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Visionaries: The opening of the Great Exhibition, 1851

Legend has it that the historian G.M. Young put down his copy of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians with the words: "We are in for a bad time." He did not mean to go down without a fight. Young's riposte to Bloomsbury, Portrait of an Age, masterfully persuaded the serious-minded of interwar England that there was more to their immediate predecessors than sexual repression and surreptitious alcoholism. But Attlee's Britain found them wanting once more, not so much hypocrites as Gradgrinds, capitalists who exploited the people, philistines who despoiled the landscape. It took Asa Briggs's The Age of Improvement to establish how little was true of this caricature too; indeed just how much Victorian England was a moral as well as a material achievement, similarly an aesthetic as well as a technological breakthrough. Yet his also turned out to be a short-lived triumph. Today, the Victorians stand condemned once more, both within and beyond the academy. Conventional wisdom now has it that their empire was a racist monstrosity. The Industrial Revolution wrought only an ever more divided society. Its domestic hearth sustained the worst kind of sexist ideology. They even turned out to be homophobes as well. And didn't it all culminate — somehow — in the First World War (centenary this year, in case you hadn't noticed)?

Simon Heffer will have none of this. His Victorians were titans. Their achievement was prodigious. Their legacy was nothing less than "the birth of modern Britain". This was forged not through sense of sanctimonious superiority but out of the experience of a real crisis. The "condition of England" around 1840 pointed to the probability of disastrous social breakdown. Early industrialisation wrought as much poverty as prosperity. The countryside was in disarray.  The classes were all but at war. Not just bourgeoisie and proletariat either, but landlord against merchant, manufacturer against labourer. Think of the Anti-Corn Law League. Recall the challenge of Chartism. Revolution seemed to be almost a weekly occurrence in France, just a thin strip of water away. Few among the most intelligently observant thought it an unlikely occurrence in England before 1850.

"Victorian England" was the sum of the domestic response to that challenge. It facilitated economic expansion over three generations that raised ordinary people to standards unthinkable in a previous age. It bequeathed a disinterested system of public administration that ensured an enviable mutual forbearance. It pioneered reform in education that extended social opportunity to the intelligent and ambitious far beyond the traditionally privileged. How? As the benevolent product of an invisible social hand?  As the fortunate outcome of unending class struggle? Or even in the providential wake of otherwise blinkered political conflict? Heffer will have none of that either. His Victorian England was the product of intelligent forethought. By that he does not mean bureaucratic planning. It was conceived in the High Minds of great contemporary thinkers, articulated through parliamentary debates of the utmost seriousness and promulgated by legislation that actually did make a difference in a big things as well as small.


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