In Depth

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book: the most savage reviews

Critics and historians pan Tory MP’s new work on the Victorians as ‘staggeringly silly’ and ‘sentimental jingoism’

A new book by Jacob Rees-Mogg has been torn to shreds by critics who say the Tory should stick to politics.

The biography, titled The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain, is being released this week to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth.

“Many associate the Victorian era with austere social attitudes and filthy factories. But in this bold and provocative book, Jacob Rees-Mogg - leading Tory MP and prominent Brexit advocate - takes up the story of twelve landmark figures to paint a very different picture of the age: one of bright ambition, bold self-belief and determined industriousness,” says publisher W.H. Allen, part of the Penguin Random House group.

Among the figures profiled are legendary former prime ministers Robert Peel, William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, but critics say Rees-Mogg’s literary efforts are better forgotten. 

Historian A.N. Wilson, whose book The Victorians was published in 2002, describes the new release as “staggeringly silly” and “anathema to anyone with an ounce of historical, or simply common sense”.

Writing in The Times, Wilson says the “clumsily written pompous schoolboy compositions” are presented as a work of history but are, in fact, “yet another bit of self-promotion by a highly motivated modern politician”.

Fellow historian Dominic Sandbrook doesn’t hold back, either, describing Rees-Mogg’s work as “abysmal” and “soul-destroying”.

In a review in The Sunday Times, Sandbrook says: “No doubt every sanctimonious academic in the country has already decided that Rees-Mogg’s book has to be dreadful, so it would have been fun to disappoint them.

“But there is just no denying it: the book is terrible, so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anybody else it would never have been published.” 

That view is shared by author and academic Kathryn Hughes, who sums up the biography as “an origin myth for Rees-Mogg’s particular right-wing vision of Britain”.

“In Parliament, Rees-Mogg is often referred to as ‘the honourable member for the 18th century’, a nod to those funny clothes he wears, along with pretending not to know the name of any modern pop songs,” Hughes writes in The Guardian.

“What a shame, then, that he has not absorbed any of the intellectual and creative elegance that flourished during that period.”

Kim Wagner, a senior lecturer in British imperial history at Queen Mary University of London, takes a similarly scathing tone both on Twitter and in his review in The Observer

This “Whig history on steroids” belongs “in the celebrity autobiography section of the bookstore”, says Wagner, who concludes: “At best, it can be seen as a curious artefact of the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country.”

Critics have also noted the lack of women in the book, with no mention of famous figures such as novelist George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans, or Britain’s first female doctor, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

“In mythology, six of the 12 Titans, the children of Uranus and Gaea, were female; not here,” says Hughes in The Guardian. “The only female who appears in the book is Queen Victoria herself who, Rees-Mogg assures us, ‘became no less of a woman when she learned to rely upon Albert as a partner and to trust him’.”

The Sunday Times reports that “even Rees-Mogg’s personal acknowledgements have attracted opprobrium - for being sexist”. The father-of-six wrote: “My troop did not delay my work... as Peter, Mary, Thomas, Anselm, Alfred and Sixtus were kindly looked after by my wife Helena and, of course, nanny.”

There was one positive review though, which has been quoted on the Penguin website. Andrew Roberts - who wrote an acclaimed history of Winston Churchill - applauds Rees-Mogg’s work as a “well-researched and extremely well-written exposition of the Victorians and their values”.

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