Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians

by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

In many ways, Himmelfarb’s exploration of Victorian moral and social issues can be considered an example of traditional, conservative historical scholarship. She mounts a devastating attack on the utopian schemes of William Godwin and Jeremy Bentham, castigating the latter for his inhumane and insensitive insistence that the poor would be better served if they were kept in a state of constant dependence and deprived of “useless” education—that is, education that might allow them to rise above the squalor in which they constantly found themselves. She has considerable praise for Disraeli and Oakeshott, both conservatives whose visions of society seem amenable to Himmelfarb and (in the case of Oakeshott especially) whose writings are based on sound understanding of human nature. Himmelfarb finds that Oakeshott has a genuine appreciation for developing one’s conclusions about society from an examination of real-world situations, as opposed to engaging in exclusively theoretical pronouncements. In the same vein, she is critical of liberal attempts to “improve” society; not only does she cast a wary glance at utopian writings but also she is critical of historians such as Macaulay, whose view of history is decidedly progressive.

Not surprisingly, Himmelfarb opposes the highly theoretical approach to history demonstrated in Phyllis Rose’s study of Victorian marriage. She uses her review of Rose’s Parallel Lives to sound a clarion call against the dangers of the new mode of inquiry that dwells on the private lives of important historical figures in such a way that private idiosyncrasies and indiscretions overshadow the public contributions that those figures have made. This drive to “discover some essential truth that is essentially private” can, when taken to extremes, seriously distort modern society’s view of men and women from an earlier age. She expresses dismay at the tendency of contemporary historians—by whom she means in this case feminist historians—to apply a priori classifications in their exploration of the past and to demand that figures of another age be judged by the standards of the present. Historians following such methodology tend to reshape data to fit their preconceptions and to dismiss as trivial or decry as unworthy of praise the contributions of figures, especially men, who do not measure up to contemporary standards for treatment of women—especially their wives—as equals.

It is for these reasons that Himmelfarb is critical of Rose’s insistence that marriages are based on struggles for power, not on love. She is thus able to find fault with Rose’s selection of the five couples whom she studies in Parallel Lives because these couples were not typical; she goes on to show that Rose’s thesis is often irrelevant to her argument and that the facts available from other sources do not bear out Rose’s judgment about one or more of the couples she has chosen for study. Himmelfarb attacks the logic of Rose’s argument at several points, noting, for example, that on one occasion praise is given to marriage arrangements freely entered and freely sundered, while on another criticism is heaped upon Dickens for leaving a wife he no longer loved. She challenges Rose’s interpretation of the long extramarital liaison between Eliot and Lewes; whereas Rose sees the relationship as “liberating” because there were no legal ties and no children to interfere with their intense love, Himmelfarb points to other evidence that shows the tremendous social cost Eliot paid for this relationship.

Himmelfarb’s commentary on the extramarital affairs of the Bloomsbury set and on the unusual lifestyles of Godwin and his circle confirm the sense that one gains from reading her assessment of Rose’s treatment of marriage. There is little room for deviance from accepted social and moral norms in Himmelfarb’s view. For her, women who wish to achieve greatness, whether in marriage or in the professions, cannot be excused from following the rules set down for them by the society in which they live. Changes must come from argument and compromise, not from revolution or from denial of one’s moral obligations. There is, for women as well as for men, a need to subjugate personal whim to the larger goals of society; change, if it is to come, must be brought about by modifying the views of the body politic, not by ignoring them.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access