Lawrence Goldman, ed., The Blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett & British Liberalism.
In his Life of Henry Fawcett, Leslie Stephen published a letter of condolence written to Mrs. Fawcett by four carpenters, one blacksmith, one postmaster, one clerk, and two bricklayers. The letter declared that a great man had gone from the nation, but stressed that the work he had done for the working classes had not been in vain. He would certainly be remembered. It must be admitted, however, that Fawcett has not normally occupied the front rank when the contribution of Victorian sages has been reviewed over subsequent decades. However, he had not been forgotten in Trinity Hall, Cambridge, of which college he was a Fellow for thirty years. The centenary of Fawcett's death in 1984 provided the occasion for a conference at the college which enabled the participants to reflect broadly on aspects of the history of political economy, Victorian politics, and the "Liberal outlook" during the mid-nineteenth century. Fawcett's life and work provided a point of departure for these reflections. It is the papers delivered on that occasion which have been published (after a rather long interval) in this volume.
Any reconsideration of Fawcett is in principle welcome and this collection, which clearly owes much to Goldman's personal enthusiasm, can be confidently recommended to all students of mid-Victorian public life. As in the case of all such collections, however, the difficulty for an editor or collator is to try to minimize overlap and repetition on the part of different contributors. It is not clear how much discretion Goldman has had in this matter, but there are several occasions in which different authors repeat the same basic information either about facets of Fawcett's career or his writings. The editor could certainly have been rather more fierce in cutting out some of this repetition and the volume as a whole would have been better for it. For example, it would have been more sensible to have dealt once and for all with Fawcett's social background and financial circumstances in their bearing on a political career; as it is, different authors present the same facts in greater or less detail.
The editor sets the scene with a general survey of "An advanced Liberal." Fawcett's death was untimely, but Goldman argues that his political career, from the late 1850s until the mid-1880s, was coextensive with Liberalism in its heyday. Death therefore spared him many of the painful decisions which the academic radicals had to face in the years that immediately followed. His was a Liberalism, however, that had little in common with Gladstone's, although initially Fawcett had greatly admired Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer. "Principled opposition" and "independence" were the terms most frequently used to describe Fawcett's position. Goldman notes that they led him into almost constant difficulty with whips, ministers, and his own constituents. He lost his seat at Brighton to the Tories. He found it difficult to understand how anyone should prefer a well-known yachtsman and a cavalry officer (the occupations of the Tory MPs) to a university exponent of political economy like himself. Goldman comes back to a more specific aspect of Fawcett's career in another essay at the end of the volume. He looks at the Social Science Association and draws attention to certain "disjunctions" between Fawcett's economics and his politics, particularly in their implications for the working class: co-partnership, state aid, trade unionism. Goldman suggests that it was not so much what Fawcett said in such contexts that excited enthusiasm as the fact that he went out in person to meet working men. Christopher Harvie rounds off the formal consideration of Fawcett's politics with an overall assessment of his career. He sees him fundamentally as a politician. His "operative ideology" was the politician's one of the repetition, illustration, and elaboration of a simple thesis rather than the academic's disposition to be more speculative, original, and tentative.
Does that mean that the only thing to be talked about in the context of economics is whether he was a second- or a third-rate practitioner? These are matters pursued with authority by Phyllis Deane and discussed further by Donald Winch. Deane sees him as "the plain man's political economist". His chosen role was that of a teacher and popularizer. He set out to analyze current economic trends in the light of Mill's Principles and had a good grasp of those trends. His work was an example of "the art of political economy" rather than an attempt to construct a work of "economic science." She concludes that viewed in this light his impact on economic opinion in and out of Parliament was "not negligible." Winch acknowledges this verdict as just and reinforces the point by contrasting Fawcett with Jevons. The latter is seen as one of the first of a new professional breed and the former as one of the last amateurs. Finally, in this section, Giacomo Becattini provides a detailed analysis of Fawcett and the labor question, concluding that Fawcett's uncompromising individualism meant that the friend of the working class became more and more identified with the interests of the middle class.
The third section of the book contains papers which probe Fawcett's personal life and sensibility. Stefan Collini discusses the notions of "masculine independence" which underlay his political principles, notions which were enshrined in Stephen's biography. Fawcett embodied the very virtues of character, Collini persuasively suggests, which his political creed had elevated as its ideal. Boyd Hilton elaborates on Collini's remark that "manliness could take many forms." In discussing why Fawcett and Stephen should both have opposed Governor Eyre, Hilton argues that "manliness" meant different things to the Cambridge humanitarians than it did to Carlyle and Kingsley. The elegant discussion of this issue teeters on the brink of being somewhat arch, but is stimulating nonetheless. David Rubinstein's discussion of the marriage of Henry and Millicent Garrett Fawcett is succinct, moving, and balanced. The union brought together two remarkable individuals who were resolute in their pursuit of women's emancipation and mutually supportive in that objective. Henry would not have been disturbed if he had known that a subsequent generation might come to think of him as "Millicent's husband."
Taken as a whole, this volume has not sought to stake a major claim for Fawcett beyond his just deserts. It has, however, drawn fresh attention to the varied contacts and connections which made him a significant figure in his time. It was, of course, his blindness which gave his achievement an additional place of respect and which perhaps still gives the name of Fawcett some resonance. This volume goes a considerable way to explaining why this was so.
St. David's University College
University of Wales
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1992|
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