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Elaine Hadley. Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-226-31188-3. Price: US$45.00/£29.00

  • Andrew Sartori

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  • Andrew Sartori
    New York University

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Elaine Hadley’s Living Liberalism is a careful, subtle and persuasive study that provocatively explores the blurred boundaries of literary studies, political theory and history. She sets out to isolate the characteristics of a formation of discourse and practice extending from 1859 to the early 1880s that she calls mid-Victorian liberalism. The book is not about any particular liberal political movement or any particular set of liberal claims during this period, but about the theorization of the practical dimensions of liberal politics, of how liberalism is to be lived. In this period, she argues, the ideal of disinterested reason came to be thought and lived through the category of what she calls “abstract embodiment” (16). This apparently oxymoronic formulation seeks to capture a core tension in the liberalism of this period – its insistence, in the wake of the increasing severance of politics from property and interest, that disinterested reason was something that had to be practiced by liberal individuals. Liberal individuality thus took the necessary form of embodied personhood, but an embodied personhood that, in so far as it could be described as “liberal,” was not a site of private desire or idiosyncratic character, but rather of the disinterested and rational production of individual opinion on the basis of what she calls “practices of moralized cognition” (9). Sincere opinion – opinion in its individual rather than impersonal form – thus became a key organizing category of mid-Victorian liberalism, as it expressed simultaneously the abstraction of liberal reason and the necessary embodiedness of the capacity for such reasoning. Thus, the anchoring of reason in individuals capable of disinterested reasoning--and hence capable of forming opinions through which they could participate in public debates conceived as the exchange of ideas among individuals (rather than as the diffuse uncertainties of mass opinion)--was, in the end, the distinguishing characteristic of the liberalism of this period.

Of Hadley’s examples, the one that most stands out for its elucidating clarity is the discussion of the controversy surrounding the introduction of signed articles in the Fortnightly Review in the 1860s. Signature liberalism, as Hadley calls it, represented most of the tensions of abstract embodiment. The articles of the Fortnightly Review expressed not a party line but a whole range of opinions; and the articles in which those opinions were expressed then had the author’s byline attached at the end. The name thus appended to the article marked it as the product of a particular individual. But that individual was not simply a person, but rather a liberal individual. That it to say, the presence of that individual’s opinion in the Fortnightly Review presumed that the opinion expressed in the article had been arrived at through the exercise of a disinterested reason that abstracted the individual from the concreteness of mere personhood such that “he” might become a mindful character. That it was in fact an “opinion” that the article expressed, rather than simply “truth,” was the guarantee that it was the product of a rational mind – a rationality that could only be trusted to the extent that it was lodged in the particularity of an individual body, rather than floating nebulously in the dangerously vaporous realms of popular opinion. Individual reason, embodied abstraction, thus tied the exercise of reason to the individual mind; and the only way it could do that was by severing the transparency of the relationship between reason and truth through the recourse to the role of opinion in public debate. The individual who engaged in such debate was necessarily, however, something less than a personality: it was the individual as the holder of disinterested rational opinions who could legitimately participate in public life, not the person of private comforts and desires or the spokesman of partisan zeal. Thus mid-Victorian liberalism constructed public life in a very particular way – a liminality captured by the form of the signature, at once a proper name that hitched opinion to concrete individuality, and a series of typeset letters devoid of signatory peculiarity.

Hadley brackets out the historical question of the position of mid-Victorian liberalism in a larger narrative of liberalism in general or in Britain in order the better to isolate its peculiar characteristics from a “synchronic” perspective (6). But there are also costs to this perhaps hasty conflation of the question of the trajectories of nineteenth-century liberalism with “the roar of teleology” (6 n.11). As a practitioner of what she calls, following Mary Poovey, “historical epistemology” – that is to say, a historian of the assumptions and conventions that have composed specific epistemological fields – Hadley is most interested in practice as a performative category, that is, as a way of thinking about how these assumptions and conventions form structures that organize the practical coordinates of “living liberalism” (31-32). In the process, the descriptive analysis of these assumptions and conventions is divorced radically from any concern with the sociohistorical aetiology of their force and salience. The pay-off is the nuanced and subtle identification of the formalism of mid-Victorian liberalism, and an approach that is careful to avoid appealing to accounts of causation which are themselves beholden to the assumptions of the very liberalism she is analyzing (27-30, 178). The cost, however, might be a degree of uncertainty as to whether we really know what it is that Hadley is analyzing – that is to say, whether a descriptive analytic divorced from all aetiological determination can be anything other than agnostic about the nature of the object that it analyzes, beyond some very general sense that it is “historical.” For instance, Hadley suggests that the fact that the individualism of this period “is synonymous with choice, with predilection, with judgment, of course marks its deep imbrication with a capitalist economy of consumers,” but then goes on to note that “it also emphasizes how moralized and moralizing qualities of mind designate the individual” (7). She never returns to question how these two characterizations might be related to each other, if they are; but rather uses the latter, descriptive analysis to simply bracket out and forestall further consideration of the former, sociohistorical proposition. Of course, she does place significant emphasis on the extension of suffrage in 1867 as a moment that compelled liberals to re-conceive the terms on which the terrain of political action could be rendered legible (though the status of that claim in relation to Eugenio Biagini’s plebeian liberals remains unclear); but whether the specificity of that re-conceptualization can be reduced to this single (albeit no doubt very important) determination of the expansion of the franchise seems doubtful.

Refusing to situate mid-Victorian liberalism sociohistorically, Hadley tends to characterize her period – and others too – in terms of relatively consensual political cultures, at least from the standpoint of her historical epistemology. One side-effect of this approach is that her operative use of the term “liberalism” seems simultaneously too expansive and too narrow: on the one hand, by the time Thomas Carlyle turns up on the list of mid-Victorian liberals (314), one wonders who that leaves as not liberal; on the other hand, the liberalism of the literati is treated as “mid-Victorian liberalism” tout court, leaving that “popular liberalism” that Biagini has written about hanging precariously in a position of either residuality or immanent subsumption. Although she is very careful to distinguish the formal regularities of mid-Victorian political culture from any kind of consensus of opinion or political ideology, she is nonetheless committed to identifying very broad regularities at the level of the form in which legitimate political claims can be made – and broadly attributes such regularities to preceding periods too. Hadley claims, in her discussion of Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign and his subsequent emergence as the “embodiment” of the liberal cause, that before mid-Victorian liberalism’s transformation of political life into a terrain defined by public opinion and the individual candidate as bearer of opinions and agent of public persuasion, the model of parliamentary representation turned on aristocratic influence built on locality and status. Moreover, the cornerstone of such authority, Hadley believes, was not just a rootedness in locality, but also the ultimately neo-Harringtonian (and hence, it must be noted, dubiously liberal) proposition that the political function of land was to constitute autarchic individuals released from relations of dependence into a capacity for properly civic life (237-38, 294-97). But can we really understand the political culture of aristocratic representation without recognizing the long history of political contestation which surrounded that practice and the long history of struggle over the proper criterion of political personhood? These struggles were situated in the history of the late eighteenth-century suppression of a radical politics that had repudiated the neo-Harringtonian theory of political personhood and the political economy upon which it rested. To bracket them out is therefore to ignore the fact that the normative role of land in political life had itself become an irreducibly politicized reality that could no longer form the consensual foundation of the political as such. But to do this is to begin to conceptualize the forms of political culture in the preceding era in relation to an aetiology of their formation. Once we accept this, we are surely required to do the same for mid-Victorian liberalism. For example, that mid-Victorian liberalism looked for the guarantee of reason in public life in the signature rather than in anonymity is persuasively argued; an analysis of why at this time it should have done so – rather than linking public reason to anonymity (as in the well-known arguments of Jürgen Habermas and Michael Warner) – would surely help us to understand just what this conception of reason really is in practical, sociohistorical terms.

From this perspective, what Hadley has given us is a richly textured, insightful, original and provocative descriptive analytic of mid-Victorian liberalism that provides fine material for opening up some very important new historical questions. Thus posed, it represents a significant contribution to the field of Victorian studies and to the history of liberal political thought.