In Pursuit of Perfection

High Minds reminds us what the Victorians really accomplished 

Books History
Visionaries: The opening of the Great Exhibition, 1851

Legend has it that the historian G.M. Young put down his copy of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians with the words: “We are in for a bad time.” He did not mean to go down without a fight. Young’s riposte to Bloomsbury, Portrait of an Age, masterfully persuaded the serious-minded of interwar England that there was more to their immediate predecessors than sexual repression and surreptitious alcoholism. But Attlee’s Britain found them wanting once more, not so much hypocrites as Gradgrinds, capitalists who exploited the people, philistines who despoiled the landscape. It took Asa Briggs’s The Age of Improvement to establish how little was true of this caricature too; indeed just how much Victorian England was a moral as well as a material achievement, similarly an aesthetic as well as a technological breakthrough. Yet his also turned out to be a short-lived triumph. Today, the Victorians stand condemned once more, both within and beyond the academy. Conventional wisdom now has it that their empire was a racist monstrosity. The Industrial Revolution wrought only an ever more divided society. Its domestic hearth sustained the worst kind of sexist ideology. They even turned out to be homophobes as well. And didn’t it all culminate — somehow — in the First World War (centenary this year, in case you hadn’t noticed)?
Simon Heffer will have none of this. His Victorians were titans. Their achievement was prodigious. Their legacy was nothing less than “the birth of modern Britain”. This was forged not through sense of sanctimonious superiority but out of the experience of a real crisis. The “condition of England” around 1840 pointed to the probability of disastrous social breakdown. Early industrialisation wrought as much poverty as prosperity. The countryside was in disarray.  The classes were all but at war. Not just bourgeoisie and proletariat either, but landlord against merchant, manufacturer against labourer. Think of the Anti-Corn Law League. Recall the challenge of Chartism. Revolution seemed to be almost a weekly occurrence in France, just a thin strip of water away. Few among the most intelligently observant thought it an unlikely occurrence in England before 1850.
“Victorian England” was the sum of the domestic response to that challenge. It facilitated economic expansion over three generations that raised ordinary people to standards unthinkable in a previous age. It bequeathed a disinterested system of public administration that ensured an enviable mutual forbearance. It pioneered reform in education that extended social opportunity to the intelligent and ambitious far beyond the traditionally privileged. How? As the benevolent product of an invisible social hand?  As the fortunate outcome of unending class struggle? Or even in the providential wake of otherwise blinkered political conflict? Heffer will have none of that either. His Victorian England was the product of intelligent forethought. By that he does not mean bureaucratic planning. It was conceived in the High Minds of great contemporary thinkers, articulated through parliamentary debates of the utmost seriousness and promulgated by legislation that actually did make a difference in a big things as well as small.
This is, no doubt, a naive view of social change. That does not render it false. How might it have been true? It would have demanded an intelligent ruling class and a responsible intelligentsia. Tocqueville believed that both existed, uniquely, in the England of his day. It also would have required a free, yet deferential, people. Bagehot insisted that his contemporaries fit that bill as well. Finally, it presumed the possibility of a religious revival. Victorian England tamed the subversive insights of political economy through the timeless demands of Protestant dogma. It also softened the unyielding authority of statute law in the subtle kindness of Christian charity. This permitted material advance to be matched by moral improvement. Indeed, it understood that the two truly progressed only together.  That is why Heffer rightly concludes that, “the pursuit of perfection, a minority activity in 1838, had become almost an obligation by 1880.”
My only quibble with this magnificent book lies in its argument that all of this somehow made “modern Britain”. It certainly created a self-consciously modern society here, after 1850. The Victorians repudiated their 18th-century predecessors every bit as determinedly as we, it seems, have since rejected them. They were appalled by Georgian England’s nominal faith, superficial politeness and profound cruelties. They meant to do away with each. The abolition of slavery throughout the 19th-century Anglosphere demonstrates just how much they attempted — and achieved — in these ends.
But their High Minds also gave birth to a world whose sincere faithfulness was as much defined by, as subverted through, their characteristic agnosticism; similarly, whose commitment to general improvement was as much reflected in, as limited by, the otherwise peculiar fact that in 1914 this country remained one of just two in Europe to lack the universal male franchise. That world did not survive the Second World War, not in this country at least. It has now all but disappeared, in this country above all. Certainly, the curious combination of complacency and complaint that characterises our contemporary culture would have mystified just as much as it would have appalled the High Minds delineated and celebrated in this gloriously detailed narrative.