In the Times, Jane O’Grady reviews Richard Reeves’s new biography of J.S. Mill:
This biography dispassionately presents the richness and contradictoriness of Mill’s theories, and skilfully shows the way in which his integrity forced him to modify them in the light of his experience. Unlike most pontificaters on justice, Mill actually lived what he preached. (read the rest here)
This biography gives us a JS Mill for our times: feminist and anti-racist, radical without being leftwing. It is good on the poets of the first half of the 19th century, particularly Coleridge, to whose work Mill turned as an antidote to his father’s dry studies. Reeves examines and judges Mill as an interesting specimen, which is fine as far as it goes, but he never develops the biographer’s ability to stand at the shoulder of the subject and see the world as if through his eyes.
Mill’s judgments could be badly skewed; he profoundly misjudged Robert Peel as “perhaps the least gifted man that has ever headed a powerful party”; he opposed the secret ballot, in the belief that political principles should be declared publicly. In general, however, his ideas stand the test of time to such an extent that they are now everyone’s intellectual currency – but our notions of gender equality and personal freedom first had to be stated by a person of courage and conviction, speaking against the prevailing orthodoxy.
Reeves quotes with approval John Morley’s remark that Mill was “a man of extreme sensibility and vital heat in things worth waxing hot about”. It is an obituary remark to be coveted.
To that last remark, hear hear. It’s all very well (and always popular) to mock the Victorians, but about some things, it is in fact important to be earnest.