Books March 2003

The Victorian Achievement

A usually sophisticated writer indulges in simple-minded animus against Victorian England—which deserves better
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My copy of The Victorians came in the same post as a clipping from the (London) Daily Telegraph. The article opens, "Revisiting the Victorian era for lessons to apply in the 21st century may seem an unwise venture for a Conservative." Yet the Shadow Home Secretary is reported as doing just that—drawing on the Victorians for lessons about the youth crimes that are plaguing Britain today.

Revisiting the Victorian era for lessons of any kind is as hazardous to the historian as to the politician. Indeed, the very idea of drawing lessons from history is dubious. Parallels between past and present are never quite parallel, and looking to the past for such guidance is apt to distort the past as much as the present. But even if we are wary of drawing lessons, we can appreciate the ideas and values that have shaped history, giving it form and substance and making it more than "just one damned thing after another."

A. N. Wilson's latest book, The Victorians, prompts reflections on the nature and writing of history as much as on the Victorians themselves. A notably prolific writer (rivaled in his country only by Paul Johnson), Wilson is a newspaper columnist and also the author of many novels; of biographies of such formidable subjects as Jesus, Saint Paul, Milton, Tolstoy, and C. S. Lewis; and of other books including God's Funeral, a study of the decline (not quite demise) of religious faith in the nineteenth century. This new book is no less formidable than the others but very different in tone and organization. In 600-odd pages Wilson gives us a decade-by-decade, sometimes almost a year-by-year, account of the Victorian age—forty-three chapters covering sixty-four years.

This chronological approach may be suitable to a biography, as the unfolding life of a single person has a coherence of its own. It is anything but coherent, however, when dozens of persons and events—political, military, economic, social, cultural, scientific, technological—jostle one another and vie for space in a ten- or twenty-page chapter. The kaleidoscope is halted occasionally to capture some interesting scenes. "The Victorians in Italy," for example, features Gladstone, Dickens, Ruskin, the Brownings; one can hardly go wrong with that cast of characters. The Crimean War produces a more or less sustained narrative, enlivened (sometimes distractingly) by the menus and recipes prepared by the famous French chef who volunteered his services in Balaklava. And the tragic drama of the famine in Ireland is retold with great passion—noting the judgment of historians who, without belittling the plight of the Irish, claim that the tragedy could not have been easily averted, but concluding with the observation of Sydney Smith (more famous for his wit than for his wisdom) that the English behaved "with the barbarity of tyrants and the fatuity of idiots."

Reading this book reminds me of Churchill's memorable complaint about the pudding that "has no theme." Yet there are recurrent intimations of a theme, or what might be a theme if it were ever seriously developed. The first occurs early in the book, in comments on a conversation between the Queen and one of her courtiers. The exchange is thoroughly banal, consisting of platitudes about the weather and riding. "Nevertheless, as you read of their conversations," Wilson remarks, "the question which comes most often to mind is—why was there no revolution in Britain in the late 1830s and the 1840s?" It is a momentous question, although not one that normally comes to mind while reading of such conversations. And it is not a question that Wilson attempts to answer here.

Nor does he answer it when he next puts the question, in a chapter archly titled "John Stuart Mill's Boiled Egg." Here, as elsewhere, Wilson alternates between the portentous and the trivial. The chapter opens with a panoramic sweep of the period:

So it was, that throughout this decade [the 1840s], of riots, famine, epidemics; of industrial advancement and economic expansion; of railways and theological controversy; of Dickens-mania and mesmerism; of parliamentary intrigue and social reform; the fragmentation of the Tories and the rising hopes of the Chartists, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) made a daily walk to his office desk in the magnificent Doric building in Leadenhall Street which housed the administrative centre of the East India Company.

We then follow this "thin, serious, sandy-haired figure" as he walks through the portico, down a long passage, up two flights of stairs, through rooms filled with messengers and clerks, until he reaches his own room with its three tall windows overlooking a brick courtyard. After a brief interruption to take another view of the City—"the epicentre of that rentier world," where an empire, an economy, and a polity were being built—we return to Mill's long-delayed breakfast: "Immediately, an office-boy brought in John Stuart Mill's boiled egg, tea, bread and butter. It was his first refreshment of the day, and he would eat nothing thereafter until he had walked home."

Having so graphically located Mill in the office where he worked for thirty-five years, Wilson informs us that what is important is not his work for the East India Company but "the thoughts which passed through his head as he walked through St James's Park, up Fleet Street and past St Paul's Cathedral; or as he ate his boiled egg to the sound of a hundred scratching quill pens in the offices, a hundred church steeples chiming in the rooftops, beyond." Those thoughts, we are told, made him the pre-eminent British philosopher of the nineteenth century. With that encomium we return to the would-be theme: "If we are trying to find an answer to the question of why Britain did not explode into the revolutionary apocalypses envisioned by his friend Carlyle, part of the answer might be found in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill."

But again the answer eludes us, because the two remaining pages of this all too brief (five-page) chapter introduce us not to Mill's On Liberty, which was indeed one of the most influential works of the century (it is not mentioned here because it belongs to a later decade—although, curiously, it does not appear in that chapter either), but to his A System of Logic. One can make a case for On Liberty as an antidote to revolution, but the case for the Logic is far more dubious, resting on a single sentence, buried in a long paragraph toward the end of that very long book (almost a thousand pages in some editions), that expresses a belief in a "general tendency" toward improvement. That optimistic creed, Wilson says, shared by "the majority of Victoria's subjects," was evidently sufficient to avert revolution. We are not told, however, why they did share it, "in spite of the horrors they collectively endured during the first decade of her reign," nor what they would have made of Mill's not so optimistic Principles of Political Economy, which predicted a halt to improvement and the onset in the not too distant future of a "stationary" economy.

And so it goes, the subject of revolution—or non-revolution—popping up now and again, with Wilson more and more irritated at the failure of the British to rise to the occasion. Thus the Chartist "revolution" failed, we are told, not only because of the show of force by the government, but also because the "Victorians en masse" were more enthusiastic about the Crimean War and the empire than about social justice at home.

There is alas no evidence that a majority, given the chance, would have tried to build a fairer or more equitable society, giving succour to the poor Irish immigrants, the illegitimate waifs and strays in orphanages or workhouses or the mills and factories of the Midlands and the North. This was a ruthless, grabbing, competitive, male-dominated society, stamping on its victims and discarding its weaker members with all the devastating relentlessness of mutant species in Darwin's vision of Nature itself.

This kind of rhetoric, a primitive radicalism that passes as explanation, makes one long for the serious Marxism or neo-Marxism of an Eric Hobsbawm or an E. P. Thompson. Wilson commends one chapter in Capital as "eighty of the finest pages ever written by Marx or anyone else on the plight of nineteenth-century factory workers." For Wilson, that chapter is all about the "liberal capitalists" in Parliament who "clawed back" one concession after another in the Factory Acts intended to limit the labor of women and children, thus producing an exploited, stunted, and diseased proletariat. But it was those "capitalists" who provided Marx with the horrific stories featured in that chapter, because they authorized the commissions and factory inspectors whose reports were Marx's main sources.

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