Times (UK) Obituary

"Gertrude Himmelfarb," The Times, December 31, 2019.

When historians find their work cited in political debate, it is usually to provide an incidental gloss, a brief claim to intellectual backing well buried in a policy speech. The work of Gertrude Himmelfarb, however, a formidable historian of the life and beliefs of Victorian Britain, featured in policy debate here and in her native United States. Her British admirers ranged from Conservatives considering a return to “Victorian values” to the Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. In the US, meanwhile, she was dubbed the “queen bee of American neoconservatives”, became a confidante of presidents, and was prominent in the challenge to postwar liberal and leftwing thinking.

What Himmelfarb imported from her studies of the Victorians into contemporary debate was a belief in the vital importance of individual responsibility and also an unfashionable advocacy of the role of religion in shaping social and political thinking. Just as the 19th-century Victorian virtues she so admired had not been passed on to succeeding generations in Britain, undermined by a loss of religious faith and the rise of what she saw as a corrosive liberalism, so she feared postwar American society and the West in general had lost its bearings, falling into “grievous moral disorder”.

More necessary than any number of government programmes, she asserted, was a revival among citizens, leading thinkers and political leaders of what she saw as the best 19th-century qualities – summarised as “work, thrift, prudence, temperance, above all self-reliance and personal responsibility”. Prompted by seeing Margaret Thatcher accused in the 1980s of “approving of Victorian values” (perceived as a negative concept), Himmelfarb responded with a book entitled The De-Moralization of Society: from Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. This loss of a sense of morality, she argued, was “one of the primary causes for not only the statistics about illegitimacy but the statistics about crime, about drunkenness, about welfare dependency, about drug addiction and so on”.

Her application of such ideas, including echoes of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, enraged the liberal left. Critics branded her work with terms such as “reactionary”, “mean-spirited” or “absurd and partisan”. While rejecting the stereotypical view of Victorians as heartless exploiters, she insisted that “I do not mean to defend or justify or condone everything in Victorian England”. Yet there was no doubting her overall confidence that study of the Victorians and how they thought about society could benefit today’s world.

Her many publications, from more than a dozen academic books to pithy articles and interviews, ranged across a huge number of individuals, groups and themes in the Victorian era. Her fascination began with a study of Lord Acton, admired as a “great liberal” (in the sense of the Victorian liberalism she revered) who was preoccupied with the defence of liberty against the horrific distortions of the concept seen in the French Revolution. A later Himmelfarb project was an account of how the French Enlightenment degenerated into absolutist anti-clerical excess and violence unlike, say, the British and, especially, Scottish enlightenments where religious belief and reason found much healthier common ground.

In her intellectual engagement with many of the most prominent figures in Victorian thought, Himmelfarb also wrote in the 1950s about Charles Darwin and the Darwinian movement, suggesting it emerged in a much more complex way than simple links suggested with the discoveries made on Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle.

Her study of another Victorian intellectual giant, John Stuart Mill, developed Himmelfarb’s own analysis of what she saw as a corrupting emphasis on personal liberation and individualism.

She believed, for example, that Mill had ultimately encouraged a radical feminism that separated women and men too far from traditional roles in family and community life. As part of her sparring with progressive opinion, Himmelfarb enjoyed challenging feminist orthodoxies, once commenting mischievously that the invention of the bicycle gave women “the kind of liberty which the feminists, however strident they might be about all kinds of other issues, could not have given them”. Himmelfarb also wrote extensively about George Eliot, whom she saw as “surely the greatest novelist of Victorian England” – admirable not only for her novels but also for her European intellectual hinterland and for her views as “very much an English moralist” despite her unconventional life. In one work Himmelfarb specifically explored Eliot’s use of Jewish characters and her increasing interest in Jewish life and thought following personal encounters.

Although most of the Victorian moralists she championed came from a Christian background – whether the Clapham Sect evangelicals prominent in prison reform and the campaign against slavery, or the Catholic Lord Acton – she regarded religious belief in general as a vital underpinning of social thought. Nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants to Britain, she suggested, also became model Victorians: “They have all of the family values, they have the desire for self-betterment, they have the kind of self-discipline.”

In this as in so much of her activity Himmelfarb was influenced by her experience of Jewish immigrant life and aspiration. She was born in Brooklyn in 1922, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her father eked out a living from a glass-making business. Her parents, who had not had a formal education, showed “an enormous respect for learning”. Himmelfarb’s intellectual abilities, evident from an early age, led to studies in history, economics and philosophy at Brooklyn College, and Judaic study at a theological seminary. Later she studied at the University of Chicago.

Her first political beliefs were on the Trotskyite far left, joining in the early 1940s a passionately intellectual, but tiny, anti-Stalinist group with her new husband Irving Kristol, another child of Jewish immigrants who went on to become a leading US conservative commentator. In that early post-Depression era, she recalled later, “it seemed to me to be perfectly natural to be a socialist”. Both she and Kristol began to shift their political stance rightwards as the war ended, and they enjoyed a blissfully happy marriage for many decades until Kristol predeceased her in 2009. She was known to her friends as Bea Kristol. They had two children: William, who became an influential conservative commentator and adviser; and Elizabeth, who was an editor and writer on political affairs.

Himmelfarb’s interest in British history deepened when the family lived in the UK soon after the war, where Kristol was working on the magazine Encounter. She was a fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, and began to make her name with the publication of her work on Acton. After returning to the US she taught in New York and in the 1980s moved to Washington where she could play to the full the role of public intellectual. Physically slight but exuding intellectual energy, she dined regularly at the city’s top tables, including the White House, and entertained with her husband in their book-lined apartment. And always there was argument – just as there had been in the home Himmelfarb had grown up in, in particular about how deeply the US could and should change.

Her historical work on poverty in particular fed into contemporary debate on welfare reform. In her books The Idea of Poverty and Poverty and Compassion she described an approach to poverty pioneered by the Victorians that was disciplined and realistic rather than, as she saw it, self-indulgent and lacking in practical achievement. Poverty, she insisted, needed to be discussed with a language that was moral, not just economic. Victorian concepts such as compassion and responsibility could usefully find their way into current debates about, say, “compassionate conservatism”.

Conservative politicians in Britain also took note of Himmelfarb’s work, if increasingly warily once talk of a revival of moral values came up against the misbehaviour of prominent individuals. Her most surprising British political champion was Gordon Brown. He even wrote the foreword to one of her books, The Roads to Modernity. While commentators on the left who knew Himmelfarb’s broader agenda were aghast, Brown was impressed by her love of the Scottish Enlightenment. And he believed the social virtues she had identified in Victorian times, such as decency and industriousness, remained an essential part of the Britishness he was so keen to identify and celebrate. Her ability to prompt discussion among top politicians would have pleased Himmelfarb, who thought it essential for any historian to understand what she termed the elite process of opinion formation. While other historians might focus more and more on the population as a whole, or on broader social or economic trends, Himmelfarb remained convinced that key figures and groups and their deepest beliefs were hugely significant in how societies developed.

In its obituary of her hero Lord Acton, The Times wrote that he had “made history respectable”. Gertrude Himmelfarb, too, was a widely respected scholar whose personality and passionate faith in the lessons of the past brought her view of history well beyond academic study and right into contemporary debate.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian, was born on August 8, 1922. She died on December 30, 2019, aged 97 Interest in British history deepened when the family lived in the UK