Commentary Magazine

The Moral Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb

The Moral Imagination
by Gertrude Himmelfarb
Ivan R. Dee. 260 pp. $26.00

When Gertrude Himmelfarb published Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience and Politics in 1952, Victorian culture still seemed a chamber of horrors—aesthetic, intellectual, and otherwise. Such, at least, was the picture painted by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians (1918), which looked pityingly on the 19th century as a long diversion from the great path of the Enlightenment, until Freudian psychology and modernism in the arts would set the wheels turning once more.

To correct this vision has been the thrust of Himmelfarb’s career as a historian. In a succession of books and essays (including in COMMENTARY), she has explored the Victorian response to such varied subjects as poverty, marriage, and Darwinism, and in the process has done much to rehabilitate Victorian culture in all its complexity, nuance, and bracing sense of moral and social responsibility.

This new volume of essays pays tribute to twelve writers and thinkers whom Himmelfarb has found praiseworthy or admirable, and who have helped mold her own mind. Not all of them are Victorians, though all, with the exception of Lionel Trilling, are English. First and foremost, however, they are writers: not only authors of fiction like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens or philosophers like Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill but also politicians like Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli, each of whom wrote well enough to live by his pen. But her approach to these writers is not really literary. She has little to say about the peculiarities of authorial voice or diction, or cadence and tone. Her ear is not so much musical as moral, and it is here that she listens most carefully to what her subjects have to say.

Anyone who regards the moral universe as composed solely of obligations and prohibitions will wonder at Himmelfarb’s title: must one bring imagination to a commandment? But for each of Himmelfarb’s subjects, the moral universe was in disarray. Each, beginning with Burke, was writing against the immediate background of revolutionary change, in which new political, social, and religious circumstances had rendered personal obligations unclear. To find the moral path required not simply fidelity to received wisdom but an active and questing imagination. Indeed, Himmelfarb’s title derives from Burke’s celebrated essay on the French Revolution, whose cult of abstract reason had violently disrupted all those customs, responsibilities, and decencies that, as Burke memorably phrased it, were “furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination.”



This is not to say that Himmelfarb’s subjects are moralists, or even moral—only that they brought intellectual alertness to moral matters. George Eliot, for example, was hardly moral by Victorian standards: she lived for over two decades in an “irregular relationship” with George Lewes, a married man with three children (and a wife who had yet another three children by yet another married man). But far from being a libertine, indifferent to bourgeois morality, or a modern feminist committed to overturning that morality, Eliot worked to bring her relationship as much as possible under the conventions of middle-class marriage, whose condition and prospects form the subject of her greatest novel, Middlemarch.

That novel is the subject of one of Himmelfarb’s most thoughtful essays here. Critics of Middlemarch, from Henry James to modern feminists, have faulted its heroine Dorothea for marrying the callow artist Ladislaw when she might have won the idealistic Dr. Lydgate, a scientist and a sort of Darwin surrogate who is seeking the “primitive tissue” that is the basis of life. But as Himmelfarb shows, Dorothea’s choice, in the end, reflects her increasingly mature understanding of marriage. Where she once entertained the childish notion that “the really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father,” she grows to accept marriage’s net of complexities and obligations, even “its demand for self-suppression and tolerance.”

These are no sanctimonious platitudes, for in Eliot’s world the arbitration of duty and desire had been made immensely more difficult by the Victorian loss of faith (signaled by the presence in Middlemarch of Lydgate). Dorothea’s admission that “now I hardly ever pray” is understood by Eliot not as a cry of liberation but rather as a sign of “moral chaos.” For Himmelfarb, the abiding interest of Middlemarch lies in Eliot’s attempt to sketch in fiction the prospects of marriage in a secular culture—a subject that has hardly gone away.



It is only natural in an anthology of occasional pieces and book reviews that some will be more satisfying than others. The piece on Churchill is brought down somewhat by the workmanlike qualities of the biographies it reviews; one wonders what Himmelfarb might have done had she addressed Churchill on her own and in his totality, as she does in the essays on Disraeli and Dickens. And in one instance—Lionel Trilling, the author to whom she stood closest personally—one wishes she had dealt with his 1948 essay in Partisan Review on the Kinsey Report, which, in pointing to the report’s removal of sexual behavior from the web of social relationships that give it meaning, presciently analyzed a phenomenon—the impoverishment of sexuality itself in the name of liberation—that has only intensified over the ensuing generations. Perhaps more so than in his other essays, Trilling here displayed the quality of moral imagination that is the leitmotif of this book.

In general, Himmelfarb’s most provocative essays are those in which she struggles with her own convictions. An example is the essay about John Buchan, “one of the last articulate representatives of the old England.” Before his death in 1940, Buchan had managed to churn out 57 novels and biographies while rising to the governor-generalship of Canada. He is by far the least enlightened of Himmelfarb’s subjects: a few apt quotations from his novels make clear not only his jovial bigotry (“a nigger band, almost looking like monkeys in uniform, pounded out some kind of barbarous jingle”) but his now incomprehensible sense of duty (“There’s nothing much wrong with me,” an officer in one of Buchan’s novels says drily. “A shell dropped beside me and damaged my foot. They say they’ll have to cut it off.”)

The very antithesis of a modern liberal, Buchan is nevertheless, for Himmelfarb, much more than a specimen of imperial fatuity. She shows that he was able to write so convincingly about the English world of the church, the university, and the club because he was an outsider to all of them, and saw them with peculiar vividness.

A Scottish Calvinist who had studied at Glasgow before entering Oxford in 1895, Buchan came to adopt the attitudes of an English Tory “by choice and principle” rather than out of unconscious prejudice or economic self-interest. As a result, he could respond to new events with an alert intelligence. A novel like The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) might display the conventional anti-Semitism of the day (“a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake”), but two decades later Buchan was one of the first prominent British intellectuals to attack Nazi anti-Semitism and endorse the cause of Zionism. Outdated as much of his outlook has become, he remains a subject of enduring interest.

Other essays are chiefly of biographical interest, such as one on The Knox Brothers (1977), Penelope Fitzgerald’s high-spirited account of her father Edmund and his brothers Dillwyn, Wilfred, and Ronald. The intellectual flowering of this family was extraordinary, developing in two generations from a curate’s tyrannical household where flogging was common and novel-reading was prohibited to produce a cryptographer, an editor of Punch, and two priests, one Anglo-Catholic and the other Roman Catholic—all of them distinguished, and all of them variously disappointing to their Anglican father. Here, as throughout, Himmelfarb shows her great flair for evoking a personality by means of a few telling details.



Himmelfarb into the personal lives of her subjects not out of prurient interest but with a humane eye and abundant sympathy. One has the sense that their personal foibles and quirks ultimately matter to her because the moral sense cannot be cultivated entirely in the abstract or in schematic terms; it is expressed in the network of specific obligations to specific people in specific circumstances.

This echoes the tendency of her career in general, which has been to stress the English philosophical tradition and its skeptical empiricism over the utopian abstractions and rather less than utopian track record of its continental counterpart. One sees here the fulfillment of the intellectual trajectory that began with her work on Lord Acton, the thinker who drew the widest possible lessons from the French Revolution, and not only from the Jacobin tyranny in which it culminated but from the various species of reactionary tyrannies that succeeded it.

This is the conservatism of the mid-19th century, chary of all tyranny and suspicious of all concentration of power. Here Gertrude Himmelfarb’s intellectual pedigree takes its start, and from it there derive the insight, broad tolerance, and capacity for intelligent empathy that she brings to her subjects in this book, as to the subject of the moral imagination itself.


About the Author

Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)

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