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. Read more