Tales of the Unexpected

Jose Harris

  • Marriage and Morals among the Victorians, and Other Essays by Gertrude Himmelfarb
    Faber, 253 pp, £15.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 571 13952 3

For the past thirty years Gertrude Himmelfarb has sounded a discordant and unusual note among writers on Victorian England. She defended a (small c) ‘conservative’ perspective long before conservatism became intellectually fashionable. She was deciphering ‘ideas in context’ more than a decade before such an approach became the new orthodoxy of academic journals: indeed, her stock-in-trade has been to show that the great minds of the past look quite different if viewed from their own setting rather than from the time-capsule of highbrow reputation. Yet, unlike many exponents of this school, she has also clung to the view that some at least of the great themes of history have a meaning and a moral power that transcends the finite boundaries of date and location. In an age in which much academic history has collapsed into monographs and minutiae she has made recurrent forays into grand, ambitious, open-minded subjects: liberty, the ‘idea of poverty’, the genesis, consequences and intellectual limitations of the Darwinian revolution. Most provocatively of all, she has sided with Lord Acton in believing that history ‘resounds eternally to the echoes of original sin’. All this makes her a fascinating example of a threatened species: the Enlightenment ideal of the ‘philosophic’ historian.

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