MARRIAGE AND MORALS AMONG THE VICTORIANS by Gertrude Himmelfarb

MARRIAGE AND MORALS AMONG THE VICTORIANS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Eleven essays on the ""moral imagination"" among the English Victorians, by an American history professor, City University of New York. Despite this collection's title, this is not a spicy nosegay of cultural attitudes among the Victorians but rather a history of ideas about 19th-century English morality. Himmelfarb's dry, academic introduction almost embalms the essays to come, as do the opening pages of the title essay, whose voice begins like rats feet over broken glass. But once she comes to grips with the ideas of Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, and some sense of real life (or sensuous existence) begins to intrude, things cheer up. Rose's study is about the irregular marriages of the Carlyles, the Ruskins, the Mills, the Dickenses, and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. Rose thinks she is writing about ""What makes a marriage valid? its endorsement by church or state? or the commitment of the people involved? That was the question her (George Eliot's) behavior posed, and her radical stance was calculated to undermine morality as it had been known and to reestablish it on a more serious, a more existential basis."" But Himmelfarb shows very well indeed that the five fairly bizarre marriages described (the Ruskin and Carlyle unions were never consummated) do just the opposite: they strengthen ""morality as it had been known"" and reestablish it on a more serious, a more philosophical basis. Rose, in short, is all wet. In other essays, Himmelfarb performs a genealogy of morals on the Bloomsbury group (when the great Victorian biographer Lytton Strachey, a conscientious objector, was asked by a court what he would do if he saw a German soldier trying to rape his sister, ""he solemnly looked at each of his sisters in turn and replied, in his high-pitched voice, 'I should try and interpose my own body' ""); examines utopias (Bentham's and Godwin's), Social Darwinism and sociobiology, Disraeli, the Fabian Webbs, the conservative Michael Oakeshott--and asks, ""Who Now Reads Macaulay?"" (only grad students--like Ozymandias, he's had a very great fall). Earnest ideation, limited readership.

Pub Date: March 6th, 1986
ISBN: 1566633702
Publisher: Knopf