The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling
By Gertrude Himmelfarb
Ivan R. Dee, 288 pages, $26
In the French Revolution’s “empire of light and reason,” Edmund Burke observed, “all the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies” are to be discarded and lost to future generations.
The idea of a “moral imagination” is compelling at first hearing, but also slightly odd, if one thinks about it for a moment. Burke lived at the moment of transition for the imagination—a moment of transition for much else, of course, as the French Revolution rolled like a tumbrel through the Terror and on toward Napoleon. But the fortunes of the word “imagination” form a small but helpful figure, a tiny synechdoche, for those changes. When the medieval schoolmen used the word, they meant the general power of image-reading: the shared human capacity to look at the world and render it as images in the mind. And when the Romantics used the word, they meant the specific power of image-making: the artist’s unique skill at forming an image in the mind and forcing it out on the world. For the old philosophers, the imagination was the ability to read the book of God’s creation. For the new artists, the imagination was the ability to become like gods and write the book themselves.
In neither case, however, does the word “moral” go easily with the word “imagination.” As well speak of moral eye sockets and moral ear drums, for the medievals. As well speak of moral thunder and moral hurricanes, for the Romantics. But Burke meant something else by the word—or, rather, something that played with both sides of the changing meaning and arrived at a new usage: the imagination as a capacity that reads our feelings, judges them with an intelligence accustomed to considering actions in moral terms, and sees the result in social forms that provide “the decent drapery of life.”
Gertrude Himmelfarb, our finest living historian of the nineteenth century, has adopted the phrase many times, most recently as the title of her new collection of essays, The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling. And to read her as she examines such figures as Jane Austen and Benjamin Disraeli—or Ronald Knox and Winston Churchill, or Walter Bagehot and John Buchan—is to sense why we might need to cultivate some faculty that can describe in moral terms the social intersection of emotions and ideas.
Himmelfarb is right that the Victorians might be the best place for a historian to apply the moral imagination, for they may have been the most energetic, adventurous people who ever lived, and their virtues and their vices are written in gigantic letters. Not that you’d know it from the usual ways the nineteenth century was described throughout the twentieth century. Some years ago, I noticed that the copy of Himmelfarb’s 1968 collection Victorian Minds in the library at Johns Hopkins had a running set of remarks scribbled in it—beginning on the first page, where someone had circled the title and noted, “Awful big book for such a small topic.”
I was tempted to add “Lytton Strachey lives!” to the annotations, for the Edwardians’ dismissal of the Victorian mind played a key part in making plausible their attack on Victorian manners and Victorian morals. Anything was floss for their mill: The great evidence for the hoary charge of universal hypocrisy in the Victorian age, for instance, is all the nineteenth-century novels that describe it. In truth, a more plausible reading of those novels would reveal that never was there a society more concerned about hypocrisy, more certain of its sinfulness, and more determined to expose it. A pre-Victorian like Jane Austen is wry about hypocrisy—and even a little appreciative of it, if the alternative is brazenness. By the time we reach Charles Dickens half a century later, hypocrites are the supreme villains: “I am very ‘umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield,” as Uriah Heep gloats, “but now I’ve got a little power!”
If Lytton Strachey’s cool, languorous mockery in his 1918 Eminent Victorians set the tone for the aesthetic rejection of the Victorians, Lenin’s shrill 1917 Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism set the tone for the economic attack. And from yet another angle came the Freudians’ description of a culture sick to its root with bad ideas about sex (as though the entire nineteenth century was obsessed with wrapping piano legs in pantaloons, lest someone be led by their bare limbs to think about fornication) and bad ideas about death (as though every Victorian wanted to marshal a parade of child mourners to blacken the street with elaborate funerals).
Like three blades in a meat-grinder, the combination of Bloomsbury aesthetics, Marxist economics, and psychotherapeutic theory chewed the Victorians to pulp in volume after volume of twentieth-century social criticism. And against all this unfairness, this parent-slaying masquerading as historical scholarship, we’ve had, essentially, one woman: Gertrude Himmelfarb.
Lionel Trilling helped, of course; we forget how peculiar it seemed for a rising young literary critic in 1939 to publish a book like Trilling’s Matthew Arnold, and Trilling is not only the subject of one of Himmelfarb’s best essays in The Moral Imagination, but the presence who looms over the entire book. Then there was the rediscovery of Dickens by the magisterial critics of the 1940s and 1950s, from Edmund Wilson to George Orwell and F.R. Leavis. And the American feminists of the 1970s and 1980s, with their determination to feminize everything, were at least responsible for the republication of forgotten works from Hannah More’s 1809 Coelebs in Search of a Wife to Olive Schreinder’s 1883 Story of an African Farm—even if the books didn’t always say exactly what the modern feminists wanted them to say. In The Victorian Age in Literature, G.K. Chesterton, thinking of such small but perfect domestic novels as Mrs. Gaskell’s 1853 Cranford, remarks that the Victorian lady novelists were digging a canal that might have reached the sea, if only they had been left alone to dig it.
Still, for the last fifty years, Gertrude Himmelfarb, in elegant essay after elegant essay, has been the primary force compelling us to reconsider such figures as Lord Acton, John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, Thomas Malthus, Matthew Arnold, and scores of others, extending back through the eighteenth century in books like The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments and forward through the twentieth in books like One Nation, Two Cultures: A Searching Examination of American Society in the Aftermath of Our Cultural Revolution.
With such things as her review of Phyllis Rose’s peculiar 1983 Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages—reprinted in Himmelfarb’s Marriage and Morals Among the Victorians—she rejected unhistorical attempts to steal from the past little nuggets of useful history for modern fights. And with such things as her essay “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?”—a paean to Kate Turabian’s stern copyediting, reprinted in Himmelfarb’s On Looking into the Abyss—she rejected unprofessional attempts to lighten the burden of the historian by various populist gestures and postmodern shrugs about the ultimate unknowability of things.
Now, in The Moral Imagination, she collects a dozen of her essays on key writers: some old, like her 1960 analysis of John Buchan, and some new, like her 2005 reminiscence of Lionel Trilling. I once accused Gertrude Himmelfarb of preferring second-rank figures to first-rank: Mrs. Gaskell’s novels to Dickens’, Lord Acton’s thought to John Henry Newman’s, the Earl of Derby’s political skills to William Gladstone’s.
The charge was unfair—in The Moral Imagination alone there are essays on Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Winston Churchill—but she didn’t dispute it. Instead, she smiled and suggested that the second-rank figures are more clearly representative of their age. The history of ideas, Chesterton claimed in one of his trademark throwaway lines, often fails to match strict chronology—as when “John Henry Newman took up a sword to parry the blow that Darwin had yet to deliver.” The first-rank thinkers are always ahead of us, dodging a problem before we’re aware that there is a problem. The second tier doesn’t see the problem until it hits them on the nose.
Perhaps that is why the most enjoyable essays in The Moral Imagination—the ones that glow with a kind of definitive insight—are about such figures as John Buchan, Benjamin Disraeli (as a novelist), and the Knox brothers. That’s not to say the reader will always agree with Himmelfarb’s take on a subject. She clearly feels some sympathy for Ronald Knox, and when Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was dominating the news, she wrote for the Washington Post a cool rejection of religious fervor that might have come straight from Knox’s dismissals in his 1950 book Enthusiasm. But when her essay appeared in 2000—occasioned by the reprinting of the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography of her father, the editor of Punch, and his brothers—I felt that Himmelfarb hadn’t quite spent enough time on the impact of Knox’s mystery novels.
Of course, she had much else to cover, for Knox was also running around preaching at Oxford, inventing the comic genre of pseudo-scholarship about Sherlock Holmes, translating the Bible by himself, and being the premier Catholic apologist in Britain.
But that points at another feature of the figures Himmelfarb has spent her life writing about: their boundless energy. John Buchan—Lord Tweedsmuir, as he became—feels like the last Victorian, not so much because of his attitudes, but because he could write the classic boys’ book Prester John, work in politics, serve as the last British governor-general of Canada, and publish dozens of adult novels like The Thirty-Nine Steps. (Himmelfarb is the only person I’ve ever found who notices how much more complicated and interesting than anyone might expect are the novels featuring the lawyer Edward Leithen, possibly intended by Buchan as a semi-autobiographical figure.)
Or perhaps Winston Churchill is the last Victorian, and for much the same reason, albeit on a larger scale: He had the energy, the adventurousness, that made him seem to arrive from a different age than England knew in 1939. If Charles Dickens is the definitive Victorian, it is not simply because he was the dominant figure in the artistic genre of the novel that—in several important ways—the Victorians invented and perfected. He was also a Victorian in the way that he lived and wrote: the mad energy of his prose, the mad frenetic pace of his life. He was a force of nature or a social movement, more than he was a man. “There have been at work among us three great social agencies,” Himmelfarb quotes a Nonconformist minister observing in 1853: “the London City Mission; the novels of Mr. Dickens; the cholera.”
Will the moral imagination help us to understand such people? In her essay on Middlemarch, Himmelfarb defends Dorothea’s second marriage to Ladislaw rather than Lydgate by downplaying, to some extent, George Eliot’s preachiness. That seems right, and a good corrective to common misreadings of the book. But we shouldn’t forget that George Eliot genuinely was preachy. There’s a reason Nietzsche singles out “little moralistic females à la Eliot” for special scorn. As Himmelfarb notes, in the second edition of Middlemarch, Eliot trimmed the novel’s ending complaint about the hypocrisy of a culture that would not object to marrying a ripe young girl like Dorothea off to an old dry stick like Causabon—after reviewers pointed out that Dorothea’s neighbors did plenty of objecting early in the book. But Eliot reinserted much of that complaint back into later editions, all looping around to the novel’s peculiar beginning notion that Dorothea somehow has the talents of St. Teresa of Avila while being deprived by her culture of opportunities to express them.
In the end, Gertrude Himmelfarb’s sense of the imagination is much like Edmund Burke’s: a power that somehow reflects both the old philosophical concept of an image-reader and the Romantic notion of an image-maker. The historian’s task is to read the moral images of the past, the intersection of feelings and ideas as they actually came to be in the social order. And the social commentator’s role is to form moral images by which we might understand in the present what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost since those energetic Victorians strode the earth. The hope, of course, is to perceive again all the decent drapery of life—”furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies.”
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.