High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain by Simon Heffer - review by Sarah Bradford

Sarah Bradford

Two Nations Under God

High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain


Random House 876pp £30

In the years between 1838 and 1880 Britain changed irrevocably and for the better. Powered by various intellectual and political movements, what Simon Heffer describes as the ‘pursuit of perfection’ was conducted against a background of rapid industrialisation, rising population, hideous poverty and disease, ignorance and criminality, as some of the finest minds and most powerful politicians combined to confront what Thomas Carlyle called the ‘Condition of England’ question.

In this monumental book, Heffer illustrates an age of progress and achievement led by men such as Dr Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School, who

transformed what had been a fair specimen of the debauched and riotous establishments known as public schools into the character-building, God-fearing, scholarship-winning model for the reform in the 1840s and 1850s of other schools of its type. He thereby had incalculable influence on world history, indirectly staffing an empire, and helping to shape … the emotional development of a governing class for several generations.

He believed in kindness, unlike his contemporary at Eton, who flogged eighty boys in a day. He also believed in state intervention, an increasingly powerful theme in Victorian political life after the 1832 Reform Act first widened the franchise.

In May 1842 a young man named John Francis fired at Queen Victoria as she drove down Constitution Hill. He missed, but succeeded in alarming the ruling class into reform and improvement of the nation. Carlyle warned, ‘Unless gentry, clergy and all manner of washed articulate-speaking men will learn that

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