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The Victorians

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

The Victorian Swiset. By Esme Wingfield-Stratford. New York: William Morrow and Company. $3.50. The Great Victorians. Edited by H. J. and Hugh Massingham. New York: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.00.

Interest in the Victorians continues to prove in us a kind of nostalgia and a certain objective curiosity. Now that we have left behind us most of the reasons for meriting an epithet suggestive of stuffiness and prudery, we are beginning to realize that the age of Carlyle, Darwin, Mill, and the Manchester economists is more important for our consideration than all the antimacassars, Dundrearies, or hoop-skirts of an epoch too often in recent years regarded as the comic foil of a “modern” and superior generation. If for no other reason, Mr. Wingfield-Stratford’s “The Victorian Sunset,” and “The Great Victorians,” edited by the Massinghams, are of considerable importance because they remind us of the extent to which we are heirs of Victorian troubles, social, ethical, economic, mechanical. Though both volumes are full of the color, gaiety, drabness, earnestness, and frivolity of the “dear dead years,” when at least an industrial prosperity assuaged a philosophic and religious ache of uncertainty, we are kept reminded that even in the great days of Podsnap and the unforgettable Veneerings, the “clouds, already visible [were rising] to blacken the whole sky, until, with catastrophic suddenness, came the floods and whirlwind” of 1914. Over and above the “ripples of Gil-bertian laughter,” with which the period, as it were, closed, we sense the future and hear the pistol-shot in Sarajevo.

In Mr. Wingfield-Stratford’s book, we are taken on a gay and tragic journey, from the ‘seventies through the ‘nineties: from the last echoes of mid-century certainty and respectability — when “the origin of species, for adults, was like the origin of babies, for children—a thing about which nice people did not ask questions”—to the last decade, when men were filled with visions of empire and gilded leisure, when “advanced” dramas were patterned after Ibsen, and Oscar Wilde picked up the symbolic sun-flower, and Bismarck conjured the spectre of a future war, and daring maidens boldly played tennis or sped at ten miles an hour on a new-fangled machine called a bicycle, singing “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay.” We are reminded of how in those dimly remote times, you voted for Gladstone if you were liberal and pious, or for Disraeli if you admired conservative values and liked a little histrionic arrogance injected into the stuffiness of Westminster. We become sentimentally homesick for the unruffled calm on the surface of that life, for the sparkling carriages flitting past Hyde Park Corner, for the sureness in the roll of Tennyson’s poetry, in Disraeli’s jaunty step, in Gladstone’s high-pressure morality, in Carlyle’s thunderings about the “Eternal Immensities,” in George Eliot’s conviction that morality remained potent even in a universe from which Huxley and Mill had quietly removed God—to whom, indeed, Mr. Morley would not even grant a capital “G.” Yet through it all, as I have said, we are made conscious of a subtle menace. A new middle class was rising, aping their superiors in everything but responsibility and leadership. Universal education was at last making the working class a present portent. The Victorian family trembled as women began to doubt their husbands and read John Stuart Mill. Fathers were disturbed by their sons’ muttering about burning with a peculiar kind of flame, not so hot as somehow “hard” and, of all things, “gem-like”! Under “leaders without light,” they were all, half-con-sciously, headed for chaos. For, says Mr. Wingfield-Stratford, no one would face the one great Victorian fact: that the whole edifice of Victorian life was cracked from the foundation up. Not a single fundamental problem had been squarely confronted. And in the universal compromise, who had noted that “formidable old gentleman, with the appearance of a Hebrew prophet, who had written an enormous treatise, in German, inciting to a class war of world-wide extermination”?

In “The Great Victorians” we find a group of writers— among them Rebecca West, Hugh Walpole, Frank Swin-nerton, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Morgan, and thirty-five others—re-appraising the Victorian period through its “forty immortals.” There is naturally considerable inequality among the essays, and not a few unavoidable omissions. Edmund Blunden writes woodenly and loosely about Matthew Ar-nold; Chesterton tosses Dickens between the inevitable paradoxes, and darkens as much as he illuminates; John Collier loses his critical balance in deflating Tennyson; and Arthur A. Baumann does less justice to Disraeli than to his own views on the Labor Party and the dole. Among the omissions of prominent Victorians are Bulwer Lytton, John Bright, General Gordon, Cardinal Manning (one of Stra-chey’s most “eminent”), Mrs. Browning, Charles Kingsley (one of the most typical of the Victorians), Mrs. Gaskell, J. A. Froude, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, Samuel Smiles (certainly one of the most influential forces of his time), Harriet Martineau, Lewis Carroll (whose omission will grieve many), Herbert Spencer, and several of the “late Victorians” — Whistler, Wilde, Francis Thompson, and Henry James.

But granting the omissions and a certain unevenness of treatment, the volume is a delight. Its range alone is original and illuminating. There are essays on General Booth as well as Carlyle, on W. G. Grace, the renowned cricketeer, as well as on Ruskin, on Florence Nightingale and Edward Burnett Tylor and James Clerk Maxwell. If Herbert Spencer is omitted, we at least have an incisive essay by J, H. Muir-head on F. H. Bradley. Charles Morgan delicately probes the uncharted areas of Emily Bronte’s genius; Lord Pon-sonby does justice to Gladstone without denying that statesman’s tremendous parliamentary abilities and moral sincerity. Katherine Garvin writes detachedly and profitably of Pater’s weaknesses as a stylist and of his narrow but deeply authentic powers. Perhaps the most successful essay in the book is A. Y. Campbell’s on Edward Fitzgerald. It tells us what manner of man was that sensitive and scholarly recluse, how he represented a part of the Victorian world, in what lie his claims to be regarded as one of the chosen forty, and how we may reapproach his greatest work, the “Ru-baiyat.” If Mr. Campbell’s clear realization of the requirements of his task, and his skill in keeping his personal preferences sufficiently on the periphery of his subject, could have been repeated in most of the other thirty-nine essays, the book as a whole would have benefited immeasurably. Mr. Campbell offers, in addition to these admirable qualities, a revealing comparison between Gray’s “Elegy,” as a poem on a native English rusticity now extinct, and the “Ru-baiyat,” as “an elegy upon human life.”

It is significant of the true meaning of the Victorian age to us that of the forty essays, those on Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell will stand out, to many readers, as supremely vivid and apposite to our problems. Both men were modest seekers after fact, oblivious of the call to success or publicity, and innocent of, or indifferent to, the possible consequences of the promulgations of their theories. In their loyalty to their intuitions, in their seminal originality, and in the breadth and potentiality of their influence, they are probably the greatest Victorians of them all. They stand in the background of our “wide-weltering chaos.” And, more perhaps than with any other two Victorians, our study of their thoughts and discoveries helps us to realize how, for the Victorians, the old premises of human dignity, of absolute levels of goodness, truth, and beauty, of the Newtonian conception of existence, had all, in varying degrees, twisted or thinned away, leaving something disturbingly like the immanence of Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values.”


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