Jacob Rees-Mogg, The Victorians ( W.H.Allen, 2019)
The author of this 440-page study of twelve “Titans who forged Britain” is a well-known right-wing conservative statesman, currently Leader of the House of Commons in the Boris Johnson Conservative government in the United Kingdom. Noted for his very traditional manner of self-presentation and his strong support for Brexit, Rees-Mogg was educated at Eton College and then read History at Trinity College, Oxford, after which he proceeded to a very successful career in finance before taking up his parliamentary career. He is a Catholic with six children and hails from Somerset in south-west England. The publication of this book was timed to coincide with the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria.
Upon its appearance in May it was greeted with extraordinary hostility in some quarters. Dominic Sandbook described it as abysmal and soul-destroying. Writing in The Sunday Times he stated: “The book is terrible, so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anyone else it would never have been published.” In The Observer Kim Wagner wrote: “The book really belongs in the celebrity autobiography section of the bookstore. At best it can be seen as a curious artefact of the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country.” He called it “a sentimental vision of the past as the author wishes it had been,” resembling a series of “half-remembered anecdotes from a Boy’s Own story, or perhaps tales told by his nanny.”
In The Guardian Andrew Rawnsley commented that, while Rees-Mogg “claims an ambition to restore the reputation of this vivid period of history, all he achieves with this awful book is to make a shipwreck of his own pretensions as they are repeatedly dashed on the rocks of his incoherent thoughts before sinking under the dead weight of his lifeless language. … The only purpose of this dreadful pulp is to demonstrate why Britain’s past is no more safe in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s hands than its future.” A. N. Wilson in The Times wrote that the author’s effort was “anathema to anyone with an ounce of historical, or simply common, sense” and described the book as “a dozen clumsily written pompous schoolboy compositions” which amounted to “yet another bit of self-promotion by a highly motivated modern politician.” Also in The Guardian Kathryn Hughes commented: “In Parliament, Rees-Mogg is often referred to as ‘the honourable member for the 18th Century’, a nod to those funny clothes he wears, along with pretending not to know the name of any modern pop songs. What a shame, then, that he has not absorbed any of the intellectual and creative elegance that flourished during that period.” Simon Heffer in The Telegraph opined: “I find it hard to believe Rees-Mogg actually wrote this book or, if someone wrote it for him, allowed it to be published under his name. It is a complete turkey. … Parts of this appear to have been written by a baboon.”
Probably the most devastating assault of all came from master historian Richard J. Evans, famous ever since his role in the High Court defeat of David Irving’s defamation case against Deborah Lipstadt. In NewStatesmanAmerica he wrote: “To say that this is a selective reading of Victorian attitudes would be an understatement of huge proportions. … This is the view from inside the Westminster bubble. …The working class is entirely absent from this book, except as an object of upper-class philanthropy and the benevolence of politicians. … Rees Mogg’s perceptions are myopically rooted in the past. … The Victorians is written … in a plodding, laborious and barely readable style, completely lacking in humour, sophistication or polish as well as in every other literary quality. … The accolades distributed to Rees-Mogg’s subjects are framed in clichés that no half-way intelligent or discerning writer would dream of handing out. … Patriotic, enthusiastic and celebratory, The Victorians is the kind of history that Michael Gove, as education secretary, wanted to be promoted in the national history curriculum for schools, until he was forced to withdraw his proposals after a deluge of criticism and ridicule from the entire history profession. … This kind of colonial nostalgia exerts a baleful influence over the minds of Brexiteers today, who view the prospect of a ‘global Britain’, illusory though it is, as a kind of resurrection of the imperial glories of the Victorian era. … Rees-Mogg picks out of his source material only those aspects of his subjects’ lives that help him grind his political axe. … The Victorians is hopelessly inadequate as history, but it’s also too badly written, too pompous and too cliché-ridden in every sense to serve its real purpose as providing any kind of historical justification for Brexit. What’s most striking about the book is its naivety and simple-mindedness – qualities shared by the Brexiteers in full measure as they declare that nothing could be easier than leaving the EU.”
It is plain that this book has been met in many influential quarters with that “unmeasured vituperation” that John Stuart Mill noted of some political writing in his own time. The sort of malicious invective and sweeping exaggerations listed above clearly do much to de-authorise the writers’ attempted demolition, even if some of their observations may be true and some of their judgments may have merit. It’s time to consider the text itself to see what the real truth about it is.
The Victorians is designed to defend a thesis: that the Victorian age and its leading figures are worthy of our admiration and emulation. It was, Rees-Mogg, asserts, “a time of truly transformational, revolutionary change in Britain, an age when life expectancy was increasing, material wealth rising year after year and the Constitution evolving gloriously into a settled and stable state.” He celebrates “a period of moral certainty, of success” in which “those Victorians who believed in so much, who embraced a sense of purpose and destiny” achieved great things. “A most important tenet of Victorian culture was its openness to new ideas.” Queen Victoria is praised because, while holding to a form of Protestant Christianity very firmly, “she was perfectly aware as Sovereign that Victorian Britain contained many mansions and they all ought to be respected.” She and Prince Albert also made family loyalty and welfare a widely espoused aspect of the times.
Our author has chosen twelve representatives of Victorian England as exemplars for close study to illustrate his theme. “Each was patriotic. … Each had confidence in the positive nature of their home nation. … All of these heroes recognised the civilising effect of their own nation and understood the good fortune of Britain, as a nation blessed by being the first to receive the benefit of a good Constitution and the rule of law. They also had the self-confidence to say that civilisation was a good thing and that it is reasonable to export it to other countries to remove such hardships as exist.”
Rees-Mogg praises the religiosity of the age, its “deeply felt sense of religion,” which he sees as undergirding “a more general belief in duty.” He also commends “the work ethic of our forebears” and “that pivotal Victorian virtue of respectability, which carried with it a commitment to self-help.” He points to “the scale, ambition and energy of Victorian industry” as “something to be wondered at” and states that “this sense of limitless ambition, this Victorian trademark, was at the heart of what [so many] did.” He admires the “strength and fitness” of “robust Victorian manhood” and sees the Victorians also as pragmatic: “They loved the outward signs of gentility, but also recognised the need for people to profit from their enterprise, to make a decent living.”
The Victorian age was an imperial era. Of one leader Rees-Mogg comments: “His lodestar was a principle of morality and it seems that the guiding principle of the Empire which he served was also founded on morality. … The story of the Empire is its constant and continuous abnegation by its would-be masters for most of its existence.” Our author relates this to the ideals of the national game of cricket: “fair play, etiquette and gentlemanly behaviour” which “exemplifies the reach and influence of English and British power around the world.”
Summing up, Rees-Mogg argues that “the stability that Britain in the Nineteenth Century enjoyed rested on providence and faith, an industrious head of state, a robust yet flexible parliamentary system, the ever-increasing productivity of British industry and finance, the humane relationship between the aristocracy and the masses and the equitable legal order to which all were subject. … In no other country in Europe did the subject have so much scope for private activity unchecked by the state.”
Disagreeing strongly with Lytton Strachey’s 1918 book Eminent Victorians, Rees Mogg insists that the time of the Victorians “was not the age of stolidity so many now imagine,” being much less stuffy and hidebound. This does not mean that he has donned rose-tinted glasses to the point of forgetting weaknesses, errors, corruptions during the Victorian age, or neglecting the great suffering endured by many people both in Britain and in the other parts of the Empire. There are enough references scattered through the book to show this; but he has chosen deliberately, as is his right, a positive focus in order to encourage Britons today and in the future to regain, individually and as a nation, a sense of justified pride.
Rees-Mogg introduces the twelve figures he has chosen as follows: “two elder statesmen, two politicians, two military men, an architect, a legal authority, an administrator, a cricketer and the royal couple, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.” He makes no claim to being fully comprehensive in any way. These are just twelve persons of special interest to him. “Indeed,” he tells us, “such was the quality of leadership in Victoria’s reign that it is more difficult to decide whom to exclude than to include. … any selection is essentially arbitrary.” This rather spikes the guns of angry and resentful critics that his selection is unsatisfactory. It does not seem to have occurred to them that this is his book and it is his privilege to choose whomever he wants. Not to concede this suggests a nasty streak of intolerance as well as a foolish lack of proportion in his opponents. It is plain that his twelve “titans” are in fact well-chosen for his particular thesis.
Our author begins his analyses with Sir Robert Peel (1788–1850), “best remembered for his creation of the country’s first national police force.” Rees-Mogg praises “his decision, as Prime Minister, to dismantle the economic rules that had kept the price of food artificially high in Britain and led to disaffection in our cities.” He applauds Peel’s defence of the Royal Academy and tells how he was “sensitive and informed about the visual arts, his one true passion away from governing.” A grandson, George Peel, is quoted as explaining that “in an age of revolutions, Peel may alone be said to have had the foresight and the strength to form a conservative party not on force or on corruption, but on administrative capacity, and the more stable portion of the public will.”
The second great Victorian considered is Lord Palmerston (1784–1865) who developed a profound knowledge of foreign affairs. He was a believer in interventionism into the affairs of other nations “when this was judged to be in the national interest, but the preservation of peace was to be the first object of government.” Palmerston not only opposed all forms of slavery but “was happy to do so openly even when such public opposition discomforted and vexed Britain’s allies.” He had a “strong belief in the principle of liberty both of the person and of individual conscience.” When he turned his attention to home affairs, he prioritised “education, clean water, cheap food and personal liberty; taken together, these were his recipes for the preservation and enhancement of the nation and for the prevention of revolution.” Yet he also defended his own aristocratic caste. “He believed that the landed interest was essential to stability but their duty was to improve both their land and the lot of their tenants.”
Rees-Mogg turns now to General Sir Charles Napier (1782–1853). This military man had a humane streak: he “despaired of the rulers, idolised the ruled and would have solved their problems with radical answers had the temper of his own age allowed it. … He was a colour-blind colonial governor who rejected the preoccupations of race.” His victory at Miani “was an extraordinary feat of arms” after which he “became the first commander in British history to name the common soldiers in his dispatches and not merely the officers.” Rees-Mogg is not a hagiographer: he admits that later, in Sindh, Napier “was out of his depth.”
The fourth titan is William Sleeman (1788–1856). Our author tells “how the moral integrity and everyday administrative zeal of one Victorian helped to lift a curse from Indian society.” A man “who was not willing to accept the status quo if it cried out to be altered,” Sleeman was “a marvellous linguist” who believed “that British culture was superior to all others” (a contestable view, of course). However, he also had a “very strong sense that India was a place of the greatest value that was worth getting to know fully and intimately.” His master achievement, Rees-Mogg believes, was the elimination of the peculiar criminal organisation of the Thugs. This is a claim that has been challenged by some historians, as Richard J. Evans noted in his review.
We move now to the architect Augustus Pugin (1812–1842), for whom Rees-Mogg, as a fellow-Catholic, obviously has a soft spot. Pugin saw architecture as “a moral force to be deployed for the greatest possible good” and dreamed of a world society which would be a “coherent Christian civic order in which the poor would be fed, the old cared for, the children taught.” He spearheaded the Gothic Revival, favouring “an architecture derived from the pre-Reformation world” which he saw as much superior to that of the Renaissance and neo-Classicism. The Gothic style was “a sacred organising principle which enabled a church building to be used in the way for which it was intended: the worship of God.” Rees-Mogg, often sensitive to the ironies and tragedies of human life, sadly notes that Pugin’s vision “clashed with the facts of the real world and of the real Catholic Church.” However, not without subtlety, our author adds that the shape Pugin gave to his buildings “transferred to the shape that Britain herself assumed in the national psyche, lending his work a potency that none of his contemporaries can possibly match.”
The sixth Victorian titan is the royal consort Prince Albert (1819–1861). Rees-Mogg admires his intelligence, capacity for very hard work and diplomatic good sense. The prince is remembered especially for his vision of, and support for, the Great Exhibition of 1851, whose first legacy “was to make the Royal Family immensely popular.” Thanks very much to Albert as well as the Queen, “the character of our contemporary monarchy came into existence.” The integrity of the royal couple, as well as the striking success of their family life, “fostered the stable, deeply-rooted monarchy, one that was above political currents, reproach and danger.” Albert’s great achievement was to “set the tone for a constitutional monarchy,” one that was “acceptable to the political class and popular with the people.” He also had the literary good taste to suggest Tennyson for the position of Poet Laureate.
The most enigmatic of all of Rees-Mogg’s heroes is undoubtedly Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881). However, many of his achievements are clear. “His was the decisive influence in consolidating the modern British Conservative Party,” for he “helped position it both as a friend of the British citizen and a supporter of the British imperial adventure.” His work for the 1878 Congress of Berlin helped bring peace for thirty years. Disraeli “had theatrical flair” and “possessed the impresario’s feel for what the people wanted and the determination to put this into action.” He achieved the great coup of British control of the Suez Canal. Overall, “he knew that the democratic society that was developing would depend on the multitude being successfully engaged,” as “he realised that the people could have an affection for a monarchy that they were unlikely to feel for politicians and his understanding still provides a backbone of stability for the nation today.” Moreover, being an indefatigable novelist with Jewish roots, Disraeli brought a tone of cosmopolitan culture into the upper echelons of British culture; and one suspects that this is one reason he so strongly charmed his sovereign—and Rees-Mogg.
His great political rival was William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898), whose “work ethic was extraordinary” and whose lifelong approach to politics contained “the thread of evangelical certainty,” since he saw religion as an inseparable part of the “great web of social, ethical and political concerns.” Rees-Mogg commends his contribution to British parliamentary tradition. He gave “the ancient post of Chancellor its current character and authority” and did the nation a service in “delineating the realms of public and private.” We have him to thank “for the introduction of today’s ethical rules of behaviour within government departments.” Gladstone also “began the practice, continued ever since, of putting all his Budget measures into one bill” which has been “a constitutionally useful way of marking the Commons’ supremacy over the Lords.” He also did much to make “politics and politicians honourable, important and honest.”
The ninth leader examined by Rees-Mogg “died the most famous man in the world,” we are told, which indicates an excessively Anglocentric perspective that is characteristic of parts of The Victorians. General Sir Charles Gordon (1833–1885) is notable for his humanity and the universalist approach he took to organized religion. “He found standard models of British piety to be narrow and conventional in the extreme”. His sense of God was essentially personal and interior and he was no crusader. Two anecdotes illustrate this attitude. In the Sudan he found a mosque had been turned into a powder magazine and “had it cleared out and handed back with great ceremonies.” Then, during an assault on Quinsai, he “rescued a naked infant, who then clung to him for much of the battle. In due course Gordon sent the child to be fostered at Shanghai and paid for his education.” Rees-Mogg tells how he was a man “who thought as much of feeding enemy civilians as he did of victory in battle” and who, during the struggle against the Taiping, “begged for mercy for his defeated foes against their cruel masters.”
Alas, Gordon eventually met his death unnecessarily by, characteristically, disobeying orders, a defect about which Rees-Mogg is quite open.
The tenth subject is the “philosopher of the British Constitution,” Albert Venn Dicey (1835–1922), who was “an upholder of the sacred principle of legal impartiality” and a devotee of “free trade, reform without revolution and the free exchange of ideas.” This profound analyst of the British political order (he was a dedicated Unionist who grieved over Great Britain’s loss of Ireland) divided British legal development into three parts: “the sovereignty of Parliament, the rule of law and the idea of constitutional conventions.” In later life he became an advocate of the referendum, stating that it can “guard the rights of the nation against the usurpation of national authority by any party which happens to have a parliamentary majority.” Rees-Mogg believes that Dicey’s work has provided in our own times “the constitutional authority for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.”
Dicey was also a champion of the individual person and considered that “each man was the best manager of his own affairs,” so that “citizens ought to be considered individuals first, members of a class second.” Rights, he claimed “were held from the past, not bestowed graciously by politicians today who might remove those rights tomorrow.”
The eleventh of Rees-Mogg’s titans is the cricketer W. G. Grace (1848–1915). While fully acknowledging his subject’s sporting ability (“Nobody else has ever managed to match such all-round quality and longevity nor placed such a distance between himself and the player in second place”), our author especially commends Grace’s ability to manage his life so successfully. He defends him in what was “an age of business success” and laments the fact that “our present society, being more tiresomely censorious, is more inclined to criticise Grace for working with the grain of the society in which he lived, rather than seek to overturn that society.” Rees-Mogg concludes that “this man of ambition and pragmatism and drive, who built a business and a brand in the face of all the odds, who worked with what he had and who stands as the original face of today’s cricket, deserves to be saluted.”
This brings us to Queen Victoria herself (1819–1901). We are reminded that “from the start she behaved as if born to the role” and that she was “strong-willed and apt to do as she pleased.” Despite that, she had the capacity to accept good advice: “her awareness of this potential delicacy of governance, bestowed by Albert, caused her to rein herself in and to play her part in developing the constitutional monarchy that survives to this day.” Victoria also had a lifelong sense of duty. Even during the intense grief she felt over the untimely loss of her beloved husband, “she never stopped doing her boxes” and “continued to work and exercise her prerogative.”
The Queen was able to build a deep connection with her people through “the good works she directly encouraged and indirectly inspired. The philanthropy stemmed from sincere religious conviction but it also helped ameliorate class divisions.” A keen fan of the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, she knew that “public life is theatre” and that “the climax of the play is the Queen.” She understood her fame and “her part in the play.” Rightly, she gave her name to the age.
Rees-Mogg sums up her role with justifiable pride in her place in British history. Amidst the whirl of “a century of unparalleled dynamic change” she was “a still, constant centre” who “supplied the stability and the continuity” needed by her people. “She deserves gratitude for what she and her subjects did to hold off barbarism, decline and defeat. Victoria was the Queen for a great empire, who viewed all her subjects equally and allowed the Constitution to develop peacefully rather than clinging to the remnants of monarchical power.”
This brief survey of The Victorians should be enough to show that, while there are some deficiencies in the text, the journalistic onslaught can justifiably be described as disgraceful. Rees-Mogg has clearly written his book for the general reader. He makes no claim whatever for academic status for his work. Contrary to some of his enemies’ assertions, his literary style is pleasantly readable, cast into almost faultless prose rhythm. His writing is a little pedestrian at times, perhaps, but has the virtues of simplicity and straightforwardness. He also makes no claim to possess original literary style, which, for his particular purposes of communication, is not necessary anyway.
There is undoubtedly a touch of the starry-eyed Anglophile in Rees-Mogg, so that his praise of his “titans” and of Britain and its empire can no doubt be validly qualified in various ways by a less enthusiastic observer. His figures are basically kind-hearted and sympathetic to people of other ethnicities. My impression is that Rees-Mogg is first and foremost a conservative in the tradition of people like Russell Kirk and T. S. Eliot. These writers are all primarily Christians. They are not primarily—if at all—racial nationalists, and I would not be surprised to learn that he is a member of “Conservative MPs Friends of Israel.” His eager expatiation on the virtues of these twelve leaders leads at times to a too facile use of superlatives and occasional contradictions or incompatibilities of assertion. The text would have benefited from further editing, but no doubt Rees-Mogg wanted it to appear at the time it did, both to celebrate the significant anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth and to contribute to the stiffening of British resolve in the defence of Brexit (which itself is mentioned only slightly, but sufficiently to establish the link).
The virulence of the attacks on The Victorians shows that establishment intellectuals greatly fear Rees-Mogg and his capacity to influence British politics. On the principle that “the enemy of our enemies is our friend,” I think he deserves qualified support from racial nationalists.
The judicious observer of the text and the attacks on it must inevitably wonder how conscious the framers of these attacks were of what they were doing. Were they deliberately and knowingly seeking to dent any impact the book might make or were they so caught up by their own prejudices as to be unable to perceive the enormity of what they were doing? Who knows?
However, we can arrive with confidence at some assessment of the significance of the attacks. A recent article in The Australian by foreign editor Greg Sheridan provides a suitable context (“Brexiteers fighting for liberty and the people’s will,” 12 September). Sheridan argues that what is happening in Britain is “a profound clash of philosophies of society.” Quoting from Christopher Caldwell’s essay “Why hasn’t Brexit happened?” (in the August Claremont Review of Books), he argues that the Remain movement expresses “a tradition that empowers a technocratic elite, built on documents with plenty of abstract nouns that inevitably give great legislative power to judges. The pincer movement of bureaucracy, ruling class ideological uniformity and judicial activism” seriously erodes democracy.
Unfortunately, “judicialising politics actually represents an enormous transfer of power from the poor to the rich.” Members of the judiciary tend to be drawn from “the tiniest sliver of the wealthiest people in the society, and generally hold all the approved opinions.” Thus Caldwell argues that Remain is essentially synonymous with ruling class and Brexit represents an assault on its prerogatives. So its reaction to the 2016 referendum result has been “all-out administrative, judicial, economic, media, political and parliamentary war.” A cornered elite is fighting to retain its privileges. One of its strategies is to express an arrogant and unwarranted contempt for the alleged ignorance and folly of Brexit supporters.
We all know the old saying that in war the first casualty is truth. The ideological bombast and slanderous sneering of the attacks on Rees-Mogg’s book illustrate this anew. Of course, he is especially hated by many left-wing intellectuals because in his own life, self-presentation and parliamentary activities, he challenges the “new world order” and its forces of “political correctness” with extraordinary directness and daring. If too many ordinary Britons were to buy and read his book, oh dear!
Nigel Jackson is a Melbourne poet, essayist and commentator on public affairs.