Review: A Victorian Mind

Malchow, H. L. "A Victorian Mind: Gertrude Himmelfarb, Poverty, and the Moral Imagination." Victorian Studies 35, no. 3. 1992.


THE PUBLICATION OF POVERTY AND COMPASSION: THE MORAL IMAGINATION OF THE Late Victorians is the culmination of a major endeavor in intellectual history- one that has spanned the 1980s, and is, to use a Germanism of which Beatrice Webb was fond, itself a monument to the “Time-Spirit” of that decade. With this substantial book, Gertrude Himmelfarb, perhaps the best-known, certainly the most combative historian of nineteenth-century ideas, closes a study of well over 1,000 pages. Poverty and Compassion follows and complements her earlier volume, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age. This work attempts to take a major consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the heightened awareness among the educated classes in Britain of a “problem” of poverty, and to trace its evolution through the course of a century. It is, insistently, not a study of poverty itself, but of the idea of poverty, and as such seeks to affirm the validity of a history of ideas and the need to rescue this particular idea from what seem to Himmelfarb to be the perverting, distorting prejudices of Victorian so- cialists and twentieth-century left-wing historians. It is a history with villains and heroes, bearing the marks of Himmelfarb’s characteristic fine observations and analysis of text but also of her famously derisive and provocative tone aimed at those with whom, past or present, she disagrees.

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