High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain
This brilliant book charts the transformation of Britain from a country bound by privilege, laissez faire and gross inequalities, into a modern state fit for Britain’s emerging Empire. Everything, including Parliamentary suffrage; the position of women; the army, where promotion was largely bought not earned; the appalling factory conditions; access to education and university etc, had to be modernized in the teeth of entrenched opposition. The revolution was brought about slowly and painfully, over four or more decades, by a number of high-minded Victorian individuals such as Peel, Gladstone, Matthew Arnold, Carlyle, Florence Nightingale, and many more. In so doing, they altered public perception of the poor; the role of the state; the position of the Church of England in public life; the revolution in scientific thinking, and much more.
I enjoyed the way Heffer uses novels of the period, e.g. Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke, Dickens’ Hard Times, Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, as well as relevant poems, to illuminate contemporary thinking. Reading this book is like watching a caterpillar pupate; we are given an internal view of its organs dissolving and re-forming into a different creature. It’s a real tour de force, and I cannot recommend it too highly.