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.

All these themes and perspectives are reflected in the current volume, which collects together Professor Himmelfarb’s ephemeral writings of the past ten years. Most of the essays are pegged to book reviews and range over a wide variety of subjects: but all of them display the characteristic Himmelfarb mistrust of reductionism, scientism, existentialism, utopianism, final solutions and obvious explanations. Nearly all the essays are in some sense tales of the unexpected. A chapter on Darwinism suggests that the mid-19th-century crisis of unbelief had little or nothing to do with the debate on biological evolution: indeed, some of the most orthodox Christians were among the most literal-minded Darwinists, while some of the chief enemies of Darwinism (Nietzsche among them) were notorious atheists and immoralists. ‘Social Darwinism’ is exposed as a virtually meaningless term, since from the start of its intellectual history the model of natural selection was invoked to support almost every position on the socio-political spectrum, including the ethical duty of the strong to care for the weak. A chapter on Disraeli pleads for serious examination of Disraeli’s largely neglected ideas, and argues that Disraeli’s Jewishness – often perceived as quirky and incidental – was, in fact, quintessential to his political thought and personal identity.

An essay on Sir William Blackstone sets out to rescue the great 18th-century jurist from the libellous parody contained in Bentham’s Fragment on Government. Far from being the monster of black reaction pilloried by Bentham, Himmelfarb claims that Blackstone was a pioneer of legal simplification, mixed polities and defence of civil liberties, and a major influence upon the American constitution. His views on penology were far more lenient and humane than those of Bentham himself; and his famous remark, ‘everything is now as it should be,’ is shown to have referred, not, as Bentham implied, to the totality of the British constitution, but to the recent abolition of criminal sanctions against heresy. By contrast, Bentham – revered by many as the exemplar of rationality and progress – is here revealed as the energetic promoter of a National Charity Company, under whose direction the poor would be confined in industrial concentration camps, subject to forced labour from the age of four, and deprived of all civil rights except those of unlimited sexual intercourse and procreation. Such a scheme, Bentham claimed, would abolish beggary and idleness, yield an undertakers’ profit of 300 per cent and fuel the economy with limitless supplies of well-regulated docile labour. The rejection of his scheme he blamed solely upon the reactionary machinations of the Hanoverian monarchy: ‘But for George III, all the paupers in the country would long ago have been under my management.’

Himmelfarb’s studies of Darwin, Disraeli, Bentham and Blackstone may be read primarily as essays in historical revisionism: though all have implications for wider moral theory, it would be possible to view them as merely academic. A less clinical and more contentious note is struck by the essays in which Himmelfarb deals with the ‘genealogy of morals’. The essay which gives the book its title is a review of Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages – a study of the pathology of Victorian sexual relationships as revealed by the marriages (or non-marriages) of George Eliot and G.H. Lewes, the Mills, the Ruskins, the Dickenses and the Carlyles. Himmelfarb questions the validity of a study based on five such eminent and peculiar examples of Victorian mores. And, more fundamentally, she challenges Rose’s claim that all her protagonists were in some sense engaged in the substitution of a wholly privatised ‘existential’ morality for a conventional morality endorsed by society, church and state. On the contrary, for all these Victorians (and more particularly for George Eliot, whom Rose portrayed as the high priestess of the new moral order), ‘morality was not an “existential” condition independent of, let alone opposed to, convention and law.’

They firmly believed morality to be existentially rooted in social conventions and legal institutions. They might seek to reform these conventions and institutions, to make marriage and divorce more equitable and humane, but they did not want to remove marriage and divorce from the jurisdiction of the state ... or to make them ... entirely a matter of the private, personal ‘commitment of the people involved’. If individuals did find themselves, as a result of circumstance, passion or compulsion, in some illicit or abnormal situation, this was regarded as an unfortunate aberration, to be normalised and legalised if possible, and, failing that, to be concealed (as in the case of Dickens) or domesticated (as with Eliot). It was out of respect for convention and law that they sought to observe at least the forms of propriety, the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. And those who did deviate from the norm, for whatever reason, did so knowing they would pay the price ... As often as not, their ostracism was self-imposed; they were their own worst critics.

In other words, Victorian England was a society in which – as in Rousseau’s Le Contrat Social – deviants willed their own punishment because they believed that the very existence of society was predicated upon the observance of certain imperative common norms. Many Early Victorians believed that such norms were commanded by revealed religion: but for Mid- and Late Victorians – the generations of George Eliot and Leslie Stephen and Henry Sidgwick – the roots of authority were more elusive.

Morality had increasingly to stand on its own feet, as its own reward and justification: hence that intense and scrupulous concern with private morals that for many modern minds makes Mid-Victorianism more remote than any other period of human history. Such was the condition of England in 1889 when Nietzsche sardonically observed that ‘for the Englishman morality is not yet a problem.’ The force of the comment lay in the ‘not yet’, for what Nietzsche saw was the ‘precariousness of that late-Victorian morality’: a morality which Himmelfarb perceives as ‘all the more admirable ... because it tried to maintain itself without the sanctions and consolations of religion’, but which was ‘too impoverished, too far removed from its original inspiration, to transmit itself to the next generation’. Hence the rise of the Bloomsbury group with its feverish cultivation of the self, its denigration of all social norms, its demand for ‘immediate gratification’, and its obsession with ‘the new’. And hence the rise of subsequent late-20th-century generations in which Bloomsburyism became no longer the private language of an effete élite, but the conventional wisdom of the age.

This line of argument inexorably leads to a restatement of the question posed by Himmelfarb’s 1974 study of John Stuart Mill: what happens to societies if Mill’s spectre of a moral majority is replaced by a culture whose only categorical requirement is that everyone must disagree with everyone else? What happens if the mothers at whose knees we learn the rudiments of conventional morality become themselves compulsively unconventional? I Himmelfarb’s view, the consequences are the erosion of humanity, reason, virtue, order, of the very structure of civilisation: an erosion all the more insidious because it infects even the mental and aesthetic canons by which these values were traditionally protected. Liberty itself is imperilled by the fact that it loses any consensual or externally sanctioned meaning. The very act of protest – that once-potent weapon for warding off disenchantment – becomes in its turn part of the mechanical landscape of a disenchanted world.

Wherein lies salvation? Himmelfarb is more confident in diagnosis than cure, as she herself is the first to admit. The final essay in the book looks hopefully to the philosophy of Michael Oakeshott and is forced to come away disappointed. Oakeshott’s emphasis on unpretentious ‘experience’ may have advanced a salutary critique of the busybody system-builders of thirty years ago (or might have done if more people had read him), but he is far too refined, trivial, passive and supercilious to offer any resistance to the barbarian at the gates in the 1980s. Moreover, Oakeshott’s disdain for enthusiasm positively cripples the political and moral thought of his would-be disciples, because it ‘exposes one to the charge of being unduly earnest, hence insufficently civilised’. (Nothing more distances our own generation from that of the Mid-Victorians than that morbid horror of earnestness.) Himmelfarb concludes that ‘Oakeshott is right to criticise the Rationalists for subverting the good together with the bad. But as long as he provides us with no means for distinguishing between good and bad, let alone for cultivating a disposition to do good rather than bad, we are obliged to look elsewhere for guidance – to invoke mind, principle, belief, religion or whatever else may be required to sustain civilisation.’ Himmelfarb’s own preferences seem to lie, not in the anarchic scepticism of philosophic conservatism, but in the revival of an old, pre-utilitarian, pre-analytic mode of liberalism: not the liberalism of moral atomism and free markets, but a Whiggish liberalism that emphasises both the valuable residues of past history and a common human pursuit of certain externally defined standards and virtuous goals. It is in the last resort an Augustinian vision, fundamentally at odds with most contemporary moral theory and with currently fashionable styles of writing history. If Himmelfarb’s thesis is correct, she must expect to offend many people (if everyone agrees with her then the thesis is proved wrong). But this book, and indeed her whole oeuvre, is a highly unconventional defence of convention. In an age which adores heresy she deserves to be widely read.