The Magazine

Meet Mr. Bagehot

How ‘the greatest Victorian’ speaks to us.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)—“the greatest Victorian,” as an eminent historian of that period memorialized him, editor of the Economist, author of The English Constitution, and a prolific essayist—is almost unknown today. (Even the pronunciation of his name is unfamiliar; it rhymes with gadget.) The publication of his Memoirs, dated October 1, 1876 (six months before his death), and signed by the author with the request that it not be released until after he died, is surely a great coup, an invaluable addition to the 11 volumes of his Collected Works

‘The Lobby of the House of Commons, 1886’ by Liborio Prosperi

‘The Lobby of the House of Commons, 1886’ by Liborio Prosperi

national portrait gallery, london

Well, not quite. The title page contains a less familiar name, Frank Prochaska, and the foreword (do all readers read forewords?) elicits the fact that the Memoirs are not by Bagehot, not even edited by Prochaska, but by Prochaska himself. 

Fictionalized memoirs—a red flag to a pedant like myself. Prochaska explains that he chose to write about Bagehot in the first person in the hope of portraying his life and mind more vividly than he could have done in a conventional biography. The pseudo-Bagehot is indeed vivacious. Yet the pedant in me regrets the absence of quotation marks and footnotes attesting to the real Bagehot. I supplied some of them by tracking down the sources and was pleased to find that the Memoirs consist, in large part, of long, almost verbatim extracts from Bagehot’s writings. 

If the Memoirs cannot be appended to the Collected Works, they can serve as a brief and eminently readable introduction to a stimulating writer and thinker, a man for whom the term “public intellectual” may have been coined.

The Memoirs remind us that it is not a psychoanalytically obsessed biographer but Bagehot himself who found in his personal life the source of his distinctive character and mind. He must have been thinking of himself when he described St. Paul as a “divided nature.” He came by that nature honestly, genetically, so to speak. From his banker-father, reserved and austere, and his mother, “by turns gay and distraught,” he inherited the “hybrid sensibility” that persisted throughout his life, permitting him to indulge the love of poetry and literature acquired from his mother while exercising the boldness and rigor of mind of his father. It was to his “divided nature” that Bagehot attributed his ability to retain equanimity while coping with the “dark realities” of life. 

 Those realities were dark indeed. His mother, to whom he was deeply attached, lived in varying stages of insanity much of her (and his) life. (Not mentioned in the Memoirs is his half-brother, who was feeble-minded.) “Every trouble in life,” he once remarked, “is a joke compared to madness.” It is no wonder that Bagehot, like his mother, was subject to “bouts of melancholy” and that his “melancholy search for truth” intensified his “qualms about human motive and precipitous action.” This lifelong experience (both his mother and his half-brother predeceased him by only a few years) colored the whole of his life. “We see but one aspect of our neighbor,” he wrote, “as we see but one side of the moon; in either case there is also a dark half, which is unknown to us.  We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.” That aphorism is reflected in much that Bagehot did and thought, about political and social as well as private life. There is always a dark side, an unknown, perhaps irrational and unconscious side that has to be taken into account.

 

After graduating from college (University College London, not Oxford as his mother would have preferred, because his father objected to its religious requirement), Bagehot started the study of law, but found that uncongenial—starving, he complained, his “higher half thoughts, half instincts.” A visit to Oxford acquainted him with the followers of John Henry Newman and prompted him to read and admire the man, although not to agree with him. Reflecting on the division in his own life between his mother’s Anglicanism and his father’s Unitarianism, Bagehot came to a view of religion that transcended any doctrinal creed: “In religious matters, it is prudent to venerate what we do not comprehend. .  .  . We cannot prove that God is infinite, omnipotent and good, but we require the assumption that He is so or all is dark.” “Despite my doubting temper,” he concluded, “I sought a rational, consoling creed.”