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Introduction - The Victorian Era

British Isles Genealogy | Victorian Worthies

We like to fancy, when critics are not at our elbow, that each Age in our history has a character and a physiognomy of its own. The sixteenth century speaks to us of change and adventure in every form, of ships and statecraft, of discovery and desecration, of masterful sovereigns and unscrupulous ministers. We evoke the memory of Henry VIII and Elizabeth, of Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, of Drake and Raleigh, while the gentler virtues of Thomas More and Philip Sidney seem but rare flowers by the wayside.

The glory of the seventeenth century shines out amid the clash of arms, in battles fought for noble principles, in the lives and deaths of Falkland and Hampden, of Blake, Montrose, and Cromwell. If its nobility is dimmed as we pass from the world of Shakespeare and Milton to that of Dryden and Defoe, yet there is sufficient unity in its central theme to justify the enthusiasm of those who praise it as the heroic age of English history.

Less justice, perhaps, is done when we characterize the eighteenth century as that of elegance and wit; when, heedless of the great names of Chatham, Wolfe, and Clive, we fill the forefront of our picture with clubs and coffee-houses, with the graces of Chesterfield and Horace Walpole, the beauties of Gainsborough and Romney, or the masterpieces of Sheraton and Adam. But each generalization, as we make it, seems more imperfect and unfair; and partly because Carlyle abused it so unmercifully, this century has in the last fifty years received ample justice from many of our ablest writers.

Difficult indeed then it must seem to give adequate expression to the life of a century like the nineteenth, so swift, so restless, so many-sided, so full of familiar personages, and of conflicts which have hardly yet receded to a distance where the historian can judge them aright. The rich luxuriance of movements and of individual characters chokes our path; it is a labyrinth in which one may well lose one's way and fail to see the wood for the trees.

The scientist would be protesting (all this time) that this is a very superficial aspect of the matter. He would recast our framework for us and teach us to follow out the course of our history through the development of mathematics, physics, and biology, to pass from Newton to Harvey, and from Watt to Darwin, and in the relation of these sciences to one another to find the clue to man's steady progress.

The tale thus told is indeed wonderful to read and worthy of the telling; but, to appreciate it fully, it needs a wider and deeper knowledge than many possess. And it tends to leave out one side of our human nature. There are many whose sympathies will always be drawn rather to the influence of man upon man than to the extension of man's power over nature, to the development of character rather than of knowledge. To-day literature must approach science, her all-powerful sister, with humility, and crave indulgence for those who still wish to follow in the track where Plutarch led the way, to read of human infirmity as well as of human power, not to scorn anecdotes or even comparisons which illustrate the qualities by which service can be rendered to the State.

To return to the nineteenth century, some would find a guiding thread in the progress of the Utilitarian School, which based its teaching on the idea of pursuing the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the school which produced philosophers like Bentham and J. S. Mill, and politicians like Cobden and Morley. It was congenial to the English mind to follow a line which seemed to lead with certainty to practical results; and the industrial revolutions caused men at this time to look, perhaps too much, to the material conditions of well-being. Along with the discoveries that revolutionized industry, the eighteenth century had bequeathed something more precious than material wealth. John Wesley, the strongest personal influence of its latter half, had stirred the spirit of conscious philanthropy and the desire to apply Christian principles to the service of all mankind. Howard, Wilberforce, and others directed this spirit into definite channels, and many of their followers tinged with a warm religious glow the principles which, even in agnostics like Mill, lent consistent nobility to a life of service. The efforts which these men made, alone or banded into societies, to enlarge the liberties of Englishmen and to distribute more fairly the good things of life among them, were productive of much benefit to the age.

Under such leadership indeed as that of Bentham and Wilberforce, the Victorian Age might have been expected to follow a steady course of beneficence which would have drawn all the nobler spirits of the new generation into its main current. Clear, logical, and persuasive, the Utilitarians seemed likely to command success in Parliament, in the pulpit, and in the press. But the criterion of happiness, however widely diffused (and that it had not gone far in 1837 Disraeli's Sybil will attest), was not enough to satisfy the ardent idealism that blazed in the breasts of men stirred by revolutions and the new birth of Christian zeal. In contrast to the ordered pursuit of reform, the spirit of which the Utilitarians hoped to embody in societies and Acts of Parliament, were the rebellious impulses of men filled with a prophetic spirit, walking in obedience to an inward voice, eager to cry aloud their message to a generation wrapped in prosperity and self-contentment. They formed no single school and followed no single line. In a few cases we may observe the relation of master and pupil, as between Carlyle and Ruskin; in more we can see a small band of friends like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the leaders of the Oxford Movement, or the scientific circle of Darwin and Hooker, working in fellowship for a common end. But individuality is their note. They sprang often from surroundings most alien to their genius; they wandered far from the courses which their birth seemed to prescribe; the spirit caught them and they went forth to the fray.

The time in which they grew up was calculated to mould characters of strength. Self-control and self-denial had been needed in the protracted wars with France. Self-reliance had been learnt in the hard school of adversity. Imagination was quickened by the heroism of the struggle which had ended in the final victory of our arms. And to the generations born in the early days of the nineteenth century lay open fields wider than were offered to human activity in any other age of the world's history. Now at last the full fruits of sixteenth-century discovery were to be reaped. It was possible for Gordon, by the personal ascendancy which he owed to his single-minded faith, to create legends and to work miracles in Asia and in Africa; for Richard Burton to gain an intimate knowledge of Islam in its holiest shrines; for Livingstone, Hannington, and other martyrs to the Faith to breathe their last in the tropics; for Franklin, dying, as Scott died nearly seventy years later, in the cause of Science, to hallow the polar regions for the Anglo-Saxon race. Darkest Africa was to remain impenetrable yet awhile. Only towards the end of the century, when Stanley's work was finished, could Rhodes and Kitchener conspire to clasp hands across its deserts and its swamps: but on the other side of the globe a new island-empire had been already created by the energy of Wakefield, and developed by the wisdom of Parkes and Grey. In distant lands, on stricken fields less famous but no less perilous, Wellington's men were applying the lessons which they had learnt in the Peninsula. On distant seas Nelson's ships were carrying explorers equipped for the more peaceful task of scientific observation. In this century the highest mountains, the deepest seas, the widest stretches of desert were to reveal their secrets to the adventurers who held the whole world for their playground or field of conquest.

And not only in the great expansion of empire abroad but in the growth of knowledge at home and the application of it to civil life, there was a field to employ all the vigor of a race capable of rising to its opportunities. There is no need to remind this generation of such names as Stephenson and Herschel, Darwin and Huxley, Faraday and Kelvin; they are in no danger of being forgotten to-day. The men of letters take relatively a less conspicuous place in the evolution of the Age; but the force which they put into their writings, the wealth of their material, the variety of their lives, and the contrasts of their work, endow the annals of the nineteenth century with an absorbing interest. While Tennyson for the most part stayed in his English homes, singing the beauties of his native land, Browning was a sojourner in Italian palaces and villas, studying men of many races and many times, exploring the subtleties of the human heart. The pen of Dickens portrayed all classes of society except, perhaps, that which Thackeray made his peculiar field. The historians, too, furnish singular contrasts: the vehement pugnacity of Freeman is a foil to the serene studiousness of Acton; the erratic career of Froude to the concentration of Stubbs. The influence exercised on their contemporaries by recluses such as Newman or Darwin may be compared with the more worldly activities of Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce. Often we see equally diverse elements in following the course of a single life. In Matthew Arnold we wonder at the poet of 'The Strayed Reveller' coexisting with the zealous inspector of schools; in William Morris we find it hard to reconcile the creative craftsman with the fervent apostle of social discontent. Perhaps the most notable case of this diversity is the long pilgrimage of Gladstone which led him from the camp of the 'stern, unbending Tories' to the leadership of Radicals and Home Rulers. There is an interest in tracing through these metamorphoses the essential unity of a man's character. On the other hand, one cannot but admire the steadfastness with which Darwin and Lister, Tennyson and Watts, pursued the even tenor of their way.

Again we may notice the strange irony of fortune which drew Carlyle from his native moorlands to spend fifty years in a London suburb, while his disciple Ruskin, born and bred in London, and finding fit audience in the universities of the South, closed his long life in seclusion amid the Cumbrian fells. So two statesmen, who were at one time very closely allied, present a similarly striking contrast in the manner of their lives. Till the age of forty Joseph Chamberlain limited himself to municipal work in Birmingham, and yet he rose in later life to imperial views wider than any statesman's of his day. Charles Dilke, on the other hand, could be an expert on 'Greater Britain' at thirty and yet devote his old age to elaborating the details of Local Government and framing programmers of social reform for the working classes of our towns. Accidents these may be, but they lend to Victorian biography the charm of a fanciful arabesque or mosaic of varied pattern and hue.

Eccentrics, too, there were in fact among the literary men of the day, even as there are in the fiction of Dickens, of Peacock, of George Meredith. There was Borrow, who, as an old man, was tramping solitarily in the fields of Norfolk, as earlier he wandered alone in wild Wales or wilder Spain. There was FitzGerald, who remained all his life constant to one corner of East Anglia, and who yet, by the precious thread of his correspondence, maintained contact with the great world of Victorian letters to which he belonged.

Some wandered as far a field as Asia or the South Seas; some buried themselves in the secluded courts of Oxford and Cambridge and became mythical figures in academic lore. Not many were to be found within hail of London or Edinburgh in these forceful days. Brougham, the most omniscient of reviewers, with the most ill-balanced of minds, belongs more properly to the preceding age, though he lived to 1868; and it is from this age that the novelists probably drew their eccentric types. But between eccentricity and vigorous originality who shall draw the dividing line?

Men like these it is hard to label and to classify. Their individuality is so patent that any general statement is at once open to attack. The most that we can do is to indicate one or two points in which the true Victorians had a certain resemblance to one another, and were unlike their successors of our own day. They were more evidently in earnest, less conscious of themselves, more indifferent to ridicule, more absorbed in their work. To many of them full work and the cares of office seemed a necessity of life. It was a typical Victorian who, after sixteen years of public service, writing a family letter, says, 'I feel that the interest of business and the excitement of responsibility are indispensable to me, and I believe that I am never happier than when I have more to think of and to do than I can manage in a given period'. Idleness and insouciance had few temptations for them, cynicism was abhorrent to them. Even Thackeray was perpetually 'caught out' when he assumed the cynic's pose. Charlotte Brontė, most loyal of his admirers and critics, speaks of the 'deep feelings for his kind' which he cherished in his large heart, and again of the 'sentiment, jealously hidden but genuine, which extracts the venom from that formidable Thackeray'. Large-hearted and generous to one another, they were ready to face adventure, eager to fight for an ideal, however impracticable it seemed. This was as true of Tennyson, Browning, Matthew Arnold, and all the genus irritable vatum, as of the politicians and the men of action. They made many mistakes; they were combative, often difficult to deal with. Some of them were deficient in judgment, others in the saving gift of humor; but they were rarely petty or ungenerous, or failed from faint-heartedness or indecision. Vehemence and impatience can do harm to the best causes, and the lives of men like the Napiers and the Lawrences, like Thomas Arnold and Charles Kingsley, like John Bright and Robert Lowe, are marred by conflicts which might have been avoided by more studied gentleness or more philosophic calm. But the time seemed short in which they could redress the evils which offended them. They saw around them a world which seemed to be lapped in comfort or swathed in the dead wrappings of the past, and would not listen to reasoned appeals; and it would be futile to deny that, by lifting their voices to a pitch which offends fastidious critics, Carlyle and Ruskin did sometimes obtain a hearing and kindle a passion which Matthew Arnold could never stir by his scholarly exhortations to 'sweetness and light'.

But it would be a mistake to infer from such clamor and contention that the Victorians did not enjoy their fair share of happiness in this world. The opposite would be nearer the truth: happiness was given to them in good, even in overflowing measure. Any one familiar with Trevelyan's biography of Macaulay will remember with what fullness and intensity he enjoyed his life; and the same fact is noted by Dr. Mozley in his Essay on that most representative Victorian, Thomas Arnold. The lives of Delane, the famous editor of The Times, of the statesman Palmerston, of the painter Millais, and of many other men in many professions, might be quoted to support this view. In some cases this was due to their strong family affections, in others to their genius for friendship. A good conscience, a good temper, a good digestion, are all factors of importance. But perhaps the best insurance against moodiness and melancholy was that strenuous activity which made them forget themselves, that energetic will-power which was the driving force in so many movements of the day.

How many of the changes of last century were due to general tendencies, how far the single will of this man or that has seriously affected its history, it is impossible to estimate. To many it seems that the role of the individual is played out. The spirit of the coming era is that of organized fellowship and associated effort. The State is to prescribe for all, and the units are, somehow, to be marshaled into their places by a higher collective will. Under the shadow of socialism the more ambitious may be tempted to quit the field of public service at home and to look to enterprises abroad—to resign poor England to a mechanical bureaucracy, a soulless uniformity where one man is as good as another. But it is difficult to believe that society can dispense with leaders, or afford to forget the lessons which may be learnt from the study of such noble lives. The Victorians had a robuster faith. Their faith and their achievements may help to banish such doubts to-day. As one of the few survivors of that Victorian era has lately said: 'Only those whose minds are numbed by the suspicion that all times are tolerably alike, and men and women much of a muchness, will deny that it was a generation of intrepid efforts forward.' Some fell in mid-combat: some survived to witness the eventual victory of their cause. For all might be claimed the funeral honors which Browning claimed for his Grammarian. They aimed high; they 'threw themselves on God': the mountain-tops are their appropriate resting-place.

Victorian Worthies

Victorian Worthies, 1920

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