Victorian leaders really were eminent, Simon Heffer insists in his long and authoritative social, political, and intellectual history, High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. A journalist and historian, Heffer argues that we must credit the Victorians with a broad and deep range of reforms that brought archaic systems into alignment with the demands of modernity.

Any 64-year period is bound to see mammoth change, but Heffer makes a largely convincing case that Britain’s leadership class of public-spirited politicians, intellectuals, and activists instituted much more drastic changes than we often credit them for—especially in the 1838–1880 period, when “British life changed almost beyond recognition.” “Although poverty, disease, ignorance, squalor and injustice were far from eliminated,” Heffer writes, “they were beaten back more in those forty or so years than at any previous time in the history of Britain.”

High Minds (which first appeared in the U.K. in 2013 but was published in the U.S. this year) expands outward from a single schoolmaster’s story: Thomas Arnold (father of the education reformer and poet Matthew) shaped the Rugby School into an institution of learning and Christian morality and cast off the “anarchy tempered by despotism” (Lytton Strachey’s words) that characterized the institution

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