Saturday, May 29, 2010

Book Selection: "English Thought in the Nineteenth Century" by D.C. Somervell Book Selection of the Month (May 2010): English Thought in the Nineteenth Century by D.C. Somervell

What a great find. I had intended to blog about this rich, philosophical, and surprisingly funny little book earlier in the month (sorry — new job) and now realize I wouldn’t have been doing half bad if I’d simply linked to the comment about it on Amazon from one Stephen Ferg, who says:

This is simply a wonderful book. First, it is very readable: you can sit down and read it for pleasure. I find that I like to dip into it at random and read a page or two about a given author or topic.

The best thing about the book — and what makes it unique — is the authorial voice. D.C. Somervell gives a balanced, literate treatment of his topics, and adds occasional personal evaluations as wonderful little one-line zingers. You feel that you are having a conversation with a tremendously interesting person: someone who is knowledgeable, literate, intelligent, balanced, and witty. One of my favorite examples (despite its complex sentence structure, which is not typical!):

“[William] Godwin is one of those philosophical gas-bags who has been so long pricked and deflated, that it has become extremely difficult to reconstruct him in the dimensions he assumed in the eyes of his contemporaries.”

The book was first published in 1929, which makes it much closer to its subject than we are today, and the author is much more familiar with Victorian luminaries that once shined brightly, but now have dimmed, than we are today. So you’ll get a perspective that you’ll miss in more recent books.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. If you’re interested in 19th century England, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy this book.

All true. I can even forgive Somervell for the swipe at William Godwin, founder of anarchism — unless you count Edmund Burke of all people, since he’d earlier written about the possibility of society without government and later had to disavow his book on the topic, natural though the fit is with the best aspects of his own mature philosophy.


And it’s really with Burke, man of the eighteenth century though he was, that Somervell begins, since this volume divides the nineteenth century into three rough segments, with Burke’s thinking (transmitted to the masses in large part by the novels of Sir Walter Scott) and the Tories dominating the first third (and defining themselves largely in opposition to revolutionary France), the utilitarian/laissez-faire capitalist classical liberals (and allied evangelicals) dominating the middle third, and socialist-leaning modern-liberals (not to mention imperialists and anti-capitalist Tory medieval-fetishists) dominating the final third.

Complex though Somervell’s dense, abbreviated story is, the political forces and ideas at work in it still map better onto the right/left thinking of the U.S. in recent decades than does the U.S.’s own nineteenth-century history, revolving as it did around issues such as land acquisition, Native American-fighting, slavery, and central banking that (with the possible exception of that last item) don’t really animate our arguments anymore. The period when “left vs. right” seemed to matter most may be ending right before our eyes, with the underlying, more important struggle between government and markets becoming more apparent to more people, but the left/right model is fairly useful for describing the nineteenth century — even though it presents us with some of the same difficulties we have today, regarding, for example, evaluating conservatism.

The Tories were far preferable to the bloodthirsty French Revolutionaries, but the Tories were also the chief foes of markets (and thus emiserators of the poor) in mid-century. It’s not surprising that by the end of the century, it was more common for politicians to drift back and forth between the Tory and labor factions than between the Tory and classical liberal/capitalist factions (while several intellectuals such as Ruskin, Arnold, and Carlyle seemed to combine the worst aspects of retrograde conservatism/medievalism and socialism). The fusionist combination humanity needs, in the end, is morals and markets, not conservatism and individualism per se (but there are so many ways to slice things up and we might be better off with more numerous and more specific labels).

Regardless, the nineteenth century as captured in this book seems like a far more reasonable and philosophically hospitable place than the Continent of the same era, where, for example, nonsense-spewing, obscurantist cretin Hegel was asserting that “the State is the image of the divine on Earth.” (He’s one of many reasons that I suspect future history students won’t waste too much time remembering which brand of German-spawned totalitarianism was which — but they’ll still benefit from teasing out different strands of nineteenth-century English thought.)


Another fusionist thought: I can’t help noticing that much of the middle third of the book is about the evangelicals and utilitarians working together — and about J.S. Mill devoting so much of his time to enlarging/critiquing simple forms of utilitarianism that he was writing a great deal about poetry and religion by the end. Let none call him shallow.

A lesser sidenote: people within the Anglican Church like Pusey who were drawn to Rome during the evangelical period were often referred to as devotees of “Puseyism” — or as “Puseyites” — and as such were seen as something of a fifth column within Anglicanism. The last thing devotees of progress and reform wanted was a bunch of Puseys fleeing back to the mother church. Somervell also notes the later tendency of decadents and aesthetes to end up Catholics — perhaps due to a combination of the Church’s aesthetic “excess” and its emphasis on wiping the moral slate clean through forgiveness — instead of sticking to good behavior in the first place, like a proper Victorian.

But I’ll take a closer look at the more stereotypically “Victorian” bourgeois/moralist middle third of the century in next month’s Book Selection entry, about James Laver’s Victorian Vista — and there’s more Victoriana in my next two Book Selections after that, including a look at my own old Connecticut hometown as it was a century and a half ago.

1 comment:

Todd Seavey said...

[...] my Book Selection last month detailed, the stereotypically “Victorian” middle third of the nineteenth century was [...]