Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians Critical Essays

Gertrude Himmelfarb


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 719 words.)