Talking Movies

August 12, 2019

Jacob Rees-Mogg knows nothing of the Victorians’ work

“A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything”

I missed the appearance of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians some months back, so was surprised when reading up on it recently to see the venomous reviews it had received. And then I read a chunk of it on Google Books. The brickbats were well earned. I soaked in the Victorian age for a good portion of my PhD and I simply do not recognise the era which Rees-Mogg purports to present in his monograph for our instruction and improvement. To read Rees-Mogg, one would think the Victorians had all agreed to some very moral premises sometime around 1837 and then gone on simply working them out to reach their logical end-points sometime around 1901. Whereas the true relevance of the Victorians to ourselves is not only that they argued ferociously in any number of quarterlies, clubs, newspapers, weekly magazines, societies, pamphlets, serialised books, and public meetings, but that what they argued about and how they argued about it still informs much of our arguments. The move to drive religion out of education in this country is hard not to relate to Joseph Chamberlain’s connivances to drive religion out of education in England in the 1870s. Rees-Mogg does not cover Chamberlain.

The idea that Rees-Mogg was happy to write down that he had spent 300 hours working on his 464pp tome boggles the mind. That’s 50 days, using Michael Palin’s 1970s working method of 6 good writing hours a day. So for each of his Victorian Titans Rees-Mogg took 4 days, presuming writing his introduction and clearing up citations and proof-reading took him 2 days. 4 days. I could easily imagine myself spending 4 days trying to come up with a list of 12 Victorians to sum up those 60 years, and it surely would not include Victoria and Albert. In fact it would probably include neither – this would fortuitously free up space for Darwin and Dickens. I am not alone in noticing with astonishment Rees-Mogg’s total lack of interest in writers and scientists. The very existence of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Mrs Gaskell demonstrates that his lack of interest in women outside the royal presence was mere peacocking; making himself a martyr to wokeness in preference to doing research. 4 days to tackle a book chapter on Gladstone; whose diaries and correspondence fill 14 volumes. 4! How much research could he possibly have done in just 4 days?

December 31, 2015

‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ published in Irish Studies Review

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘A Celtic Twilight in Little England: GK Chesterton and WB Yeats’ has been published in a special issue of the Irish Studies Review edited by Catherine Wilsdon and Giulia Bruni.


G.K. Chesterton’s 1936 Autobiography affectionately re-creates his first meetings with W.B. Yeats, whose critical thought Chesterton parsed in his 1905 book Heretics. Chesterton was dubious about Yeats’s occultism, but attracted by the Irish Revival’s linking of cultural reawakening with small-scale economic independence. His criticism of Yeats’s linking of nationalism and mysticism anticipates Benedict Anderson’s seminal theorising of nationalism. P.J. Mathews’s Revival locates texts in the context of separatist agitation against Joseph Chamberlain’s Boer War. Chesterton’s 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parallel text, explicitly rebutting Chamberlain’s imperialist philosophy, but also repurposing elements of Yeats’s critique of Matthew Arnold’s Celt/Teuton cultural binaries for application to English classes. Declan Kiberd’s idea that Wilde exposed England as deeply colonised by the British Empire usefully situates Notting Hill‘s anti-imperialism. Chesterton grants the English populace the Hellenistic spontaneity of consciousness Arnold denied them, and sets forth a vision of English nationalism that even contains a critique of Anderson’s “official nationalism”. Notting Hill‘s politico-cultural revolution, led by Wayne, a poet-warrior, and Turnbull, a visionary shop-keeper, defeats the forces of imperialist politics, plutocratic economics, and empiricist philistinism, and acts as an English parallel in its concerns to Yeats’s decolonising process.

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