There are worse things than receiving a bad review for one’s book. When it happens to you, however, none springs to mind. It is not unlike being told (if you are, say, Madonna) that your voice is off-key. Your book is your baby. Normally, infanticide is against the law. In the brutal world of book-reviewing, it is almost obligatory.
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book, The Victorians (WH Allen, £20) has just had some of the worst reviews in recent memory. The Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain are variously described as “offensive”, “pooterish”, “clumsily written schoolboy compositions”. In the Guardian, Kathryn Hughes sneers that it could not have been ghost-written, “since no self-respecting freelancer would dare ask for payment for such rotten prose”.
In the Sunday Times, Dominic Sandbrook finds it “so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anybody else it would never have been published”. The prospect of Rees-Mogg in Downing Street strikes him as ridiculous: “But if this is what it takes to stop him writing another book, then I think we should seriously consider paying that price.” Really?
The prize for the rudest review of all, though, goes to A.N. Wilson. It may not be coincidental that a book by him with the same title appeared in 2002. But there is clearly no comparison, for Wilson cannot refrain from expostulating: “What a staggeringly silly book this is!” He faults Rees-Mogg less for his factual errors than for his sins of omission, or “censorship”, concluding that “there is something morally repellent about a book that can gloss over massacres and pillage”. The author, he declares, “is worse than a twit”.
And yet all these great organs of the press give Rees-Mogg star-billing, with lead reviews of at least a thousand words apiece. All pay him the back-handed compliment of lavishing on their hatchet-jobs a newspaper’s most precious commodity: space. All remark on the author’s preference for heroes, with only a single heroine, Queen Victoria herself. None bothers to ask the question why, as Wilson puts it, “the book is all chaps”. And yet the answer is obvious: Victorian Britain, as feminists never cease to remind us, was a patriarchal society in which men held almost all the cards. All three reviewers complain that Rees-Mogg does not discuss George Eliot. But he omits male writers, too, even Dickens. This is a book about “titans”, who are by definition mainly doers, not thinkers. Victorian women were, with few exceptions, excluded from the action. Hughes helpfully points out that half of the original titans of Greek mythology were female. Yes, but that didn’t do much for the feminist cause in ancient Greece either, did it?
Rees-Mogg is laughed out of court for suggesting that a corrective to the “cynicism and unfairness” of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is still worth writing. Yet scarcely a week goes by without some new attempt to denigrate their imperialism and their capitalism, their high-mindedness and their hypocrisy, their prudishness and their prurience. It is Strachey’s shade — not those of the Victorian victims of his exquisite exposé — that presides over our schools and universities. Margaret Thatcher may have championed Victorian values, but they are not the ones with which we inculcate our young today. Hence Rees-Mogg may be simplistic, even silly, to suppose that the likes of Palmerston would have taken his side on Brexit, but he is not entirely mistaken in supposing that his book “will be anathema to the present-day politically correct elite”.
Bad reviews have been entertaining those who wish to dismiss a book without taking the trouble to read it for centuries. They are especially entertaining when they get it wrong. In 1814, the Editor of the Edinburgh Review, the most influential journal of the day, demolished a verse narrative, The Excursion, in a review essay of inordinate length. His opening words have outlived everything else their author wrote: “This will never do.” It was Francis Jeffrey’s bad luck that the “manifestly hopeless” object of his disdain, William Wordsworth, just happens to be one of the greatest poets in the English language.
Even if Rees-Mogg’s Victorians is as bad as the reviewers say it is, they and their readers have added to the gaiety of the nation — and the sales of their papers. As the Literary Editor of The Times, Robbie Millen, tweeted happily: “I hope Jacob Rees-Mogg isn’t deterred by the negativity and writes another book. He’s v good for business. A.N. Wilson’s savage review is, I suspect, our best-read review since records began.”
The author is having fun too. He will debate his subject tonight at The Light, Euston, with another politician-turned-historian, Tristram Hunt — Labour’s former front-bencher, now director of the V&A. When Hunt wrote an admiring biography of another eminent Victorian, Friedrich Engels, he received nothing but praise from the critics who have been so harsh about his Tory counterpart. None could doubt Hunt’s frame of reference, his range of research or his impeccable prose. But it couldn’t possibly be, could it, that book reviewers, who generally lean Left and detest Brexit, approved of Hunt’s politics but disapprove of Rees-Mogg’s?