The Republican ascendancy has brought with it some remarkable conservative revisions of history and literature. Various politicians and scholars have encouraged us to think nostalgically about the past. Longing for a golden age before the welfare state, some of these commentators would like to take us back to Victorian Britain in search of enlightened models of social policy and personal morality.
The leading Republican champion of Victorianism is Gertrude Himmelfarb. In a recent New York Times Op-Ed article, Himmelfarb advanced her cause by attacking the greatest critic of Victorian mores, Charles Dickens. In Himmelfarb’s view, Dickens was a befuddled bleeding heart. Too many readers, she contends, have misread his novels (particularly Oliver Twist) as reliable renderings of the Victorian era. Chastity, cleanliness, and shame, she insists, were the reigning values in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, not the callousness and greed that Dickens described. The Victorians nobly sought to uplift the poor, notably with the passage of the 1834 Poor Law and with the construction of homes for orphans and wayward children. In the Poor Law’s workhouses and in the orphanages, the Victorians gave the poor what they truly needed—a roof, some food, honest work, and plenty of moral guidance. Dickens simply got things wrong. The real-life Oliver Twists dwelled not in Dickensian hellholes but in benevolent, well-maintained, spiritually elevating institutions....
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