The Magazine

Eminent Precursors

Distinguished groups in Bloomsbury before there was a Bloomsbury Group.

Dec 10, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 13 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.