"The Greatest Victorian" in the New Century: The Enduring Relevance of Walter Bagehot's Commentary on Literature, Scholarship, and Public Life

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In 1937, one year after he published his landmark study, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age, George M. Young contributed a pair of essays to the Spectator in which he identifies Walter Bagehot as "The Greatest Victorian" from a list that included George Eliot, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and Charles Darwin. "We are looking for a man who was in and of his age and who could have been of no other," Young states in his essay,

a man with sympathy to share, and genius, to judge, its sentiments and movements: a man not too illustrious or too consummate to be companionable, but one, nevertheless, whose ideas took root and are still bearing; whose influence, passing from one fit mind to another, could transmit, and can still impart, the most precious element in Victorian civilization, its robust and masculine sanity. Such a man there was: and I award the place to Walter Bagehot. (163)

Young's choice is plausible enough given the date of his essay. The influence of Bagehot's thought and the popularity of his writings in his own day can hardly be said to have receded in the decades following his death in 1877. Editions of his collected works were published in 1889 and 1915; an edition of his letters followed in 1933. Critical essays on Bagehot--including appreciative pieces by Woodrow Wilson (1895; 1898)--and reviews of reprints and editions of his writings appeared with some regularity.

One measure of Bagehot's high standing at the historical moment when Young proclaimed him "The Greatest Victorian" is that William Irvine's Walter Bagehot, a 300-page, rigorous study of Bagehot's life and work that is not likely ever to be completely superseded, was reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, the London Sunday Times, the Spectator, the Review of English Studies, the American Historical Review, and other leading scholarly and general-interest publications. Alastair Buchan, author of the standard biography of Bagehot, lends credence to, if he does not quite echo, Young's positioning of Bagehot at the head of his contemporaries when he argues that no "scholar, student or common reader can travel very far into the history of the last hundred years without meeting the name of Walter Bagehot" (9).

Plausible as Young's commentary might have been three quarters of a century ago, it is highly unlikely that scholars today would agree with his assessment of Bagehot's place in history. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, Bagehot winning so much as an honorable mention as the most influential thinker of the Victorian age from scholars in the humanities and the social sciences against such competition as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. And it hardly needs mentioning that the very idea of "robust and masculine sanity" as a criterion for greatness would probably strike many modern readers as vaguely disturbing, gothic, or simply unintelligible.

Even in the realms of economics and politics, where Bagehot's works have managed to attract a core of modern readers--Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market and The English Constitution are still in print--Bagehot's primacy remains open to dispute. In economics, for example, Bagehot would almost certainly rank behind Henry Sidgwick, John Shield Nicholson, and other Victorian-era disciples of David Ricardo. As an historian of British political institutions Bagehot would likely fare better, but some scholars would no doubt choose Albert Venn Dicey or Frederic W. Maitland as "The Greatest Victorian" in this field. Bagehot's Physics & Politics (1867), which appeared originally as a series of essays in The Fortnightly Review and which has recently been reprinted, surely falls beneath the works of Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, and Auberon Herbert as an example of the rise of social Darwinism in the last third of the nineteenth century.

That Bagehot no longer draws the esteem he once did finds expression in the meager scholarly output devoted to his works over the past four decades. …