Remembering the Eminent Scholar of the Victorians

Keiper, Adam, "Remembering the Eminent Scholar of the Victorians," The Bulwark, January 2, 2020.


ertrude Himmelfarb, a historian who helped resuscitate the reputation of the Victorians and a public intellectual who shaped neoconservatism, died this week at the age of 97.

In a writing career astonishingly long—some seven decades separate her first and final publications—Himmelfarb revealed the complicated ways in which ideas and culture influence one another. And, as she showed in profiles of such figures as Burke and Bagehot, Malthus and Mill, often the best way to understand ideas and culture is through biography, with its untidiness of context and character and contingency.

The revisionist portrait of the Victorians that Himmelfarb painted was far subtler than the popular caricature. We tend to think of the Victorians as pompous prudes. Or as the vain hypocrites whose pretensions Lytton Strachey punctured. Or as the denizens of Dickens’s grim, gray London. But Himmelfarb’s Victorians were passionate seekers, arguing and stumbling their way toward answers to difficult questions: How can we best care for the needy and the sick? How should we prevent crime and punish criminals? How can we cope with the social and economic consequences of rapid technological change? How should the sexes live together? How can we work out the tensions between liberty and democracy? How, in the face of unsettling scientific discoveries, are we to understand ourselves and our place in the world?

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