Victorian Values; A Confusion Of Prophets; & Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress.
Ian Bradley assesses
Edited by T. C. Smout - Oxford University Press, 1992 - 232 pp. - £19.95
A Confusion Of Prophets
By Patrick Curry - Collins & Brown (Regulus Publishing), 1992 - 192pp. - £12
Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress
By Dea Birkett - Macmillan Press, 1992 - xxvi+213 pp. - £25
Whatever damage she may have done to the long-term future of universities in general and traditional arts disciplines in particular Margaret Thatcher has certainly had a stimulating effect on the academic pursuit of history in Britain. Specifically, her much vaunted crusade to revive Victorian values has given a new vigour and relevance to nineteenth-century studies and has directly inspired a number of important conferences and publications.
The joint symposium held by the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh in December 1990, the main papers from which have been edited in an exemplary way by Christopher Smout, must surely count as the most substantial and fruitful of these gatherings. The historians who contributed display a finely judged balance of academic detachment and personal partisanship in their attempts to distinguish the real values of the Victorians from the rather selective set appropriated by Mrs Thatcher.
Their conclusions are, as one might expect, delightfully varied and eclectic. Raphael Samuel ends a characteristically lively and stimulating gallop around the course with the observation that the group who most obstinately stood out for the Victorian values of family solidarity, the dignity of work and the security of home during the Thatcher years were the miners defeated in the strike of 1983-84. Jose Harris, however, surveying the late Victorian origins of the Welfare State, finds Margaret Thatcher's idea of a society motivated by self-help and voluntarism considerably more historically accurate than Corelli Barnett's picture in his book The Audit of War of sentimental chivalry, disdain for materialism and paternalism. Valentine Cunningham, on the other hand, argues that the values expressed in Victorian literature, and particularly in its most characteristic form of the novel, were firmly anti-Thatcherite in the sense of showing a distinct bias against commerce, money-making and the enterprise culture.
Not all the contributors to this fascinating collection are so directly related to the Thatcherite appropriation of Victorian values. Two outstanding essays by Stewart Brown and R.J. Morris identify some of the very distinct and influential values of Victorian Scotland, specifically the powerful legacy in terms of social theory of the vision of the Godly Commonwealth preached and practised by Thomas Chalmers. Mark Girouard presents an elegant and formidably well-documented pen portrait of the Victorian upper classes, members of which he divides into three categories; the earnest, the swell and the gentleman. Clyde Binfield produces a tour de force with his highly imaginative study of that all-important love affair between Mr Gladstone and Victorian Nonconformity, while in a closing piece representing his reflections as a philosopher and President of the British Academy, Anthony Kenny, expresses his deep love for things Victorian in a way that is both moving and highly infectious.
Perhaps the most original contribution comes from Anne Digby who argues convincingly that if we allowed the women rather than the men of the period to form our view of Victorian values the resulting impression would be of rather less individualism and self-help and rather more mutuality and companionship.
One Victorian woman who does at least seem to have exemplified and championed some of the values dearest to the heart of Mrs Thatcher was the African explorer, Mary Kingsley. Dea Birkett's biography, itself expanded from an article in the History Today series on Victorian values, vividly chronicles her opposition to the interfering 'do-goodery' of missionaries and colonial administrators and her support for the traders whom, she believed, did much less damage to the indigenous culture of the natives. In particular, she vigorously championed the importation of alcohol into West Africa by Liverpool merchants and fiercely rebutted the claims of religious groups and civil servants that it led to drunkenness and debauchery.
Mary Kingsley's death in South Africa at the age of thirty-seven from typhoid fever caught while nursing casualties of the Boer War put her firmly in the ranks of those Victorian heroines hailed for their self- sacrifice and devotion to duty. The same could hardly be said of the heroes of Patrick Curry's A Confusion of Prophets, the leading astrologers of Victorian and Edwardian Britain who numbered among their ranks Richard Garnett, Superintendent of the British Museum Reading Room from 1875 to 1899.
Patrick Curry's series of pen portraits appears to be aimed largely at the committed – the precise time of birth is given in every case presumably so that readers can check their star charts and form their own conclusions about the personalities and subsequent lives of the individuals mentioned. But it is not without interest to more general students of the Victorian scene, not least in showing how a group in danger of extinction in the face of the rise of rationalism and scientific scepticism managed to survive by linking themselves to the new movement of Theosophy, a nice example of enterprise culture and embracing market forces that would doubtless appeal to Lady T.
Ian Bradley is the author of The Celtic Way (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1993).
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