Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"The Morality of Style": John Morley as Essayistic Liberal

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"The Morality of Style": John Morley as Essayistic Liberal

Article excerpt

This essay explores John Morley's understanding of "the morality of style," a key evaluative tool that he employed throughout his career as a critic of politics and culture. Morley demonstrated a commitment to liberalism, which to him meant an acknowledgment of the importance of pursuing political agendas within a cultural context that prized sympathy, aesthetic education, and historical understanding. Morley believed the critic's task was to focus on writers representative or typical of their age. An extensive analysis of his essay on Thomas Babington Macaulay demonstrates how Morley put his ideas into practice: the essay emphasizes the profoundly formative effect of a writer's style on readers' minds, and reveals Morley's links to the late-Romantic lineage from which he draws his critical principles. Morley's "essayist liberalism" shows the extent of his investment in nonnative models of political individuation and his efforts to balance this ideology with a commitment to pluralism and an open-ended view of historical process, grounded in practices of imaginative understanding and a culture of self-perfection.

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What did it mean for a Victorian critic to believe, as John Morley did, in the "morality of style"? ("Macaulay" 78). Inasmuch as it functioned as a principle of criticism, how did this belief configure the relationship between author and work within the critic's mind, i.e., between the life and the writings, the biography and the achievement, or what Morley would refer to--as he did in his "Harriet Martineau" of 1877--as "character" and "literary production"? (237). Finally, to borrow a phrase from a recent book on Style and the Nineteenth-Century British Critic, what does the moralization of style in Victorian critical discourse--as opposed to the moral criticism of a writer's themes or distillable worldview, say, or what is known about his or her political choices--tell us about the liberal "scene of writing"? The question is all the more worth asking if we keep in mind that by the late 1860s and 1870s, on which this essay shall be focused, early Victorian models of partisan reviewing, let alone still older models of the critic as an arbiter of taste, had to a large degree made way for critical modes whose discourse was subjective or internal, rendering the critic's own style a vehicle for individual expression and--to the extent that styles were becoming individually differentiated--a ground for claiming critical integrity and authority for one's opinions in the print public sphere (Camlot 9).

In engaging these questions, the case of the liberal and rationalist editor, critic, biographer, and "historian of opinion" John Morley, who had a second career as statesman and is best remembered for his monumental Life of William Ewart Gladstone (1903), affords a special opportunity. As a critic, Morley was most active before and during the tenure of his editorship of the Fortnightly Review (1867-1882). This places him in a rich transitional moment in the history of liberal criticism, when criticism (signed, increasingly) was valued over reviewing, authority seemed to devolve from religion onto "higher journalism" and the professions, and political liberalism was energized by the transition to democracy in the wake of the Second Reform Act (cf. Kent; Shattock). Recent years have seen a reorientation toward and deepening interest in the textual and literary forms of liberal culture during this period, including the protocols of reviewing, citation, and other forms of text-based engagement, the modalities of ideation and opinion formation, and the cultures of argument and debate out of which the liberal ethos came to constitute itself. Thus Andrew H. Miller, writing about practical ethical reasoning in Victorian novels and non-fiction texts, has explored the casuistic roots of Victorians' reflective "display of thinking"; he shows how Victorians' careful checking of their choices and values against inner motives and the personal examples of others--and their attendant suspicion of rule-bound responses and formulaic thought--was integral to the culture of self-development and "perfection" of the period ("Reading"). …

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