(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In the fashionable resort of Bath in 1796, it was reported that a group of well-born young ladies had become ardently religious and refused to attend the round of assemblies and dances in that center of society, much to the displeasure of their parents. Their action was symbolic of a great change taking place in all levels of British society, a change which would eventually transform the worldly and permissive mores of the eighteenth century into the rigid discipline and cult of respectability of the reign of Victoria. The transformation brought with it a heightened sensitivity and an objection to many cruel and inhuman aspects of society which had been accepted uncritically for generations or even centuries. The transformation, one of the most remarkable in British history, forms the background to the life of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who was indeed one of the most significant figures in its history and who, as it happens, eventually married one of the fashionable young ladies of Bath who had turned to religion in 1796.

Wilberforce, his future wife, and her companions were all moved by a religious revival taking place within the Church of England, a revival which produced both Methodism, shortly to leave the Church of England to become a separate denomination, and the Evangelical movement, similar to Methodism in doctrine and spirit but which remained within the established Church. Wilberforce was a deeply devoted man, one of the most famous of the Evangelicals, a reformer in many fields but whose most notable achievement was as parliamentary of the successful effort to abolish the trade in slaves between Africa and the West Indies. Most famous in his own time and since as a foe of slavery, he also worked for a host of other causes, including prison reform, temperance, an end to the brutal sport of bear-baiting (as well as for prevention of cruelty to animals in general), compulsory vaccination against smallpox, parliamentary reform, and such strictly religious projects as the “Better Observance of Sunday” (anticipating the Victorian Sunday) and a plan for a society to distribute Bibles. This is a truly miscellaneous set of improvements, but one which illustrates the broad range of reforming movements coming out of Methodism and the Evangelical movement. All in all, Wilberforce was president, vice-president, or committee man of no less than sixty-nine societies of an improving nature.

William Wilberforce has been a figure of interest to biographers and historians ever since his death, but he has not often been approached in an objective, well-rounded manner. His life forms part of the history of evangelical religion, of the origins of Victorian attitudes towards life and society, of a certain phase of imperial history and the abolition movement, of the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Those who have written of him have often had a point of view to establish about one of these larger movements and have distorted his life to fit in with the point they had to make. His sons Robert and Samuel published a five-volume life in 1838, an act of piety, both filial and religious, which presented him as an evangelical “saint,” omitting materials that might detract from that ideal picture.

Social historians in the early twentieth century (the Webbs and Hammonds), reacting against evangelical “cant” and deploring the evils of the early Industrial Revolution, derided Wilberforce as a reformer whose conscience was moved by distant slaves but was indifferent to the sufferings imposed by industrialization on the English poor under his very nose. Coupland’s biography in the 1920’s viewed him as part of the history of imperialism; Dr. Eric Williams in the 1940’s, interpreting the abolition of the slave trade and slavery from a Marxist point of view, minimized his personal role in that process. Only in the 1970’s has there been an attempt to understand and evaluate Wilberforce fairly as a person, first in Robin Furneaux’s William Wilberforce (1974) and now in John Pollock’s Wilberforce.

Pollock’s work has drawn on a good deal of previously unused manuscript material as well as on a revaluation of the traditional sources. But its most notable characteristic is Pollock’s attempt to view Wilberforce sympathetically within the context of his own time. His aim is neither to defend nor attack Wilberforce’s religious views but rather to understand them and show how they were the wellspring of his reforming activities. He does set the record straight on the unjust claim that Wilberforce was indifferent to the sufferings of the English poor (he was not), but also confirms and explains Wilberforce’s support for the repressive measures taken against working class social agitation in the decade after Waterloo. Pollock succeeds in rescuing Wilberforce from his own sons, from the Hammonds and the Webbs, from the imperialist and the Marxist, to present him as a complex personality, genuinely concerned to forward religion and the betterment of mankind (for him, inextricably mixed), but with human failings and with limitations of knowledge and vision as well. On the whole John Pollock is successful in his aim. Although the story of Wilberforce’s personal and parliamentary life makes for slow going from time to time, Pollock brings out the traits of Wilberforce’s character and the significance of his actions so well that the reader emerges with admiration for both the man and his biographer.

The center of Wilberforce’s active life was the House of Commons, to which he was elected at the age of twenty-one in 1780 and in which he served without interruption until forced to retire by ill health in 1825. This was the pre-1832, unreformed House of Commons, dominated by the landed aristocracy, holding the line against the rising middle classes whose wealth came from trade and industry. Wilberforce himself came from such a middle-class background. His Wilberforce grandfather had come to Hull in Yorkshire (then the fourth busiest port in England) in 1690 and made a great fortune in trading in the Baltic; his maternal grandmother was a Thornton, daughter of an equally affluent merchant in the Russian trade, a director of the Bank of England, and a member of Parliament. Through his mother, he was connected with the Nottingham banking family, the Smiths. Through the early death of his father and an uncle, he was already at twenty-one independently wealthy. He was not active in trade himself, which raised his standing among the aristocrats in Parliament, and he attended Cambridge University (the first of his family to do so) and was a member of the Church of England, which...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, September, 1978, p. 936.