Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians can be best described as a collection of eleven occasional essays. Most appeared first in prestigious periodicals such as The American Scholar, Commentary, The New Criterion, and The New Republic. Several are extended reviews of scholarly monographs, biographies, or collections of letters. The title of the volume may be misleading, since it applies directly only to the first essay in the collection. In all the essays, Himmelfarb is interested in the larger question of the “moral imagination” of the Victorians: a belief in doing the right thing in a society that had substituted right conduct for religious belief as the means of dealing responsibly with the problems of society. For her, this moral imagination was a controlling influence that led the Victorians to do good things for others as well as to adhere to principles that later generations could only ridicule or admire.

Although they are loosely connected by some association with the Victorian age (1837-1901), the essays in this volume range both forward and backward from that period to explore the development of the Victorians’ special brand of morality and to examine the influence of their thought and conduct on succeeding generations. Five selections treat Victorian issues and figures directly. The title essay offers a general survey of the social climate that led men and women to adopt certain attitudes...

(The entire section is 555 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians is but one of a number of historical studies that have earned for Gertrude Himmelfarb a place among America’s most distinguished historians. Nevertheless, she stands in opposition to the trend among many scholars, especially women scholars, to revise radically the way in which history is viewed and studied. Himmelfarb’s editions of the works of Lord Acton, Thomas Malthus, and John Stuart Mill are models of traditional historical scholarship. Similarly, her critical examinations of the Victorian period in works such as Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959), Victorian Minds (1968), and The Idea of Poverty (1984) apply a methodology often disdained by feminist scholars.

Himmelfarb is acutely aware of her position within the historical community, and she makes a case for the continuance of her approach throughout the essays collected in The New History and the Old (1987), a work that bears many similarities to Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians. Throughout her writings, she emphasizes the importance of public contributions as a criterion for judging the value of historical figures, and while she does not dismiss colleagues who focus on psychological, sociological, or anthropological approaches to the discipline, she maintains that the view of the past should not be distorted by the application of contemporary standards.

A woman writer who takes such a position is likely to be criticized by more strident liberal authors (both men and women), or even ignored. What makes Himmelfarb’s work important, however, is the wide range of factual knowledge she brings to her study of the Victorian period. Her conclusions are hard to dismiss because they are based on an understanding of what happened and a familiarity with the primary documents upon which historical judgments are usually based. While it would be unwise to call her antitheoretical in her approach to history, it is safe to say that she is unwilling to recognize any larger theoretical framework as being necessary to make sense of the facts she confronts in her study of the past; rather, she adopts the more traditional, and hence less fashionable, attitude that theory should proceed from and be deduced from available evidence.

Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. The New History and the Old. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. In a second collection of essays, Himmelfarb continues her assessment of the historical process as it has been applied to the study of the nineteenth century. She reiterates her belief that historians must examine the past without preconceptions in order to understand it fully.

Himmelfarb, Gerturde. Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Himmelfarb expands on her idea of the moral imagination of the Victorians by examining the careers of three important activists and writers of the last decades of the nineteenth century: T. H. Green, Alfred Marshall, and Charles Booth. She shows how genuine compassion for the poor was translated into workable schemes for their relief.

McKendrick, Neil. “Defending ‘All the Decent Draperies of Life.’” The New York Times Book Review 91 (March 23, 1986): 9-11. McKendrick has fulsome praise for Himmelfarb’s analysis of the Victorians’ moral consciousness and the reaction of those who inherited their outlook. There is also strong appreciation for the author’s sound judgment of historical figures.

Magnet, Myron. “The Life of Ideas.” Commentary 82 (September, 1986): 58-61. Magnet believes that Himmelfarb restores a balance to twentieth century historians’ tendency to see events of the past through theoretical perspectives invented in the present.

Turner, Frank M. Review of Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians. American Historical Review 92 (June, 1987): 666-667. A distinguished historian praises Himmelfarb for her powerful intellect and her insight into historical issues. Turner commends her for being forthright in criticizing those who would reconstruct the past according to their own standards.