Walter Bagehot once wrote that for him fame “is a thing no sane man ought to make necessary to his happiness, or think of but as a temporary luxury”. Like many of the insights of a man once dubbed “Victorian England’s most versatile genius”, it has proved largely true.
Apart from the world’s central bankers, for whom he is a 19th-century guiding light in troubled times, and readers of The Economist, who may have long wondered just how to pronounce the column that bears his name, the legacy of Bagehot has faded from the nation’s popular memory.
While the likes of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Darwin or even William Morris remain household names, recognition of this banker, journalist, critic, thinker and man of letters is largely restricted to economists and future monarchs.
But if a group of residents of the small Somerset town where he was born have their way, that may be all about to change through a campaign to rehabilitate Bagehot – for the record, pronounced baj-ot – as one of the intellectual giants of his age whose writings remain relevant today.
The Bagehot Memorial Fund this week unveiled its project to turn Langport (population 1,067) into the destination of choice for admirers of Bagehot, who is credited with providing the intellectual underpinnings for institutions from the constitutional monarchy to the Bank of England.
Such is the clarity of his analysis of Britain’s monarchical system that his writings are reputedly taught to all future kings and queens.
In Langport’s church graveyard, the finishing touches are being put to a £10,000 restoration of the tomb of Bagehot, who is perhaps best known as an early editor of The Economist between 1861 and 1877, along with plans for a walking tour and literature explaining his contributions to humanity.
Fundraising efforts launched appropriately last week with an advert in the pages of The Economist, the free market-loving, red tape-loathing weekly, seeking donations from the great and the good to eventually establish “state-of-the-art facilities” for a growing collection of Bagehot memorabilia.
Organisers insist they are not seeking to claim Bagehot for Langport in the manner that Stratford Upon Avon allies itself with Shakespeare or the West Yorkshire village of Howarth embraces the Brontes. Instead, they want to gently remind the world of their most famous son’s achievements.
Memorial fund chairman Barry Winetrobe, a constitutional history expert and Langport resident, said: “We don’t want to create some sort ‘Bagehotland’ with people coming in their tens of thousands. Our point is that Bagehot is a very important and relevant figure. His thoughts on areas such as the responsibilities of central banks are quoted everywhere after the economic crisis.
“We would like to bring him to a wider audience either here in Langport or via the internet. It would be nice to think of his name featuring on a list of places of interest and people coming away thinking, ‘I never knew about that.’”
Given the challenges of persuading the world to show an interest in the towering achievements of an economist, such restrained ambitions are probably fitting. After all, queues have yet to be found forming outside a John Maynard Keynes Fun Park, complete with a state-funded roller coaster to explain the boom-bust cycle.
But Bagehot’s champions point out that their man was about far more than pioneering the virtues of vigorous lending by central banks in times of slump. His subjects ranged from Coleridge and Shelley, to Robert Peel and Adam Smith, to Darwin’s emerging theory of evolution.
Born in Langport in 1826 on the upper floor of the family bank managed by his father, Bagehot initially qualified as a barrister in London but returned to help run the family business before taking the helm at The Economist at the invitation of his father-in-law, James Wilson, who founded the magazine. He was still its editor when he caught a chill in 1877 and returned to Langport to die.
Ruth Dudley Edwards, the historian and author of a collection of Bagehot’s writings, said: “He is the Victorian you would most want to have dinner with. He had an extraordinarily wide-ranging mind and used it to bring a new angle to what he wrote about – he used his knowledge of literature to explain economics, psychology to gain insight to the City.
“He has somehow been forgotten, perhaps for a reason as simple as people don’t know how to pronounce his name. But think it’s very much high time that he was re-evaluated as one of our great intellects. He was an extraordinary polymath but also a very rounded human being. And you can’t say that about many intellectuals.”
Despite dying at 51, Bagehot, who considered himself politically left of centre, has drawn admirers across the generations. As a young man, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the 28th American president, twice visited the grave of Bagehot, whom he referred to as his “master”.
Eulogies were offered to him by both Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson, while his death in 1877 was considered sufficiently monumental to merit a mention in the Budget speech of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer.
While any plans for Bagehot Library in Langport are embryonic, the town is determined to do its most famous son justice. It last year renamed its public garden after him and has put in place an annual debate for local schools with a Bagehot trophy.
But the campaign’s backers admit much work remains to be done. When The Independent called one business owner in the town this week to ask about Somerset’s greatest Victorian, he replied: “I didn’t realise he was local. I always thought he was a Belgian.”