One thing that distinguished elder scholars seem to have in common, no matter what their specialties, is that they often find themselves in the enviable position of having a publisher willing to bring out a collection of their essays. Hence, those scattered pieces in journals which travel to many disparate audiences get bound together between hard covers, allowing the scholar to preserve in better fashion the small gems that often deserve a place on the shelf beside his or her major contributions to scholarship.
One might well expect, then, such a volume from a scholar as distinguished as Gertrude Himmelfarb. For almost four decades she has been a voice in Victorian intellectual history, and her major studies, including ones on Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, and poverty in nineteenth century England, have been significant enough to cause one of her contemporaries in America to call her “our leading authority on Victorian thought.” When she writes, others in the field pay attention, because she has something sensible to say.
Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians is an assemblage of articles and reviews loosely bound by the idea that scholars call the Age of Victoria. Like many collections, this one is not strictly focused on the subject suggested by its title: At least two of the essays deal primarily with subjects that precede the traditional dates for the Victorian period (strictly speaking, 1837-1901, the beginning and end of the queen’s reign), and two others examine the lives and accomplishments of people who have flourished in the twentieth century.
In fact, Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians is not really about marriage and morals, at least not exclusively or even primarily, in the sense that most readers associate with these terms. Only the first essay deals directly with marriages among Victorians; the second pays some debt to the book’s title by focusing in part on the marriages and extramarital affairs of the Bloomsbury group, who were the children and grandchildren of Victorian dignitaries. “Morality” as a part of, or as a substitute for, religious practice figures in more than one essay, it is true. Nevertheless, a better description for the collection might be “the intellectual’s response to the problems of living in society,” a society rapidly changing in the face of new discoveries in the sciences, especially biology and psychology. Under her microscope, Himmelfarb scrutinizes the contributions to society of historians, lawyers, social reformers, scientists, writers, economists, dilettantes, politicians, and teachers.
Indeed, the range of these eleven essays is unusual among scholarly books, which are becoming increasingly specialized. The title essay is a lengthy review of a book on five Victorian “marriages”: the Dickenses, Carlyles, Ruskins, Mills, and “the Leweses”—George Henry Lewes and Marian Evans, better known as the novelist George Eliot, who lived together without benefit of formal marriage for years. A lengthy assessment of the moral and religious legacy with which the Bloomsbury group was forced to cope provides an intriguing rationale for the bizarre behavior of people such as Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Geoffrey Keynes, and others who retreated both physically and psychologically from the land of their forebears. Two carefully crafted and wide-ranging essays assess the impact of science on the Victorians’ religious and social beliefs. Himmelfarb includes two views of pre-Victorian “utopias” proposed by men whose influence continued well into the nineteenth century, William Godwin and Jeremy Bentham. There is also an essay contrasting Bentham’s view of the law with that of the distinguished English jurist William Blackstone.
The later years of the nineteenth century are represented by a study of the social reform efforts of Sidney Webb and his more famous wife, Beatrice Potter Webb. A thought-provoking piece on the topicality of Thomas Macaulay as a historian further evinces Himmelfarb’s range as an intellectual historian and concurrently offers some insight into the methodology and hidden agenda of Whig historians. Finally a portrait of conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli which paints his heroic side is complemented by an equally laudatory assessment of twentieth century conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott.
Himmelfarb is able to achieve unity in this collection through conventional means: Nineteenth century England serves as a convenient delimiter. Nevertheless, what holds this relatively disparate collection of essays together, perhaps even more than chronology and locale, is the underlying viewpoint of the essayist. Himmelfarb herself describes this unifying principle as a concern with the “moral imagination,” a term she borrows from Lionel Trilling and Edmund Burke. Himmelfarb admits her intellectual debt to both these men, and it is therefore small wonder that the tone of her work is “conservative.”
Himmelfarb may not approve of such a classification, yet while it would be unfair to link her with modern American political conservatives, she does exhibit those tendencies of conservativism usually associated with the British Tory party. She herself quotes with favor Edmund Burke’s criticism of the revolutionaries of the late eighteenth century for moving too fast toward reform without...