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High Minds The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain by Simon Heffer

High Minds The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain

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This look at the mid-Victorian period highlights the enormous change that transformed the country between the 1840’s and 1880’s. In 40 years there was improvement in every aspect of life, working conditions, education, health, housing and politics. Simon Heffer examines how this change came about, what were the reasons that caused the country to take a leap forward and who were the politicians, the writers and thinkers embracing new ideas, arguing for improvement and reform.

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High Minds The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain by Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer's new book forms an ambitious exploration of the making of the Victorian age and the Victorian mind. Britain in the 1840s was a country wracked by poverty, unrest and uncertainty, where there were attempts to assassinate the Queen and her prime minister, and the ruling class lived in fear of riot and revolution. By the 1880s it was a confident nation of progress and prosperity, transformed not just by industrialisation but by new attitudes to politics, education, women and the working class. That it should have changed so radically was very largely the work of an astonishingly dynamic and high-minded group of people - politicians and philanthropists, writers and thinkers - who in a matter of decades fundamentally remade the country, its institutions and its mindset, and laid the foundations for modern society. It traces the evolution of British democracy and shows how early laissez-faire attitudes to the lot of the less fortunate turned into campaigns to improve their lives and prospects. It analyses the birth of new attitudes to education, religion and science. And it shows how even such aesthetic issues as taste in architecture were swept in to broader debates about the direction that the country should take. In the process, Simon Heffer looks at the lives and deeds of major politicians, from the devout and principled Gladstone to the unscrupulous Disraeli; at the intellectual arguments that raged among writers and thinkers such as Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, and Samuel Butler; and at the 'great projects' of the age, from the Great Exhibition to the Albert Memorial. Drawing heavily on previously unpublished documents, he offers a superbly nuanced insight into life in an extraordinary era, populated by extraordinary people - and how our forebears' pursuit of perfection gave birth to modern Britain.

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'Heffer has written a stunning overview of the great and the good - and the not-so-good - of Victorian society and of the changes which a largely benevolent capitalism brought about.' -- Sarah Bradford, The Literary Review

'High Minds is worthy to the task: serious, scholarly, grand and excellent guide to the aesthetics of the age.' -- Tristram Hunt, New Statesman

'It is really a whole bookshelf of books. If you want a succinct volume on the Clarendon Commission and the debates on education, there is a not-so-slim volume embedded here. There is another on the desperate case of the formidable Caroline Norton and the battle to give women rights...another on the great philanthropists; another on crime and punishment; another (wonderfully detailed and compelling) on the Great Exhibition and the foundation of Albertopolis; another on the sewers; a terrific essay on the struggle between Gothic and Italianate architecture; and of course plenty of politics...This is a great sweeping, confident book, demonstrating the self-same energy and passion as do the Victorian heroes Heffer celebrates. It is a magnificent achievement.' -- William Waldegrave, The Times

'[A] stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable book...[Heffer] is sometimes tendentious but never unreasonable, writes notably well and provides an admirable introduction to a period of history which many of us will think that we know quite well but have never considered from this point of view before.' -- Philip Ziegler, The Spectator

'High Minds is partly social history, partly a history of ideas. It is the personalities involved that contribute such liveliness to this assured and magisterial narrative.' -- Matthew Dennison, The Sunday Telegraph

About the Author

Simon Heffer was born in 1960. He read English at Cambridge and took a PhD at that university in modern history. His previous books include: Moral Desperado: A Life of Thomas Carlyle, Like the Roman: The Life of Enoch Powell, Nor Shall My Sword: The Reinvention of England, Vaughan Williams, the highly successful Strictly English and A Short History of Power. In a career of nearly 30 years in Fleet Street he has written columns for and held senior positions on the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator.

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Book Info

Publication date

14th August 2014


Simon Heffer

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Windmill Books an imprint of Cornerstone


896 pages


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Social & cultural history

Modern history to 20th century: c 1700 to c 1900



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