The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain by Jacob Rees-Mogg

Jacob Rees-Mogg is one of the most gifted parliamentarians of our time, and one of the most misunderstood. Many of his critics have no desire to understand him.

A few weeks ago, I was at a book launch. There on one side of the room was Rees-Mogg, accompanied by the family nanny.

On the other side of the room, I found myself talking to an eminent historian whom I had not seen for some time.

“Do you see who is here?” he demanded. “Rees-Mogg!”

“Come and meet him,” I said. “You will find that although you disagree about Europe, he is a most enjoyable person to talk to.”

“No!” the historian said, as if I had suggested making friends with the devil. “I do not want to meet him.”

A few minutes later, I found myself having a conversation along the same lines with a distinguished figure from the BBC. Once again, Rees-Mogg’s presence was treated as an outrage rather than an opportunity to meet.

This book will do nothing to recommend Rees-Mogg to those who have already hardened their hearts and closed their minds against him.

It is a collection of biographical essays, each 30 or 40 pages long, about 12 of the great Victorians: Sir Robert Peel, Lord Palmerston, General Sir Charles Napier (whose statue stands in Trafalgar Square), William Sleeman, Augustus Pugin, Prince Albert, Benjamin Disraeli, William Gladstone, General Gordon, Professor Dicey, W.G.Grace and Queen Victoria herself.

Each of the essays can be read with profit as an incisive and thought-provoking introduction to its subject. There is a liberation for the reader as well as the writer in not trying to cover everything in exhaustive detail, and the author has a keen eye for striking material drawn from sources no longer fashionable. It is astonishing that in the middle of such a busy political period he has found time for this work.

But the spirit in which the book is written will be found deeply offensive by most members of our modern intelligentsia. For it is cast as an attack on Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and on all who in the century since that masterpiece came out have followed him in mocking these great figures and reckoning we have nothing to learn from them.

Rees-Mogg keeps on digging up Strachey and throwing stones at him, dismissing him as mean-minded and spiteful, while at the same time admitting to having only “leafed through Eminent Victorians”.

Three years after that book, Strachey brought out Queen Victoria, in which he notes “the irresistible potency of her personality” and “a peculiar sincerity”:

“Her truthfulness, her single-mindedness, the vividness of her emotions and her unrestrained expression of them, were the varied forms which this central characteristic assumed, It was her sincerity which gave her at once her impressiveness, her charm, and her absurdity.”

This is affectionate rather than spiteful. Strachey has a keen enjoyment of absurdity, and so as it happens does Rees-Mogg. He begins his Introduction with this anecdote:

“Early in 1895, Queen Victoria’s private secretary Sir Henry Ponsonby attended on Her Majesty for the last time. Ponsonby had served the Queen in this role since 1870 but he had suffered a stroke in the previous year. He was no longer able to fulfil his duties and now he was calling on the Queen at Osborne to say his farewells. It is recorded that he looked at Victoria and said slowly, ‘What a funny little old woman you are.’ The Queen’s response was ‘Sir Henry, you cannot be well’ and she swiftly rang the bell for him to be removed from the Royal presence.”

Rees-Mogg complains that Sir Henry’s comment has “become something of the standard view of the entire Victorian age”, and goes on:

“Sadly, society these days, which has so little faith in anything, is understandably nervous of those Victorians who believed in so much, who embraced a sense of purpose and destiny so glaringly lacking both in their Hanoverian predecessors and in the beau monde of our contemporary world.”

Instead of running the Victorians down in the manner of Strachey, we should learn from them:

“The Victorians had confidence in their civilising effort, a belief in the goodness of their own nation and the drive necessary to finish the job. How favourably this compares with the contemporary nervousness about the country where moral relativism accepts an equivalence between good and bad and with a tangible feeling that all we can do is manage decline. This is where we today can and must learn from our ancestors.”

So what we are presented with here is a series of moral lessons. In his first essay, Rees-Mogg says that “Peel personified a moral tone that in itself raised the condition of Victorian Britain”.

Palmerston “was able to combine a sense of moral indignation, which was true and deeply felt, with a practical calculation of what might also be gained from the situation”.

Rees-Mogg admires Palmerston’s “moral and realistic vision of the supremacy of the national interest”, and his ability “to maintain a high degree of popular support”, which are “an excellent basis for a contemporary foreign policy”.

By the end of his life of Gladstone, Rees-Mogg is suggesting that “a public and articulated morality is the best tool politicians can have at their disposal for their posthumous reputation”.

He admires the work ethic of his Victorians and their determination to improve the condition of the people. Little attention is paid to the private frailties of his subjects.

So although we are told that Palmerston “enjoyed a complicated and notorious private life”, the author indicates his preference for the “quiet, blameless and honourable private life” of Peel.

The tendency of modern biographers to give maximum prominence to the sex lives of their subjects, and to speculate on that topic when they cannot discover any evidence, is not shared by Rees-Mogg.

In the author’s Acknowledgements, we find the book was typed up “from either dictation or manuscript”, where the ability to “decipher my scribbles” was required.

Much of the book certainly reads as if it was spoken before being committed to paper, and would work best if it was still spoken, as a series of speeches, with intonation taking the place of pronunciation.

No editor has had time to correct various errors of transcription. A satirical rhyme about Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, is given as if Jowett had written it himself.

Rees-Mogg makes extensive use of Philip Magnus’s wonderful biography of Gladstone, which recounts how, after the death of General Gordon at Khartoum – a disaster precipitated by Gladstone’s culpable slowness in sending help to a subordinate who had disobeyed orders – the Music Halls reversed the initials “G.O.M.”, standing for “Grand Old Man”, and instead began referring to the Prime Minister as “M.O.G.”, Murderer Of Gordon:

The M.O.G., when his life ebbs out, 

Will ride in a fiery chariot,

And sit in state

On a red-hot plate

Between Pilate and Judas Iscariot.

In Rees-Mogg’s rendering, “Pilate” unfortunately appears as “Pilot”.

Oddly enough, going back to Magnus helps remind one of the humiliations and impermanence with which Victorian leaders had to contend every bit as much as their successors do.

Magnus, whose book was published nine years after the end of the Second World War, remarks that “Gladstone in his old age was haunted increasingly by the fear that the masses might in the end prove to be just as corrupt and irresponsible as the classes which, in his view, had succumbed long ago to the temptations of wealth and power”:

“Gladstone continued fearlessly, but with increasing anxiety, to address the masses as the highest court of Christian morals on earth… In the bright noonday of intellectual liberalism, Gladstone had purchased the people’s love with coin of the purest gold. That coinage was debased by his competitors, and in the auction which followed the currency was recklessly inflated. In the early days of that auction, Lord Randolph Churchill learned much from the arts which Gladstone practised in Midlothian; and he made a corrupt use of what he learned. Randolph Churchill reached out a hand to Lloyd George, and Lloyd George exchanged a nod with Adolf Hitler on the trail from Midlothian to Limehouse and from Limehouse to the Nuremberg Rally.”

Rees-Mogg’s message, which is that we should read about the great figures of the Victorian period, and emulate their virtues, is true.

But the abuse by demagogues of those virtues is a never absent danger.

In this book, Dicey is hailed for in 1892 promoting the referendum as a way “to guard the rights of the nation against the usurpation of national authority by any party which happens to have a Parliamentary majority”. It is, I suppose, a sign of this reviewer’s incorrigible wetness that I am not yet as confident as Rees-Mogg seems to be that the 2016 referendum is working out well.