MARRIAGE AND MORALS AMONG THE VICTORIANS. By Gertrude Himmelfarb. Knopf. 253 pp. $19.95.

LESS THAN three years ago appeared Gertrude Himmelfarb's magisterial The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, which at once took its place among the truly indispensable studies of late 18th-and early 19th-century English social history. A second volume, continuing the story through the Victorian period, is on the way. In the interim we now have a collection of 11 occasional pieces the author has contributed to The American Scholar, The New Criterion, and The New Republic. Though of uneven interest and importance, all are characterized by her hallmarks, a historian's command of subject matter and an essayist's lucidity and vigor. She uses, where appropriate, the ideas and materials of the social scientist, but her voice is that of the dedicated humanist.

Let the reader be advised, however, that this book is not quite what its capacious title proclaims. Marriage, to adapt Mae West's famous remark, has little to do with it. It is central to only one essay, a review of Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. Elsewhere in the volume it figures only incidentally, as the unromantic but convenient legal arrangement that united the equally unromantic Beatrice and Sidney Webb as they made a career of committee work and political wire-pulling in the Fabian cause. It also runs a poor, conventional second in the essay on the "queer" Bloomsbury world, which, in Himmelfarb's summary indictment, was "not only homosexual but androgynous, near-incestuous, and polymorphously promiscuous." And as she concedes, fewer than half of the pieces focus on the Victorian era. The rest simply use it as a point of departure for explorations that proceed backward (the two on Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin) or forward into the 20th century (the Webbs and the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott).

Insofar as it has one, the collection's dominant theme is Himmelfarb's conviction that when the Victorians' "moral imagination" -- Edmund Burke's and Lionel Trilling's term, which she prefers to the confining and stigmatized "morality" -- was undermined at the end of the century by the disappearance of the sanctions and consolations of religion, English society lost a vital support and energizing force. All of their modern detractors notwithstanding, in their profound sense of duty, to man if not to God, the Victorians possessed a workable set of beliefs and institutions for which we have found no effective substitute.

In her title essay Himmelfarb demolishes Phyllis Rose's feminist interpretation of the marital or quasi-marital relationships of the Carlyles (often rocky and supposedly unconsmmated), the John Stuart Mills (married only after a long "Platonic" friendship with the acquiescence of Harriet Taylor's husband), the Dickenses (separated after 10 children and his acquisition of a mistress), the Ruskins (also unconsummated and legally annulled), and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes (extra-legal, because his adulterous wife was still living). As case histories with which to argue a theory of sexual politics, Himmelfarb observes, these are "the most unrepresentative couples one can imagine," signally ill-suited to demonstrating the correlation between sex and politics. Far from rebelling against the constraints of marriage or being bent on radically liberalizing the institution, as a modern feminist would have them do, in their various ways they respected current convention and the law and observed, without hypocrisy, "at least the forms of propriety, the spirit, if not the letter of the law."

THE ESSAY "A Genealogy of Morals: From Clapham to Bloomsbury" will infuriate every true believer in what has become, by now, the somewhat shopworn mystique of Bloomsbury. Its spiritual origins lay across the Thames and a century distant, in the comfortable homes of families belonging to the Clapham sect of evangelical reformers, one component of the interwoven and intermarried intellectual aristocracy whose amazingly tight complexity Noel Annan laid bare 30 years ago in a classic essay. The received wisdom is that the Strachey-Woolf-Forster coterie liberated post-Victorian society from its cruel moral shackles in order to create "a world devoted to beauty, truth, and love." Himmelfarb will have none of this. She sees the emergence of Bloomsbury in all its defiant moral autonomy and social detachment -- "a combination of irreverence, indifference, and aristocratic disdain" -- as a betrayal of the Victorian ideal of personal and social responsibility.

No two cultural milieus could be farther apart than esthetic Bloomsbury and the Cloud-Cuckoo-Land of social utilitarianism, but Himmelfarb is a perceptive guide to both. As readers of her earlier books know, one of her special interests is Jeremy Bentham, the political and moral philosopher who was as tireless in formulating systems of ideas as he was in dreaming up grandiose applications and anticipating every practical objection that could be raised against them. At a moment when there is much controversy over prison management and even talk of farming out hard-pressed prisons to private contractors, her essay on one of Bentham's little-known projects, set forth in the characteristically titled An Outline of a Work Entitled Pauper Management Improved (1798), is particularly timely.

No problem of society was too formidable for Bentham to meet head-on. Since most crime was committed by the poor, his solution was to reform both the poor-relief and penal systems by lumping together the indigent and criminal classes, which he estimated comprised a million men, women, and children, one-tenth of the entire English population. Although there were then no computers to speed the process (possession of a machine into which he could punch his "felicific calculus" or mathematically based moral formula would have sent the ordinarily staid Bentham into raptures), he envisioned a national register of the "disreputable class," whom he proposed to coerce into giant economy-size combination poorhouses and prisons or "industry houses," from which the inmates could, under the most favorable circumstances, work their way out. This chain of 500 institutions would be entrusted to a joint-stock firm organized for the purposes, evidently exempt from governmental supervision to ensure that the profits it made would not be entirely at the expense of the captive population. Bentham's scheme, of course, like his more famous Panopticon project, a model prison that could be handily managed by one man, got nowhere.

Equally timely in this day of troubling questions about both the ethics of genetic engineering and the rationale of space exploration is a piece in which Himmelfarb exercises one of her particular skills, tracing the descent of ideas. Beginning with the initial moral concern over Darwinism and Herbert Spencer's adaptation of the survival-of-the- fittest concept to society, she places in new perspective C. P. Snow's celebrated "Two Cultures" manifesto and juxtaposes it with the latest phase of the ongoing controversy that confronts man with nature and science with morality -- the furor over Edward Wilson's sociobiology. The Victorian ethos that sustained a precarious balance between these competing claims for precedence is, Himmelfarb admits, beyond recall. "But," she says, "the memory of it, the history of it, is not lost. And that memory, of a culture living on sheer nerve and will, the nerve to know the worst and to will the best, may forfy us as we persist in our quest for some new synthesis that will herald some brave -- or not so brave -- new world."