Inside the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851. Image: Getty
High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain
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)