Book review: High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain, By Simon Heffer

This leisurely tour of our ancestors' minds and works acts as a homage as much as a history

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 currently on show at the Guildhall Art Gallery. High Minds is worthy, serious, solid stuff; in a word, weighty.

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While high thinking often induces low spirits, however, Simon Heffer's account 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 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.

All is set against Britain's self-aggrandising image as a great nation, in the vanguard of world progress. What is the secret of England's greatness? A visiting envoy is said to have asked Queen Victoria. Not the strength of its army and navy, nor the wealth of its manufactures and trade, she is said to have replied, but its religious faith based on the Holy Bible. High Minds charts how evangelical zeal and confidence permeated the movers and shapers of the age even after, or perhaps because of, the general collapse of belief.

The parliamentary history of this period is hard to retain in any shape other than In-Out, Liberal-Conservative, Out-In. Party ideology differed little: both were against state intervention in economic, social or financial affairs unless and until things got really bad, and then the approach was more permissive than centrist. Remedy for social evils such as squalid housing, indigence, epidemics, illiteracy, prostitution, was offloaded onto local boards and philanthropic citizens, child labour a notable statutory exception. It's salutary to be reminded that in the mid-1870s climbing boys were still dying in sooty chimneys. And to note that the educational divide between elite and plebs remains an issue, as does the "problem" of welfare (aka the condition of the poor).

"Be ye therefore perfect", the concluding injunction from the Sermon on the Mount, was the watchword of Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, arguing high-mindedly for "sweetness and light" lest the upper-class Barbarians, the middle-class Philistines and, worst of all, the lower-class rabble or Populace should triumph. Albeit in a measured manner, Heffer seems to endorse this analysis and implicitly transfer it forwards, to the modern Britain of his subtitle. He shares Arnold's disdain for the narrow-mindedness of Dissenters, although the chapels surely did as much as the labour movement to help working people in regard to self-respect and advancement.

Extensively quoted debates, Blue Books and correspondence give the true flavour of 19th-century attitudes among the ruling and reforming classes. Unlike AN Wilson, whose The Victorians (2002) offered a comparable account, Heffer states explicitly his decision to ignore "empire and foreign policy" and the "unrest" in Ireland. This domestic perspective omits also emigration and immigration as well as the rise of racism through the combination of scientific taxonomy with xenophobia, probably the period's most poisonous legacy. Scotland is virtually ignored; the impact of technology is under-investigated. Even in 800 pages not all can be included, and towards the end one senses a sweeping up of topics: sewage, railway mania, Gothic architecture, the Contagious Diseases acts.

So, this is a selective, metropolitan, political and largely masculine history, Whiggishly endorsing the view of constant improvement. Overall it is an accurate version, since these groups dominated the polity, though not a sufficient one for later analysts. 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.

Jan Marsh's latest book is 'The Pre-Raphaelite Circle' (National Portrait Gallery)