Here is the opening of my review for the Independent of Simon Heffer’s book High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain
On the scales at 1.2kg or 2lb12oz in Victorian money, this hefty tome conforms physically to its contents. Not for it the fashionable Victorianist world of steampunk, nor that of playful Victoriana as currently on show at the Guildhall Art Gallery. High Minds is worthy, serious, solid stuff; in a word, weighty.While high thinking often induces low spirits, however, Simon Heffer’s account is not heavy going, but offers fairly easy reading, covering a great deal in short sections. Concise accounts of Chartism, Tractarianism, denominational wranglings over education bills, civil service reform, Disraeli’s hypocrisy, women’s colleges; potted biographies of Thomas Arnold, Clough, Froude, Caroline Norton, Fitzjames Stephen, Thomas Barnardo, Angela Burdett Coutts and more; blow-by-blow narratives of the Albert Memorial (in a chapter entitled ‘The Heroic Mind’ although the energetic Consort and Sirs Henry Cole and George Gilbert Scott were hardly great men in the Carlylean sense) and the 1867 Reform Act, described by Gladstone as a national ‘leap in the dark’ and by Carlyle as a suicidal plunge over Niagara into anarchy
And here is the ending
So, a selective, metropolitan, political and largely masculine history, Whiggishly endorsing the view of constant improvement. Overall an accurate version, since these groups dominated the polity, though not a sufficient one for later analysts. Moreover, the disinterestedness on which Victorian commentators prided themselves is no longer taken at face-value. By the final page, one has the indistinct impression that Heffer wishes to be the Macaulay de nos jours – chronicling a period whose values he admires to promote a pattern for the present.
Why do ‘the Victorians’ retain such a reputation today? Is it the residual red globe effect? when briefly between the ascendancies of France and the United States, Britain held such power in the world? Is it nostalgia for supposedly lost ‘greatness’? Can such a long-gone era still shape national identity? Who do we think we are? One wishes Heffer would go beyond summaries, since to argue through such questions is one main pleasure of writing and reading history.