In an impressive array of pieces—all previously published, most substantially revised—a historian examines the moral views of novelists, politicians and philosophers.
Himmelfarb (The Roads to Modernity, 2004, etc.) deals with figures who for most will range from the familiar (George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill) to the barely known—or unknown (Walter Bagehot, John Buchan). Himmelfarb writes with ease about these figures, as though she has somehow integrated them into her own capaciously conservative philosophy. Sometimes the questions she asks seem trivial: Why, for example, does Dorothea marry Ladislaw? she wonders in her discussion of Middlemarch. But that question sends her to the heart of Eliot’s novel. The author praises Dickens for his moral imagination, for bringing “the poor into the forefront of the culture”—not as some sort of vague “class,” but as individuals. There are flashes of humor, too: In a discussion of Austen, Himmelfarb confesses that she preferred Clueless to the 1996 film Emma, feeling the former was “more in keeping with the spirit of the original.” The author examines, more or less rigorously, the novels written by political figures Disraeli and the aforementioned Buchan. For the latter’s efforts, she has extracted some amusing passages, but she is perhaps a bit quick to excuse his racism and anti-Semitism. There is a graceful review of Penelope Fitzgerald’s book about her relatives, the Knoxes (The Knox Brothers, 2000), concluding that it was the brothers’ “character and beliefs” that made them significant. Not all of the writing is graceful, however. Some passages—especially in her essay on Trilling—are dense with -isms, thick with literary allusions.
Erudite and scholarly and brimming with quotations—qualities that will appeal more to those who reside in academe than in Spoon River.