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Simon Heffer's weighty (in many senses of the word) book has been reviewed in at least seven central mainstream political and cultural publications, among them, the Sunday Times, New Statesman, Telegraph, and Guardian. He is himself a leading Daily Mail journalist as well as a respected historian. His topic is no less than a history and accounting for the "transformation" of Great Britain as a "wealthy country of widespread inhumanity, primitiveness, barbarity, into one containing the germs, and in some measure, the evidence of a widespread civilization and democracy" (xiii). He sees the contemporary British state and society as in the main beneficent and egalitarian and tells his story of noble progress (amid thickets of obstacles) through a combination of biographies of important men (and a few women), their intellectual, parliamentary and political debates, and actual vividly told circumstances of many many more lives of people affected by these legal, political and social conflicts. His book is based on immense reading from diaries, speeches, fiction and non-fiction, in disciplines ranging from immunology to architecture across the 19th century, and much secondary history and biography. It's as readable as an earnest Victorian novel and presents central Victorian controversies not always well-explained (like Tractarianism, 143-51) with commendable concision and well-shaped detail. His book should enable many readers to better understand what Victorian literature they might want to read. Ironically, given the condescending review he published a few years ago in the Telegraph (see "Sadly, the snobs were right about Trollope"), there are no novels he would better elucidate than the Barsetshire and Palliser series of Anthony Trollope.

Left to right: (a) John Bright (1811-89), by Albert Bruce-Joy. (b) Thomas Arnold (1795-1842), from a portrait by Thomas Philips. (c) John Ruskin (1819-1900), in a watercolour self-portrait. (d) Disraeli (1804-1881), by Mario Raggi.

Thus even if it's limited in scope and perhaps because its perspective is a mild paternalistic Toryism, this is a significant book which reveals the state of opinion of a portion of influential people today and may influence many other groups beyond those Trollope in Can You Forgive Her? described as "the Upper Ten Thousand." Obvious omissions include foreign affairs, Ireland, the effect of colonialism on British lives through emigration and wars. Less obviously the conservative bias shapes Heffer's discourse and is responsible for frequent utterances, such as (early in the book) his way of writing about Chartism's failure: middle and upper class people were put off by "agitation" "whipped up by the Anti-Corn Law League"; he then spends many pages on the arch-Tory journalist, John Croker, who is quoted as saying (without any qualifying comment by Heffer) that "the 'war cry' of 'cheap bread' had replaced that of the 'rights of man,' but was equally deceptive" (37-47). There are reductive accounts of Engels's writing as "inflammatory" and his attitudes as so "prejudiced" that they don't provide balance (83-87); of Dickens as largely motivated by his childhood deprivations (634-37). "Doing good" comes from strategic intervention from afar, say on property owners, not direct "provision of work" or "housing for the unemployed" (633, 765). These embedded exhortations pass muster and accounts feel accurate because they occur within an intelligent and compassionate enough retelling of the political realities of the era and of the lives and actions of progressive politicians, e.g., John Bright (91-98). Heffer has a number of bête noirs, from Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, which he means to refute by opening his book with a sympathetic full portrait of Thomas Arnold (1-30); to John Ruskin whose exposed sexual misery in a court of law is used to defame Ruskin as having "a sick mind," with Ruskin's writing described as in the main "anti-capitalist" with an "outline" for "a nationalized society" and "welfare state" dependent on an "optimistic view" of "people" (611-17). Heffer writes several hostile descriptions of Disraeli as an utter opportunist, without principle or novelistic talent (274-75); Heffer never brings Disraeli up without saying he was duplicitious and without any concern for people outside the aristocracy who he saw as needed patrons, so that the reader is sometimes at a loss to account for some of Disraeli's actions, like appointing and supporting the effective reformer Richard Assheton Cross as Home Secretary (e.g., 268-74, 724-25, 770-74).

Mrs Gaskell, after a drawing by George Richmond, as the frontispiece to the 1911 biography of her by Esther Alice Chadwick.

To be fair, Heffer's book is filled with numerous graphic accounts of the horrors of industrialized society and the agricultural world for the working poor during this era; of foul, degrading, disease-ridden housing conditions, and Heffer does not mince over the motives of those who worked in every way possible to keep working hours for the average person 15 hours a day (e.g., 63-72), fought against doing anything about pollution, and about the need for publicly-supported good education for all and extensions of the franchise. With all his admiration for the public school ethos of Arnold, Heffer tells of the destructive sexual and bullying practices of public schools (27-28). His book tells with clarity the terms of the economic struggles of the era, e.g., his use of Gaskell's Mary Barton (115-16), and how the fear of the upper and middling classes of the results of street fighting (riot) was a strong motive for their giving into demands of organized working people. He shows explanatory power when he moves into how religious controversies affected individual lives, e.g, Arthur Hugh Clough (158-69); a full explication of James Andrew Froude's Nemesis of Faith (177-186); of Charles Kingsley's novels and Christian socialist thought (186-92), Bentham and utilitarianism, Matthew Arnold's work in the area of education, and Robert Lowe's political maneuvers against funding education by the state, where Lowe uncannily anticipates some of today's debating assumptions (419-29).

Not unexpectedly he is particularly good on the Great Exhibition, what Prince Albert meant and did in the mid-Victorian era (258-344), but he also makes a strong case for the importance of abolishing privilege in the form of bought and sold places in the armed forces, universities, the invention of a meritocracy (under siege today). Such reforms are shown to be central to the invention of real democracy, of making real improvements in the lives of those who obtained useful fulfilling employment which they could do well at, and through which they could help those their function was intended to help: it mattered that obtaining positions of authority and effectiveness through exams and degrees became at least in principle open to all people (469-505). High Minds has a long chapter (506-73) on the failure of the feminist movement of the era to go beyond legislating into existence the right of a woman to own property, to obtain custody of her children, and through court trials to improve her ability to protect her body from outrage when married. We see why obstacles were repeatedly set up to stop women from obtaining higher education. That the one law that was passed after long arduous debate was the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act is shown to demonstrate Mill's argument that "political power is the only security against every form of oppression" (535, 565), that progress was therefore most often top down and slow, elite women acting on behalf of, devoting their lives and funds to secondary education and colleges for other elite women, from which much later could come satisfying and sufficiently remunerative employment.

Two different ills of the Victorian period. Left: A Court for King Cholera, John Leech's cartoon for the Punch of 25 Sept. 1852, p. 139, showing the squalor of the East End. Right: The noble Jew looked down upon by his unscrupulous "Christian" employer in Sol Eytinge's illustration of Fledgeby and Riah (Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, 1870 ed.).

Heffer uses irony effectively too: his chapter on "The Political Mind," subtitled "High Principle and Low Ambition" (252-84) focuses on the history of exclusion of Jews from Parliament after they had won elections. His earnest narrative shows the House of Lords functioning as an obstacle to such a progressive causes, but he then turns implicitly comically to the correspondence of Sir Edwin Pearson who, after improving a hitherto cholera-ridden miserable neighborhood in Westminster, never tired of demanding a title and recognition (280-84); his was another common form of political mind and behavior too. Heffer's account of Palmerston's ways of objecting to (to Palmerston) the absurd insistence that Gothic style was indicative of Victorian British identity is genuinely funny (743-45) at least to a modern reader, if not the architects who had to cope with Palmerston's clever obstructiveness.

Heffer's volume is in effect a lively grand narrative encyclopedia and could (as he intends) bring more readers to read and learn about the 19th century as a centrally instructive usable past which is not yet past and which we are heirs to. I suggest it could function as a compendium companion volume to, on the one hand, A.N. Wilson's The Victorians, also political, intellectual, large-scale social history, with many brief biographies (some as biased), but less narrowly politicized in its perspective and finally more astute; and on the other, Susie Steinbach's Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain who writes of these larger issues at an angle that enables the reader to see the larger political struggles in terms of the daily lives, experiences, and attitudes of ordinary Victorians, and thus manages to get at the important difficult terrain of inward mentalities and the actual experience of particular milieus in the Victorian era.


Heffer, Simon. High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. London: Random House, 2013. xvii + 878pp. with illustrations and notes.

_____. "Sadly, the snobs were right about Trollope." The Daily Telegraph, 1 January 2011.

Last modified 10 April 2014