Eminent Englishmen

Victorian Minds.
by Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Knopf. 392 pp. $8.95.

Doubtless God could create a better interpreter of the English 19th century, but doubtless God hasn't. So might the homely eulogy be modified to apply to Gertrude Himmelfarb. She has made securely evident, in a distinguished succession of scholarly studies—on Darwin and the Darwinian revolution, on Lord Acton, and on other figures and events of the century—that no one exceeds, and few approach, the combination of firm discipline and sensitive awareness that she brings to her subjects. Her knowledge of the century is vast, but it rarely if ever swamps her judgment, which remains in this latest work as precise and discriminating as before.

Are there other centuries the re-evaluation of which has been as drastic during the past couple of decades as that of the 19th? I hardly think so. The gulf between the 19th century I read and heard about in college a generation ago and the 19th century we know today is a very wide one; wider, surely, than the analogous gulf for either the 18th or the 17th century (I am referring to the history of ideas only). The 19th century for long seemed so solid and square in its architecture: built on the rocks of family, church, Old Testament morality, progress, optimism, success.

By the criteria of our own century, the 19th could seem naïve, innocent, even shallow. Ours, we thought, was the century that had rediscovered evil, tragedy, moral conflict, social entropy, and alienation. Then historians and critics began to look more carefully at the Victorian rocks; to look between them, to turn them over, to look for new ones. And a substantial revolution in our understanding of modern thought was under way.

I am not referring alone to the kind of enterprise associated with the names of Lytton Strachey and his successors, though this, at its best, is assuredly important: the debunking, the exposing, the turning of the dark side to light. This line of work has the ultimate effect, it would seem, of diminishing the century. What I have in mind primarily is the rather different line of discovery that has made the century seem much larger, more profound, deeply fissured, and diversely rooted. And in this enterprise Gertrude Himmelfarb, working not only as a professional historian but as a mind sensitive to the intellectual nuances and tensions of her own century, holds a very high place indeed.

The Victorian age, Miss Himmelfarb writes,

exhibited, and not at its periphery but at its very center, all the diversity, and much of the perversity, of which the human mind is capable. If it was an age of unbelief, it was as much an age of belief, and not only because there were believers as well as unbelievers but also because belief and unbelief were so intimately and ingeniously related. It was an age of severe manners and morals, and of considerable latitude in behavior. It has been described by one historian as an age of equipoise, by another as an age of reform, and by still another as an age of revolution; my own sense of it is best expressed in the phrase “conservative revolution.”

This is excellent. I remember, however, reading a review of Victorian Minds in which Miss Himmelfarb's perceptions along this line were thought by the reviewer to emanate not from the figures of the century she deals with—Burke, Bentham, Mill, Buchan, et. al.—but from her own dual identity as Gertrude Himmelfarb and Mrs. Irving Kristol. Whether this was an effort to put new meaning into the popular phrase, le style, c'est l'hornme, to change the gender of the hackneyed cherchez la femme, to achieve a new height of gallantry, or a new low in malice, I cannot be sure. It was in any event irrelevant. For the divisions, tensions, ambiguities, and conflicts Miss Himmelfarb finds in the century lie in the stars themselves—from Burke to Buchan—and not in their talented historian.

Miss Himmelfarb is very forthright in her judgments and can never be accused of walking around sacred cows, least of all those of secular modernity. This is a trait we would expect from the author of the brilliant and authoritative Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution. It is no small matter, as she must certainly have learned from some of the early responses to that book, to deal dispassionately with figures such as Darwin in an age that will gladly contemplate dissection to the bone of a Moses, Jesus, or St. Francis of Assisi, but tends to recoil in outrage at the gentlest of analyses of any of its scientific saints. (I have discovered in thirty years of teaching the history of ideas that college students will accept prima facie anything I say except the statement that the theory of evolution, biological and social, was widely known and accepted among the literate in Europe and America long before publication of The Origin of Species. Students abandon other myths readily but not the myth of a civilized world in thralldom to the Book of Genesis until Darwin liberated it in 1859.)

I daresay there will be a few offended readers of Victorian Minds, though I predict they will have no more success in making charges stick than did those who cried out in wounded secular piety at Miss Himmelfarb's Darwin. The fascinating chapter on John Buchan is bound to raise hackles, set teeth on edge, in those circles where the pious know that nothing but base philistinism could uniformly have constituted a mind that believed in the inequality of races, that was anti-Semitic, that wrote admiringly of the clean, decent, and athletic life, that was devoted to God, king, and country, and, worst of all, prescribed cold baths and exercise for everyone. Philistine these qualities are, but philistine John Buchan was not, as Miss Himmelfarb makes incontestably plain in a portrait that for its intellectual boldness as well as its artistic skill ranks among the two or three best in her book.

I am not convinced that there is in fact the sharpness of contrast between the two Edmund Burkes—Burke the hero-politician and Burke the politician-philosopher—that the author leaves us to infer from her manner of presentation at the beginning of the book. If I can myself fuse them by reference to ends and contexts, surely Miss Himmelfarb—whose distinction as a biographer and historian comes emphatically from her awareness of ends and contexts—could have done the same. Why, then, did she leave the two portraits, of Burke the liberal and Burke the conservative, unresolved, separate? I suspect that the historian-as-artist took command. What better dramaturgy in introducing her work, the very essence of which is its concern with contrast, paradox, and antithesis in the century at large, than by the device of the two Burkes standing, as it were, on opposite sides of the proscenium?

Contrasts assuredly abound, and it would be difficult to improve upon Miss Himmelfarb's limning of them. We see them in one and the same man—Malthus, for example: the Malthus of the first edition of the essay on population who, approaching population in the cherished fashion of 18th-century “conjectural” history, could see only natural, geometric, increase and inevitable calamity once the restraints of subsistence poverty were loosed; and the Malthus of the second edition whose significance, as the author proves skillfully, goes well beyond the familiar “moral check” into matters the full significance of which has only recently been re-learned by students of population. There are the two John Stuart Mills, the first the son of his father, steeped in philosophic radicalism and secular dogma, the second, no less creative and vital, in process of abandoning the steely pieties of a Benthamite upbringing and becoming, if not actually religious, a mind far more receptive to the emotional and spiritual dimensions of existence. Miss Himmelfarb's relating of each of the “two Mills” to the philosophic works involved is subtle and convincing.

Contrast could reside dramatically in a single family. There were the Newman brothers—Francis, agnostic of purest ray, secular to his finger tips, and John Henry, grammarian of faith and doctrine, devout believer, and convert to Roman Catholicism, the grounds of which conversions are set forth not only in his Apologia but also, and in the terms of strict 19th-century developmentalism, in his great essay on Christian doctrine. What Miss Himmelfarb demonstrates, with rare insight, is that the bond between the two brothers, a bond indeed that, as she makes evident throughout the book, extended into many corners of the century, was the bond of angst. To escape what Francis Newman called “the desolating negations which are abroad,” the one turned to a strict and uncompromising rationalism, to a virtue made ironclad by its commitment to pure reason, the other to Rome.


Miss Himmelfarb writes:

One contemporary said of John Newman: “I believe him to be at bottom far more skeptical than his brother, Francis; and the extravagant credulity with which he accepts the wildest Popish legends is, as it appears to me, only another side of his bottomless unbelief.” The remark may be taken as a commentary not only on the Newman brothers but on all extravagances of belief and unbelief—in our time as in theirs.

There was the incomparable Jeremy Bentham. No review of Victorian Minds I have chanced to see has mentioned her searching study of Benthamite belief and principle, though it may well be the best essay on Bentham since John Stuart Mill's classic in the light it sheds on the intellectual recesses of this brilliant, if odious, exemplar of pure reason in the service of mankind. Miss Himmelfarb's point of departure—and ostensible subject throughout the essay—is Bentham's famous Panopticon proposal for a prison, on which he spent twenty years of futile effort trying to interest the government and another twenty in recriminations against those who had failed to see its rationalist beauties (“the unlovely issue of marriage between reason and inhumanity,” someone was to call the Panopticon principle later, a principle that Bentham and his disciples wished to see extended to workhouses, schools, factories, and other areas). But such is the skill of the inquiry and the feeling for all that is essential in Bentham that the essay proves to be a study not merely of the Panopticon principle but of the central tissues of Benthamite thought. Bentham needs to be better known by our age, for he is, I believe, the true father of the principle of efficient, ordered, and sanitary disposal of human problems, the supreme expression of which had to await Dachau in our century. Bentham loathed emotion, custom, diversity, and human beings. He adored reason, principle, uniformity, and mankind. What a splinter party he could today lead!

The spirit of one age, Miss Himmelfarb wisely cautions us, is rarely the spirit of another. True, and all too easily forgotten by those who enjoy history rather than study it. Still, as the greatest of historians, Thucydides, tells us, it is important “to see the truth of what both has happened, and will hereafter happen again, according to human nature.” And in this enterprise, one historical portrait, done with the kind of discipline and imagination we find revealed over and over in Victorian Minds, is worth ten thousand sociological words. The wonderful thing about Miss Himmelfarb's book is that it succceeds in being an exemplary study of the 19th century and a superb introduction to the 20th.

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