Looking back on 19th-century England, Lytton Strachey saw what he called the “Glass Case Age,” taking particular exception to Victorian intellectuals.

Their refusal to face any fundamental question fairly—either about people or God—looks at first sight like cowardice; but I believe it was simply the result of an innate incapacity for penetration—for getting either out of themselves or into anything or anybody else. They were enclosed in glass.

Here, as elsewhere, Strachey’s laborious sarcasm distorts more than it illuminates. Still, he does confirm the derision with which the Bloomsbury set regarded the age that preceded their own. In Victorian Bloomsbury, the intellectual historian and professor of English at University College London Rosemary Ashton revisits the district in which so much of Victorian rationalism flourished to uncover a number of hitherto neglected aspects of University College in Gower Street, the British Museum in Great Russell Street, the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in Percy Street, University Hall in Gordon Square, and Bedford College in Bedford Square. Anyone interested in 19th-century intellectual history, or the history of London, will find this book not only a useful corrective to Strachey’s flippant distortions, but a fascinating study in its own right.

The roots of the rationalism to which Bloomsbury continues to cater can be traced back to the Protestant reformers, whose repudiation of authority and sanction of private judgment culminated in Henry VIII’s break with the church of Rome and continued under different guises during the protectorship of Oliver Cromwell, despite the persistence of a strenuously high-church Anglican theology. In the 18th century, David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment waged a powerful counterattack against this theology, which would give new life to rationalism and the reform movements it inspired in the 19th century. The greatest of these, the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham, provided the University of London with its founding principles.

One of the most amusing of Ashton’s illustrations is of the clothed skeleton of Bentham, which one of his executors gave to University College in 1850. Bentham was a firm believer in what he called “auto-icons,” and even recommended that the landed gentry consider adopting them for their estates: “If a country gentleman had rows of trees leading to his dwelling, the Auto-Icons of his family might alternate with the trees.” In the wooden box enclosing his own auto-icon (which you can still see in the South Cloisters of the college), the personification of rationalist reform looks out at the visitor with imperturbable self-satisfaction, eternally ready to remake the world in accordance with utilitarian principles.

Ashton is particularly good in dealing with the different personalities that drove forward the reformist agenda. One of the most unbiddable was Francis Newman, the brother of the future cardinal, who taught at the Ladies’ College (later, Bedford College) for a time before being pressured to resign because of his Unitarian views. After being shown the door, he advised his former employers that they should either decide on a creed and demand that their teachers adhere to it, or ignore creeds altogether; otherwise, their attempts to hire suitable teachers would be impossible.

Imagine such an Advertisement as this: “Wanted, a Professor of Physical Geography .  .  . who must not be a Deist, nor a Puseyite, nor a Unitarian, nor a Roman Catholic. A liberal Churchman or Quaker will be acceptable, if not too deep in Rationalism.”

Another highly talented man who ran afoul of the creedal sensitivities of his fellow reformers was Frederick Denison Maurice, the Christian socialist and theologian who was instrumental in forming the Working Men’s College in Red Lion Square with such other Christian socialists as Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hughes, and John Ludlow. Maurice was revered by most of his confreres—Kingsley, Hughes, and the publisher Daniel Macmillan all named their sons Maurice after him—but many found him unintelligible, including Matthew Arnold, who once quipped that Maurice “passed his life beating about the bush with deep emotion and never starting the hare.” Another wag observed that listening to Maurice was like trying to eat pea soup with a fork. After publishing a book of theological essays in 1853 setting out his unorthodox Anglicanism, Maurice was dismissed from the theology chair of King’s College, London—though he always retained the respect and affection of the indefatigable reformer Octavia Hill.

Then, again, Ashton paints a vivid picture of Antonio Panizzi, an impecunious political exile from Modena who first gained a position teaching Italian at University College before rising to become the head librarian of the British Museum. Ashton relates the longstanding quarrel that Panizzi had with Thomas Carlyle, which began when the irascible historian asked the proud librarian to furnish him with “a quiet place to study .  .  . in your Establishment” while he was researching his life of Frederick the Great.

Panizzi’s response was unyielding:

Our reading-rooms of course are not as quiet and as snug as a private study; ours is a public place; no public convenience can equal a private carriage: even in a first class carriage you must occasionally put up with squalling babies and be deprived of the pleasure of smoking your cigar when most inclined to enjoy it.

This, as Ashton relates, was the exchange that inspired Panizzi to propose what would become the Round Reading Room. “Though others had already suggested ways of making use of the redundant inner courtyard of the new Museum building,” she writes, “Panizzi’s idea was enthusiastically taken up by the architect Sydney Smirke, and in January 1854 the Treasury approved his detailed plans and allotted £86,000 for the Reading Room’s construction.”

The presiding genius of the book, however, is Henry Brougham (1778-1868), the wily Scottish lawyer and politician who had a finger in nearly every reformist pie and helped to found not only University College but the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge and the Edinburgh Review. Ashton quotes from a profile of Brougham in the Tory Morning Post that perfectly captures the affectionate distrust with which his contemporaries viewed the orator:

He carries not in his satchel the tomes of antiquated philosophy, nor the venerable volumes of Revelation; they are to him as dust thrown into the eyes of reason, and as cobwebs that entangle the poor insect in its flight after truth. He is the Solomon of science—the master of mechanical systems—the chemist of nature refining human virtues from the dregs of corruption. .  .  . He has founded his University—he has established his Institutes—he is heard in the Senate, and at meetings for mutual instruction. .  .  . The day is at hand when he shall stand forth the Great Captain of the Age, and at the head of his legions begin the march of intellect.

Ashton treats this impresario of rationalist reform with the critical sympathy he deserves (he still lacks a proper biography)—though she omits to call her readers’ attention to John Henry Newman’s satirical series of letters to the Times, which he later published as The Tamworth Reading Room (1841). In these letters, the leader of the Oxford Movement took Brougham to task for setting up a library from which all theology would be excluded and for insisting on the moral benefits of knowledge.

When Cicero was outwitted by Cæsar, he solaced himself with Plato; when he lost his daughter, he wrote a treatise on consolation. Such, too, was the philosophy of that Lydian city, mentioned by the historian, who in a famine played at dice to stay their stomachs. And such is the rule of life advocated by Lord Brougham. .  .  .

It does not require many words, then, to determine, that taking human nature as it is actually found, and assuming that there is an art of life, to say that it consists, or in any essential manner is placed, in the cultivation of knowledge—that the mind is changed by a discovery, or saved by a diversion, or amused into immortality—that grief, anger, cowardice, self-conceit, pride, or passion, can be subdued by an examination of shells or grasses, or inhaling of gasses, or a chipping of rocks, or observing the barometer, or calculating the longitude, is the veriest of pretence which sophist or mountebank ever professed to a gaping auditory. If virtue be a mastery over the mind, if its end be action, if its perfection be inward order, harmony, and peace, we must seek it in graver and holier places than libraries and reading rooms.

That A. C. Grayling, former professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, has recently established what he is calling the New College of the Humanities along Brougham’s exclusively secular lines demonstrates the extent to which age-old sophistry continues to beguile our own rationalists. One of the first to respond to Grayling’s call for teachers was the evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins.

With such talent in tow, the march-of-intellect proceeds apace.

Edward Short is the author of Newman and His Contemporaries and the forthcoming Newman and His Family.

Next Page