High Minds by Simon Heffer: A thunderous new history of the Victorian era

This is an extended paean to an era whose ethos and moral purpose navigated the transition from the chaos of the Industrial Revolution to the equanimity of late-Victorian Britain.

High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain
Simon Heffer
Random House, 896pp, £30
 
Not everyone was convinced that the Great Exhibition of 1851 would work. “An exhibition of the industry of all nations, forsooth!” exclaimed Colonel Charles Sibthorp, MP for Lincoln. “An exhibition of the trumpery and trash of foreign countries, to the detriment of our own already too much oppressed manufacturers.”
 
Soon, Prince Albert, the exhibition’s lead patron, was poking fun at all the potential crises that made the project doomed. “Mathematicians,” he wrote, “have calculated that the Crystal Palace will blow down in the first strong gale, engineers that the galleries would crash in and destroy visitors; political economists have prophesied a scarcity of food in London owing to the vast concourse of people . . . [and] moralists that England would be infected by all the scourges of the civilised and uncivilised world.”
 
Despite the Jeremiahs, the Great Exhibition, housed in Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, went ahead. Its success and legacy in the Albertopolis collection of museums and galleries in South Kensington offered, Simon Heffer argues, perhaps the most comprehensive symbol of the spirit of a people, “one of ambition and of a determination to create institutions of a grandeur and permanence that would project not just the names of their creators but the advances made by Victorian civilisation, for ever”.
 
Heffer’s thunderous new history is an extended paean to an era whose ethos and moral purpose navigated the transition from the chaos of the Industrial Revolution to the equanimity of late-Victorian Britain. In his preface, he outlines the book’s scope: “It takes the great themes of that period and seeks to use them as the illustration of a spirit, or cast of mind, that transformed a wealthy country of widespread inhumanity, primitiveness and barbarism into one containing the germs, and in some measures the evidence, of widespread civilisation and democracy.”
 
High Minds is worthy to the task: serious, scholarly, grand and determined. And, as befits a monument to the mid-Victorian mind, it is occasionally backslapping. Through a history of ideas and the elite lives of those who embodied them – from Robert Peel and Florence Nightingale to Charles Kingsley – Heffer provides the intellectual architecture for a period of remarkable social and economic transformation.
 
Yet the account does not begin promisingly. Quite rightly, in his investigation of the 19th-century clerisy, Heffer starts with the influence of Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby and the impact that his brand of Christian purposefulness had on a generation of young men. However, as the book’s prologue takes us through the life and times of one minor public school master after another, the sense of Victorian ambition is somewhat dissipated.
 
What is more, this over-concentration on the ideas of a southern, Anglican, landed elite militates against an appreciation of where so much of the energy of the period came from: the northern, Nonconformist, commercial mindset of Manchester, Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent. Another lacuna is Heffer’s decision to avoid any discussion of imperialism, when one of the great advances of recent scholarship is an appreciation of just how significant was the experience of empire for domestic British culture – not least in the public schools.
 
Thankfully, Heffer then gets into his stride with incisive and innovative accounts of such Victorian staples as the repeal of the Corn Laws, the rise of Chartism and the Oxford Movement. Heffer’s 1995 biography of Thomas Carlyle, Moral Desperado, is a welcome companion to much of this history. Indeed, Heffer is particularly good on the interrelationship between some of the intellectual titans of the time: John Stuart Mill and William Gladstone; Samuel Smiles and Carlyle; John Ruskin and Augustus Pugin.
 
Heffer is also an excellent guide to the aesthetics of the age, giving us powerful accounts of the “battle of the styles” and the Victorian passion for Gothic. I would take the Midland Grand Hotel next to St Pancras in London or Manchester Town Hall as the architectural embodiment of Victoriana but for Heffer it is G E Street’s law courts on the Strand: “In so far as a building could manifest an idea of perfection, this, supposedly, was it . . . It remains one of the most celebrated and conspicuous monuments to the Victorian mind.”
 
The unapologetic place of Christian faith in the public realm is what makes the period so attractive for Heffer. At one point, he quotes Christopher Wordsworth, a nephew of the poet, who later became the bishop of Lincoln, with more than a hint of approbation: “What, gentlemen, is Conservatism? It is the application of Christianity to civil government. And what is English Conservatism? It is the adoption of the principles of the Church of England as the groundwork of legislation.”
 
Across civil society, the same “mission of benevolence” or “pursuit of perfection” was at work as philanthropists, civil servants, ministers and politicians sought to alleviate the poverty of an urban-industrial society and construct a civilisation true to the calling of Christian incarnation. Heffer’s sorrow is that such high-mindedness has vanished, as he charts a familiar line that begins with Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and the Bloomsbury set’s disavowal of their forefathers. “A climate of prejudice about the Victorians still lingers,” he writes.
 
I am not so sure. Certainly, our inability to understand the Christian motivation behind so much Victorian improvement puts them at a distance. Yet from our renewed focus on the importance of “character” in education to our lament for a lost imperial purpose and a desire to build grand rail and road projects, all are framed within the context of a lack of ambition in contrast to our Victorian predecessors.
 
Heffer is a leading Daily Mail journalist as well as a historian. While it would be unfair to load on him all the gripes and prejudices of the Mail group, if we had to think of the single most influential contemporary voice set against ambitious developments, risky schemes, state expenditure, high culture or iconoclastic thinking, it would be his editorial colleagues.
 
Heffer’s day job is to act as the Colonel Sibthorp of the 21st century. By contrast, his extra-curricular activity is to produce works of great learning and insight into an era of ambitious duty and benevolence. We could all do with more of the latter.
 
Tristram Hunt is the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Labour), and was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Education in the 7 October 2013 Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. His books include “Building Jerusalem” ( Phoenix, £12.99)
Inside the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue