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Victorian Worthies: Vanity Fair’s Leaders of Church & State

Author: Malcolm Johnson
Published By: Darton, Longman and Todd (London)
Pages: 128
Price: £14.99
ISBN: 978 0 232 53110 7

Reviewed by Richard Dormandy.

This curious book is like a box of chocolates: of little nutritional value, but very more-ish. There are fifty varieties in bite-sized chunks of a couple of pages. Each is a pen portrait of some grand man (mostly) who lived at least some of his life in the Victorian era. Only three are ladies, and about 60% are clergy. These literary sketches take as their starting point the corpus of illustrations published in Vanity Fair of the same period.

Vanity Fair was a weekly magazine founded in 1868 to give light, lively, and often libellous comment on contemporary political ‘vanities’.  It was the precursor of today’s Private Eye - hence the Foreword by Ian Hislop. The celebrated caricatures, introduced some months after the magazine’s launch, immediately increased sales. By 1914 there had been 2,362 published, including 104 Anglican clergy and many other Roman Catholics and Nonconformists. This book focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on the Anglicans.

So what can Malcolm Johnson tell us about 50 people in around 600 words each? The answer is, by his own admission, not much. Each story has something of interest - much as would take your fancy in a small weekly column of a Saturday Supplement.

It’s notable that many of this selection were educated at the same small number of public schools: Eton, Harrow, Westminster, St Paul’s and the like. This may reflect Johnson’s own interest, or that of Vanity Fair, but it’s interesting to reflect on how much this has changed. It’s not just a matter of democratisation versus elitism. That is just one issue. There is also the question of how the ethos of all schools prepares people for service in the public arena.

Of course, most of these ‘worthies’ came from highly privileged backgrounds. They could ‘afford’ to be moved by the plight of the poor.  However, moved they were, some of them becoming high value philanthropists. Lady Angela Burdett-Coutts, for example, gave away the equivalent of £300m during her lifetime, and would have given more had not her mid-life marriage to a foreigner, William Bartlett, cut her off from two-fifths of the vast fortune she had earlier inherited.

Today we hear about the widening income gap, but the gulf between rich and poor in Victorian England was even more immense. These ‘worthies’ did good works mostly because they had wealth with which to do it. The Revd Hugh Haweis, who started his clerical ministry as a curate in my old parish, St James the Less, Pimlico, then proceeded to become incumbent of St James’ Marylebone on a stipend equivalent to £121,000 in today’s prices. The chance would be a fine thing!

I’m sure there is a market for this kind of book among lovers of Victoriana. Like any box of chocolates it would make a good gift for the right person.

Richard Dormandy

Vicar, Holy Trinity, Tulse Hill, South London

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You are reading Issue 63 of Ministry Today, published in April 2015.

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