisoners should be incarcerated, and of which, moreover, he offered to take personal charge. From that story she drew the moral that the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number was inimical to the idea of liberty; and she denounced Bentham for “the un-English doctrinairism of his mind.”
Now she returns to the fray with a further essay on Bentham, this time devoted to his scheme of Pauper Management, whereby a million indigent people would be more or less compulsorily incarcerated in houses of industry run for profit as a private monopoly by a National Charity Company (in which Bentham once again would have been personally involved). The pauper children who inhabited these institutions were to be taught morality in the form of two propositions:
- That the condition they are doomed to is as good a one, i.e., as favourable to happiness as any other.
- That if it were not, no efforts which they could use by the display of collective force would have any tendency to improve it.
Some modern conservatives might regard this ingenious essay in privatization as ahead of its time. But Miss Himmelfarb allows the horrors of this “Utopia,” as its inventor called it, to speak for themselves. So much, she implies, for the doctrine of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”
She is equally devastating on the subject of the “new civilization” of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, a “latter-day Benthamite utopia” which would have swept away most of the institutions which made England a liberal and tolerant place. She interprets the Webbs’ passion for the Soviet Union as in no sense an aberration, but rather a natural culmination of Beatrice’s contempt for “the average sensual man,” her trust in the power of experts, and her psychological need to unite a belief in a “‘science’ of society” with a quasi-religious faith.
In preference to Bentham and the Webbs, Miss Himmelfarb admires those thinkers who show what she calls “a large tolerance for complexity”: humanists who accept human nature with all its infirmities, pluralists who do not attempt to reduce everything to one single principle, anti-utopians whose moral imagination is wide enough to embrace some of the infinite possibilities of human life.
p class=”initial”>Most prominent in her pantheon is Edmund Burke, who seems to have risen steadily in her favor over the years. In 1949 his rhetoric struck her as “reminiscent of the magnolia-and-Old-South school of writing,” but now he has become one of Miss Himmelfarb’s “favorite writers.” Along with Burke are ranked Montesquieu, the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution, and Alexis de Tocqueville. In this book she adds to their number the conservative lawyer William Blackstone, whom she regards as a more successful reformer than Bentham and whom (apparently forgetting Sir Edward Coke) she describes as author of “the first serious attempt to systematize and clarify the entire body of English law.” (Ironically, Tocqueville once described Blackstone as “an inferior writer, without liberality of mind or depth of judgment.”3 ) She also has a good word for Benjamin Disraeli, quoting an entry in his diary for 1833: “The Utilitarians in Politics are like the Unitarians in Religion. Both omit Imagination in their systems, and Imagination governs Mankind.”
Miss Himmelfarb attaches much importance to imagination. She writes under the warmly acknowledged influence of Lionel Trilling, who recognized the tendency of liberalism in the abstract to set great store by variousness and possibility but, when converted into practice, to drift toward a denial of the emotions and the imagination. Whether the imagination can be more easily appropriated by those of a conservative viewpoint is debatable: tolerance for complexity is hardly a conspicuous feature of the market-oriented conservatism of the present day. What is certain is that Miss Himmelfarb’s portraits of Bentham, Bloomsbury, and the Webbs are highly partial. She is very selective in her presentation of those thinkers whose overall tendency she deplores. She gives us the Bentham of the Panopticon and the National Charity Company, but not the Bentham who demystified the law and exposed so much linguistic obfuscation. Bentham’s claim to have been the Luther of Jurisprudence is unaffected by what she has to say about him here: and a proper consideration of the merits and demerits of early Utilitarianism would have to be much broader based.
Similarly her account of Bloomsbury stresses the triviality of Lytton Strachey, but gives an inadequate account of the importance of Keynesian economics, says little about the novels of Virginia Woolf, and does not mention the liberating achievement of the early E.M. Forster. Her account of Beatrice Webb has a strong element of caricature and does less than justice to the inner doubts and uncertainties revealed in her recently published diaries. Miss Himmelfarb could fairly retort that hers are only sketches or vignettes, not comprehensive accounts, but the reader is tempted to conclude that her methods are not very different from Lytton Strachey’s. She certainly does not display much of that “tolerance of complexity” which she looks for in her subjects.
As pieces of rhetoric, Miss Himmelfarb’s essays are tours de force. But as genuine attempts to penetrate the minds of past writers they seem less convincing. She rightly remarks in her The Idea of Poverty that the historian should “take his stand with contemporaries [and] look at history from their point of view.” But only too often one feels that she discusses past authors as if they were her own contemporaries, rather than situating them in their own context. For how can we understand Bentham without first appreciating the state of the eighteenth-century system which he was seeking to reform? And how can we understand Bloomsbury without a more developed appraisal of the restraints which late Victorian England had placed upon human fulfillment? Miss Himmelfarb tends to look at past authors as if they were writing for us. Not surprisingly, she frequently finds their message unconvincing or inappropriate.
It is often suggested that radicals write bad history because they look to the past for a justification of their present-day attitudes. The same could be said of some authors of a more conservative disposition, like Miss Himmelfarb. For the abiding impression left on the reader by her essays (apart from admiration for their wit and literary skill) is that of the rigidity of her own moral and political values. Admittedly, these values are implicit rather than explicit. It is only very occasionally that a throwaway remark reveals her lack of sympathy with, say, modern radicalism or “history from below,”4 or feminism or current developments in the humanities. But the values are there and they are not difficult to identify.
First, as we have seen, there is the dislike of utopianism, whether dirigiste like that of Bentham and the Webbs, or anarchic like that of William Godwin. Miss Himmelfarb is suspicious of all those who believe in the infinite power of human reason or think that what is rational is realizable. She prefers to urge the case for pluralism, regarding anyone who offers a single solution to any problem as an oppressor in the making. “The desire to transcend the human condition,” she declares, is “an invitation to tyranny.” The trouble about these otherwise unexceptionable sentiments is that they can so easily be carried to excess. In the US some intellectuals appear to have been so permanently scarred by the fear of communism and the memory of the Holocaust that they are ready to mistake a social reformer for a totalitarian despot. In Britain there are historians who see in harmless Edwardian plans for garden cities a foreshadowing of the worst excesses of Stalinism. Miss Himmelfarb strays a little in this direction when she associates the post-1945 Labour government with “blundering attempts at social engineering,…irritating paternalism,…mean-spirited austerity.” It is reassuring to see that she allows a place for the “humanist,” who, “accepting human nature with all its infirmities,…seeks to reform social institutions so as to make men more rational and more virtuous, although not unduly or unnaturally so.”
Secondly, Miss Himmelfarb displays a strong (and wholly intelligible) preference for restrained behavior and conventional morality. A discernible shadow is cast over her pages by what she calls the “moral revolution” of the 1960s. The Victorians may have been inhibited, she seems to be saying, but at least they were spared the excesses of the counterculture, the licensed pornography, the contempt for traditional values, the deliberate flouting of law, authority, and civil norms of conduct. In her concluding essay she discusses the thought of Michael Oakeshott, the skeptical conservative philosopher, whom one might have thought was certain to receive her unqualified accolade, notable as he is for his distrust of rationalism and his belief that the role of government should be minimal. But, surprisingly, Miss Himmelfarb finds Oakeshott wanting because he takes skepticism too far. By refusing to found the moral life on any coherent set of principles, he has unwittingly left his admirers defenseless in the face of the widespread “moral deviancy” characteristic of the late 1960s.
What Michael Oakeshott lacks, it appears, is a sufficient religious commitment; and it is religion that is the third and strongest of Miss Himmelfarb’s implicit set of guiding principles. She dislikes the secularism of the Utilitarians and hates Lytton Strachey for mocking the hypocrisy of godly figures like General Gordon. The story of Victorian England is for her a tale of the moral perils which can follow when organized religion decays; and she sees a sublimated religious impulse underlying most of the available alternative forms of thought. Godwin, the ex-Sandemanian, is an obvious instance of “the religious passion in atheism, the messianic zeal in radicalism.” The Evangelical spirit generated the mid-Victorian sense of absolute duty. Beatrice Webb was a religieuse: and “it is impossible to make too much of this aspect of her life.” Art, Socialism, and Work were other substitute religions of the period.
Seen against this background, Michael Oakeshott stands out for his dispiriting refusal “to embrace any idea, principle, or belief lest that imply a commitment to some absolute truth.” Not only does he have no answer to the moral deviants of the 1960s; he even failed to predict their appearance. Edmund Burke, by contrast, predicted the French Revolution almost before it had happened. Miss Himmelfarb concludes that Burke’s religious and metaphysical beliefs may have given him “a purchase on reality that Oakeshott does not have, a means of understanding reality and judging it—and resisting it, if need be.”
Miss Himmelfarb’s message is thus the all-importance of ideology; and there can be little doubt that her own ideology crucially determines her historical analysis, shaping her rhetorical representation of the thought of bygone authors. I hope that in a future book she will develop her philosophy more explicitly, rather than conveying it obliquely while expounding the thought of other people. For historical exegesis and moral exhortation are two distinct activities; and one of them is bound to suffer when a writer attempts to carry out both tasks simultaneously.
May 28, 1987
Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics (1952); Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959); On Liberty and Liberalism: The Case of John Stuart Mill (1974); The Idea of Poverty (1984). ↩
Alan Ryan in American Historical Review, Vol. LXXXI (1976), p. 139. ↩
Memoirs, Letters and Remains of Alexis de Tocqueville (1861), Vol. II, p. 223. ↩
But for a fuller exposition of her views on this subject, see her “Denigrating the Rule of Reason: The ‘New History’ Goes Bottom Up,” Harper’s, April 1984. ↩