When I was researching the history of the Economist, of which Walter Bagehot was the third and greatest editor (1861-77), I gazed in dread one day at the 15 stern-looking volumes of his collected works, gritted my teeth and began the first.
Before long, I was in love. When I had read all 15, I re-read the lot. I was entranced by Bagehot’s irreverence, wisdom, wit, clarity, zest, the understanding of human nature that illuminated everything he wrote, by the breadth of his interests, the depth of the learning he wore so lightly and his timeless truths. Like other devotees I wrung my hands over his undeserved obscurity, for which the causes included a name that few could pronounce (it’s ‘Bajot’) and the difficulty of pigeon-holing an author, banker, editor, essayist, journalist and failed politician, who wrote inter alia on economics, education, history, law, literature, politics, religion and social psychology.
Today he is more widely appreciated. Certainly, any commentator on the monarchy who has not read Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867) lacks credibility, while the banking crisis has led a new generation to his Lombard Street (1873). He has been rediscovered by Langport, where he was born, worked and died, with a park named after him and by the Bagehot Memorial Trust. Now Frank Prochaska has taken the bold step of writing a memoir on Bagehot’s behalf. Inevitably, the action is almost all of the mind, for although Bagehot engaged with the world, he travelled little. Yet, because he had what he termed ‘an experiencing nature’, he found riches in all the events and circumstances of his life. For some, a mother who was mentally unstable would have been an encumbrance; for Bagehot she was an inspiration: ‘I have conversed with poets and merchant princes, farmers and ploughmen, scholars and statesmen, clergymen and scientists; and in this coming and going I have found sagacity and stupidity at every turn’, as he says in this memoir.
Prochaska has sought to distill the essence of our hero’s writings and everything we know about him. I found this labour of love entirely true to the substance and style of Bagehot. Well though I know him, many of his conclusions still make me stop, re-read and brood, more than a century on. One cannot but be worried by this: ‘The characteristic danger for great nations, like the Romans or the English, which have a long history of continuous creation, is that they may at last fail from the weakening of the great institutions which they have created.’
This is not a book for skimming. I suggest that, after you read each chapter, you share insights and epigrams with your friends and reflect on his most startling conclusions. ‘If my life has been shaped by an ideal’, says Bagehot in this memoir, ‘it has been the Aristotelian ideal of working towards contentment through the full and varied exertion of one’s entire intellectual and moral nature, and forging a career in which the concept of a life should be practical without being worldly, many-sided without being superficial, religious without being visionary.’ All that he achieved. He also, as Prochaska says, was ‘the Victorian with whom you would most want to have dinner’.
Ruth Dudley Edwards’ books include The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist, 1843-1993 (Hamish Hamilton, 1993).
Yale University Press, 207pp, £18.99