The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

III. Critical and Miscellaneous Prose

§ 6. Bagehot

Bagehot was an editor, too; but the most important part of his editorial career was that in which he conducted The Economist. It thus emphasises his work as economist and publicist rather than his work as literary critic, and readers will grieve or rejoice according to their taste. Undoubtedly, Bagehot had gifts that would have secured great success in either sphere. If his reputation is, even now, below his deserts, it is probably because his interests were varied and his energies, in consequence, dissipated. He is at once biographer, critic, economist and publicist. In his critical essays, the keen incisive phrases, the humour, the penetrating analyses of character, the touches of philosophy, give the impression of the presence of a great man. Bagehot was never content to play upon the surface, he sought to penetrate to the principle underneath. He had the qualifications requisite to make him what Dallas called a systematic critic. But, as he did not choose to concentrate himself upon literature his criticism, though brilliant, remains fragmentary. In Biographical Studies, another collection of contributions to periodicals, Bagehot’s interest in politics comes into the foreground. Even in his literary essays it could not be entirely suppressed: there is, for example, an analysis of the forms of social organisation in the paper on Sterne and Thackeray. In other respects, his biographical sketches show much the same qualities as his literary essays; and the resemblance is all the closer because his critical essays largely depend for their effect upon insight into character. When Bagehot wrote about Shakespeare, he chose, characteristically enough, to lay emphasis on the man, rather than on the poet or the playwright. In Biographical Studies, there are the same short crisp sentences that we find in Literary Studies, the same epigrammatic point, the same humour, the same abounding life, the same easy, sometimes colloquial, diction.

But it was to his work as economist and as publicist that Bagehot gave the greatest part of his strength. He is at his best in Lombard Street and in The English Constitution. Some, it is true, have set Physics and Politics above either. But Physics and Politics has not worn so well as the other two; its contemporary influence was due, not exclusively to its intrinsic merits, but, partly, to a deft application of the conception of evolution to political society, an application which seemed more original than it really was. Yet, the other two books might have been expected to show the more serious signs of wear. The laws of human society at large are more stable than the forms of a given constitution; and political economy has been largely revolutionised since Bagehot wrote. Even the most conservative is now more socialistic than would have seemed possible to Bagehot and to the vast majority of his contemporaries. But, in spite of this, Lombard Street and The English Constitution are almost as fresh as they were at first. The reason is that they are descriptive of an actual state of affairs. No change which has taken place, or which may take place, in the organisation of the money market can invalidate Bagehot’s lively and entertaining analysis of the money market of his day. The facts were open to all, yet no one knew how to interpret them till Bagehot, in Lombard Street, showed the way. So, too, of The English Constitution. It is not a history, but a philosophical discussion. Stubbs and Hallam and May tell the story of three stages of the growth of the constitution; Bagehot appraises the actual values of the elements of the constitution. It was a work no less difficult, no less valuable, than that of the historian, but it called for a gift of a different sort: not the gift of research but that of speculative insight; not learning, but philosophy. Bagehot is comparable, not to Stubbs, but to Burke; and, while he is inferior to the great Irishman, there is no other writer of English to whom, on this his special ground, he need yield the palm. It needed a great mind to penetrate the hollowness of the theory of checks and balances, and to discover that a board of gentlemen with no legal status possesses more real power than either king or lords or commons.