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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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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