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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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder