Whipping the wicked

Peter Clarke

  • The Optimists: Themes and Personalities in Victorian Liberalism by Ian Bradley
    Faber, 301 pp, £12.50, January 1980, ISBN 0 571 11495 4

‘Most of the great positive evils of the world,’ John Stuart Mill asserted in 1863, ‘are in themselves removable, and will, if human affairs continue to improve, be in the end reduced to within narrow limits.’ This sort of confidence in the reality and efficacy of progress now seems to set the 19th century distinctively apart from our own. In calling his study of Victorian Liberalism The Optimists Ian Bradley seeks to make good a more specific claim. He is writing about Liberalism with a big L – the creed of the British Liberal party as expressed by its leading politicians, publicists and men of ideas. And of all these men, it is the Grand Old Man who uniquely commands attention, the pre-eminence with which he awed his contemporaries hardly diminished with the passing of time. It still seems slightly presumptuous not to refer to him as Mr Gladstone. Like Dr Johnson, Colonel House, or Professor Joad, he has laid peculiar claim from beyond the grave to a conventional style of address.

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