December 4, 2013


An Economists' Oscar Wilde : a review of  THE MEMOIRS OF WALTER BAGEHOT By Frank Prochaska (Martin Walker, Wilson Quarterly)

It is indeed remarkable to consider the many modern tropes Bagehot addressed in the years of Queen Victoria's reign. In weighing the controversies over the single European currency, there are few better places to start than the preface of his 1869 book A Universal Money, in which he suggested that a good idea in theory may in practice bring unexpected calamities.  In the current debate over the widening gap between rich and poor, it's worth remembering Bagehot's observation that "in truth, poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell. One half of the world, according to the saying, do not know how the other half lives. Accordingly, nothing is so rare in fiction as a good delineation of the poor. Though perpetually with us in reality, we rarely meet them in our reading." (A curious comment, this, from one who greatly admired George Eliot and visited her regularly in St. John's Wood, where they would discuss the money markets and the pain she felt in composing her novels.)

In today's discussions about the balance between personal freedom and national security, Bagehot again sets the tone: "So long as war is the main business of nations, temporary despotism--despotism during the campaign--is indispensable." Bagehot even has something useful to say regarding the recent arguments between atheists and believers: "The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were invaluable at first, and deadly afterwards."

Bagehot's epigrams rival even those of Oscar Wilde. One of my favorites, and a word to the wise for those of us who earn our livings from our pens, is his dry observation that "the reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything." Wilde himself would have been proud to concoct Bagehot's observation that "it is good to be without vices, but it is not good to be without temptations." And when it comes to relations between the sexes, I cannot decide which of Bagehot's gems I prefer. "Men who do not make advances to women are apt to become victims to women who make advances to them" is a classic. But how can one resist "A man's mother is his misfortune, but his wife is his fault"? [...]

The tragedy is that Bagehot, in the vast range of his writings, left no autobiography. But that lacuna has been splendidly filled by an American scholar of Britain, Frank Prochaska, who has taught at Yale and at Oxford, where he was a visiting fellow at All Souls College. He has written on the British monarchy, and on women and philanthropy and Christianity in Victorian England, and has immersed himself so deeply in the life and times of Bagehot that the man's voice appears to be speaking to us eerily from the grave.

Posted by at December 4, 2013 7:05 PM

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