The Victorian Achievement

A usually sophisticated writer indulges in simple-minded animus against Victorian England—which deserves better

By Gertrude Himmelfarb

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.

It is surprising to find in Wilson, otherwise a sophisticated writer, a simple-minded animus against the "capitalist-industrial maelstrom," which infects his discussion of the most unlikely subjects. Thus Wordsworth, "with a profound gift of foresight, ... saw that the growth of the free market, far from promoting liberty, would in fact enslave," while other great minds of his time addressed themselves to the question "whether the individual can survive, whether the term indeed possesses any meaning in the capitalist jungle." Gladstone's opposition to the abolition of slavery in the Colonies is related to the fact that some of his family's wealth came from sugar plantations in South America; indeed, his whole life—his education at Eton and Christ Church, his marriage into a family of Welsh gentry, his leisure hours studying Homer and Dante—was "underwritten by the sweat of slaves." And the women's movement in the 1860s, although at odds with some "bourgeois values," grew out of "rentier and bourgeois money," and actually "preserved and underpinned the strength of the class system."

For most historians, the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, which extended suffrage to almost all adult males, are milestones in the political and social history of Victorian Britain. For Wilson, they are meaningless subterfuges designed to preserve the old order. The first act prompts the observation that the British system of government was "substantially unaltered" from the time of Disraeli to that of John Major and Tony Blair, retaining "a largely aristocratic (or perhaps oligarchic would be more accurate) form of government." And the second act elicits the concession that more people were "empowered"—but to what end? "To elect representatives who for the most part perpetuated the system which had placed them there." According to Wilson, the irrelevance of these reforms—indeed, the irrelevance of Parliament itself—is demonstrated by the fact that the "populace" rarely divides "along purely class lines," and by the exclusion of women from that voting populace. "Those who believe that Parliament is an institution with a serious political function might be surprised that the first woman member to take her seat did not do so until 1919 and that the proportion of men to women in Parliament is still in the twenty-first century overwhelming." One wonders why Wilson bothers to include so much parliamentary history in his book if Parliament had, and continues to have, no "serious political function."

It is even stranger to find such simplistic views on the subject of religion, about which Wilson has written at great length and more judiciously elsewhere. Here Pius IX's promulgation of papal infallibility inspires the comment "In a year when one man persuaded the greater part of Christendom that he was infallible, there was surely a corrective, in the reminder [from Darwin] of 'the wonderfully close similarity between the chimpanzee, orang and man.'" The greatest theologian of the age, Cardinal Newman, fares no better: the Apologia is contemptuously dismissed because it is a theological rather than a social tract, obsessively concerned with "squabbles" among churchmen.

Never once in the whole book do we get a sense of the world outside Newman's college walls—or come to that, outside his own head ... Never once does Newman's quest for a perfect orthodoxy, a pure belief in the Incarnate God, appear to prompt him to consider that if God took flesh, then this has social implications, that the Church should be engaged with the lives and plight of the poor.

Those "squabbles" Wilson has such contempt for are about nothing less than the logical and psychological grounds of religious faith—of all faiths. And that "egomaniac" book by a "crotchety Oxford don" is a dramatic tale of a religious odyssey: from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and, more generally, from religious liberalism to religious dogmatism. It is remarkable to find the Apologia compared unfavorably with Charles Kingsley's novel The Water-Babies, about Tom the chimney-sweep, which is deemed superior not only as a human story but also because it satirizes the "selfish, hedonist capitalistic" society responsible for the miseries of Tom and his kind.

Wilson can understand and sympathize with the Reverend Kingsley, who was a socialist as well as a Christian—indeed, one of the leaders of the Christian Socialist movement. Wilson finds it "curious," however, that the leader of the workingman's cause in Parliament, the "high Tory aristocrat" Lord Ashley (later Lord Shaftesbury), was also a "Bible Christian," believing in the literal truth of the Scriptures. Readers might not find it so curious had Wilson identified Shaftesbury as an Evangelical—"an Evangelical of the Evangelicals," Shaftesbury called himself. The Evangelical movement was, in fact, far more influential than Christian Socialism in promoting social reforms, establishing schools for the poor, and supporting a myriad of private philanthropies. Yet the Evangelicals merit only passing mention in this book. The absence of the Methodists is odder still, because they were prominent both in the trade-union movement and in the Labour Party. A discussion of Methodism and Evangelicalism would have helped answer Wilson's question: Why no revolution in England?

That question was put more memorably almost a century ago, by the great French historian Elie Halévy. His answer (developed with far more subtlety and complexity than can be suggested here) focused on Methodism, the revivalist movement started by the Wesley brothers early in the eighteenth century, which spawned Evangelicalism toward the end of that century and a variety of Methodist sects in the following one. Emphasizing personal salvation and good works, and rejecting any idea of the elect or predestination, Methodism provided a theology, an organization, and an ethic that supported both a communal, humanitarian spirit and an individualistic temper of self-help and self-improvement.

It is this ethic, Halévy maintained, that helped to deflect any British impulse to revolution in the French Revolutionary period as well as the following century. Inherited by the largely middle-class Evangelicals who remained within the Church of England and the largely working-class Methodists who, after John Wesley's death, left the Church, it permeated all classes, parties, and sects, bringing about something like a "conservative revolution"—a reformist revolution, so to speak—that permitted Britain to adapt to industrialism, liberalism, and democracy without the violence and upheavals that convulsed the Continent. In the course of the century that religious fervor became attenuated, but the ethic persisted in a secularized form, epitomized in George Eliot's famous confession of faith: God is "inconceivable," immortality "unbelievable," but duty nonetheless "peremptory and absolute."

Halévy's "miracle of modern England" held throughout Victoria's long reign, and for a good period after that. The "Halévy thesis" has been much debated, but nothing of that debate—or, more important, of the issues raised by it—is reflected in this book. Yet it bears not only on the question of revolution but on the kind of society that evolved in the absence of revolution.

The subject of revolution is obviously related to the "condition of England" question, as it was called. Wilson makes much of "the plight of the poor" in the 1880s, prefacing a chapter by that title with agonized reflections by Tolstoy on the situation in Russia, which, he feared, would lead to revolution. Tolstoy's remarks prompt Wilson's observation that the streets of London were not very different from those of Moscow, yet they failed to produce even a significant socialist movement, much less a revolution. The two small socialist organizations that arose never took hold, he explains, partly because many people "felt" more prosperous than before and believed in their prospects for improvement, in spite of much evidence to the contrary. The fact is, however, that many people felt better off because they were better off. Wilson mentions Charles Booth's famous survey of London, which showed almost a third of the population living at or below the poverty line. But Booth granted that had such a survey been taken decades earlier, the situation then would have been worse. Indeed, another reputable statistical survey conducted at about the same time as Booth's proved just that: the real income of most workers had risen by at least 20 percent, and in most industries by as much as 50 to 100 percent, in the course of the previous half century.

If the question of poverty emerged dramatically in the last decades of the nineteenth century, it was not only because the objective facts of its persistence became more available but because a change of sensibility made people more conscious of those facts and more eager to remedy them. Wilson belittles the political-reform acts that extended the suffrage, but the social reforms cannot so easily be belittled—laws relating to child labor, factory conditions and working hours, trade unions, public health, housing, education, poor relief, prisons. Even the Workmen's Compensation Act elicits from him only an equivocal note of praise as an example of "Victorian values" (in quotation marks) that demonstrated the "cruelty of the capitalist system" on the one hand, and the "redeeming Victorian capacity for self-criticism and reform" on the other. Additional "redeeming" aspects of the period go unmentioned, including the multitude of private charities and philanthropic institutions that flourished at this time—so many, indeed (700 in London alone, by one count), that the Charity Organisation Society was formed to coordinate them. The largest of these charities were outside the purview of the COS: the Salvation Army, Toynbee Hall (the first settlement house), Model Homes for the poor, and Barnardo Homes for orphans and abandoned children.

The Victorian era is encapsulated in the penultimate chapter: "A people who built workhouses at the beginning of an era and concentration camps at the end might have gained the whole world, but they had lost honour, and soul." The "workhouses" refers to an earlier chapter in which "the poor" are equated with the women and children suffering the miseries and indignities of the workhouse. And the "concentration camps" were those built during the Boer War for noncombatants, to separate them from insurgents. The gross mismanagement of the camps led to many deaths—and a major scandal at home. Wilson neglects to mention that the British were so appalled by this that after the war they offered to pay an astonishing £3 million to compensate, not for the deaths—there could be no compensation for that—but at least for the destruction of property.

The final chapter, on Victoria's death, returns to the old refrain.

Ask—given the sickness and poverty of hundreds of thousands of Londoners on that cold February day, as the gun carriage bore the coffin through the silent streets—ask why they did not rebel, why they did not riot, why they did not behave like the Paris Commune of 1870 or the Bolsheviks of 1917. They had as much provocation.

Wilson offers a two-part answer to the "mystery of their submissiveness." The first part is the display of troops and guns following the funeral procession. "No one could doubt for a single second," he observes, that at the first sign of trouble the authorities would turn the guns on the populace "with all the confidence shown by the Chinese authorities eighty-eight years later in Tiananmen Square." There were, in fact, two famous riots in London in this period: "Black Monday," in 1886, when no one was seriously hurt, let alone killed; and "Bloody Sunday," the following year, which resulted in the injury of scores of demonstrators, the arrest of two leaders, and the reported death of one man (who in fact died as a result of a demonstration the following week). One historian has observed that the Victorian threshold of violence must have been low indeed to warrant such dramatic labels. "Bloody Sunday" in Saint Petersburg, in 1905, resulted in 130 killed and 300 injured. In Tiananmen Square several hundred were killed, and thousands wounded.

The second part of the explanation for the populace's "submissiveness" is, Wilson says, "more benign." This was the Victorians' "capacity for constructive self-criticism." Those who opposed the Boer War were not, "as they would have been in a truly autocratic system," silenced or imprisoned; Lloyd George, after all, made his career out of opposition to the war. Instead the "governing classes," guided by "enlightened self-interest," deployed all their social and technological resources to "regroup and reorganize." As a result, in spite of all its faults (we are reminded once again of the workhouses, the oppression of Ireland, the racism and butchery of the colonial wars), Victorian Britain was "more genial and tolerant than many other places at the same date." This "more benign" explanation is not quite benign enough. Britain was "more genial and tolerant" compared not with "many" other places at the time but with most, if not all—and not only more genial and tolerant but also more enlightened, humane, and civilized. And compared not only with that time but with later times as well—with the following century, most notably, which witnessed varieties of fanaticism and brutality that would have been unthinkable in Victorian Britain.

If we are tempted to draw "lessons" from the Victorians, it is because we can still learn a great deal from them—about crime, for instance. The Shadow Home Secretary knows (as perhaps Wilson does not) that the crime rate declined in Victorian England not only because of better policing but also because of an ethos—those "Victorian values" that Wilson denigrates—that made for greater civility and law-abidingness. At the very least we can appreciate the valiant and to a remarkable extent successful attempts of this first industrial nation to cope with the turmoil of modernity that has so often led to revolution, civil war, and tyranny.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/03/the-victorian-achievement/302685/