SHAFTESBURY: The Great Reformer 1801-1885 by Georgina Battiscombe

SHAFTESBURY: The Great Reformer 1801-1885

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Battiscombe's biography of Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, is intelligent, well-informed and eminently readable. Shaftesbury himself, moreover, is undoubtedly one of the most admirable personages of the Victorian era. Kind, philanthropic and hard working, he overcame a completely dismal and unloved childhood -- neither his father nor his mother seems to have felt the least affection for their eldest son and heir -- went on to enter Parliament and became one of the great reformers of the age. Fervently religious, he took deeply to heart the Evangelical teaching on the essential connection between privilege and responsibility. For over fifty years he interested himself in bettering the awful treatment of lunatics in Bedlam and elsewhere; he was largely responsible for the passage of the Ten Hours Act which was one of the first bills to ameliorate the plight of factory children in the dark, satanic mills, and he followed this up with a bill which barred women and children from working in the coal pits. And even if his numerous good deeds were tinged with a trace of upper class condescension and noblesse oblige, Shaftesbury, unlike so many do-gooders of the day, at least took the trouble to investigate personally the unsafe and unsanitary conditions where those he sought to help labored like mules. Unheard of for an aristocrat, he actually descended into the foul and dangerous mines. Apparently Shaftesbury's fellow feeling for the exploited had its origins in the neglect he experienced as a child when his mother's maid was apparently the only person who showed him any warmth or understanding. However Battiscombe never really probes the psychology of this exemplary, if slightly eccentric, Victorian and, alas, the pious and straight-laced Shaftesbury, like so many very virtuous people, is just a trifle dull.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1975
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin