James Anthony Froude: A Biography
The historian of ideas is apt to complain of the company he keeps. Since the best minds of an age are rarely the most representative of that age, he must often deliberately cultivate the second-best. Fortunately in Victorian England the gap between the two was not so large as it is today, and the second-best then might compare favorably with the best now. The historian forced to associate with T. H. Huxley rather than Darwin, or with Froude rather than Carlyle, has little cause for grievance. Things might be much worse.
If Froude lacked the divine madness of Carlyle, he shared his ebullience and passion. His twelve-volume History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada has not the sustained power of Carlyle’s French Revolution, but it is no less original and provocative. His Life of Carlyle is every bit as fascinating as Carlyle’s History of Frederick the Great. His Short Studies on Great Subjects, while not so devastating as Carlyle’s Latter-Day Pamphlets, engaged the enemy along a broader front. Nor was his personal life any less dramatic. The element of marital scandal, to be sure, is missing—although even here, by making public the facts about Carlyle’s marriage, Froude made himself a partner to the scandal. More agonizing, however, than any tale of marital travail is the horror story of Froude’s childhood.
Recent biographies of Dickens, Kipling, and Orwell have taught us to suspect that childhood horrors recounted as fact may be the horrors of fantasy. In Froude’s case, although the suspicion of fantasy can never be stilled, it must be said that what independent evidence there is confirms the basic facts. The story has all the clichés of a Victorian melodrama—a genre we have evidently not taken seriously enough. Froude’s father was an archdeacon and squire with a reputation even among his friends for coldness and severity. His mother produced eight children in spite of her failing health, and died when her youngest, Anthony, was two; the boy later regretted that although she was reputed to have been a great beauty, he never knew what she looked like because his father refused to have a portrait of her or even to speak of her. Anthony himself was sickly at birth and throughout his youth, despite such bracing measures as being plunged into the icy water of a spring each morning before breakfast (this at the age of three). “We were a Spartan family,” he later recalled. But even he realized that it was more than Spartanism, more than an ostensible desire to cure him of cowardice, that induced his eldest brother to invent a child-eating monster dwelling in the hollow beyond the house, to hold Anthony upside down by the heels so that his head scraped the bottom of a particularly loathsome toad-filled stream, to take him out in a boat on the river and put him overboard in deep water before he could swim. Hurrell Froude, remembered today as the intimate of John Henry Newman and the golden boy of The Oxford Movement, was the first-born, fifteen years older than Anthony, beautiful, brilliant, the favorite of his father, and the hero even of his victims. Only his mother resisted his charms; in a remarkable letter written just before her death, she confessed her anxieties about her eldest son (then seventeen years old), who was so “disposed to find his own amusement in teasing and vexing others,” in what he himself called “funny tormenting.”
In the present biography, Mr. Dunn wisely permits this letter and Froude’s memoirs to dominate the account of Froude’s childhood. But one wishes he had permitted himself more latitude, so as to include, for example, the comment of Geoffrey Faber, a descendant and biographer of the Oxford Apostles, who reflected that Mrs. Froude was evidently “not free from the special vice of parents, the vice, namely, of trying to regulate their children’s behavior by their own low standards of vitality.” And it might have been worth digressing a bit to take in the curious analogue with the Newman family, where John, also the eldest, also favored by his father and distrusted by his mother, was very much the “Grand Master” (as he designated himself), and where his brother Francis labored under an acute sense of inferiority and alienation (although not willful, bodily harm). (The analogue might be pursued into their later careers, with Francis Newman and Anthony Froude experiencing a similar repugnance to the ritualistic, dogmatic religion of their elder brothers, and even to the oddly similar titles—Phases of Faith and Nemesis of Faith—under which they recorded their spiritual liberation.)
At some point, Froude must have asked himself which was the more intolerable: torture suffered at the hands of strangers or that inflicted by one’s closest kin. For he had ample experience of both. As one of that despised caste known as “scholars” at West-minster, he endured the normal afflictions of hunger, flogging, and humiliation, plus such more exotic sport as being forcibly intoxicated, having his legs set on fire to make him dance, or being awakened by hot stubs of cigars pressed into his face. He was finally sent home after almost four years, not because he was miserable but because he was apparently uneducable. For two more years he existed in a state of purgatory, suffering the silent contempt of his family, without companion or occupation. When he was then told that for the sake of his “future,” he would be sent to Oxford, he was pleased but surprised, having always assumed that his only future was an early death. Fortunately, death was one of the few things he did not fear: “When people said that it would be dreadful to appear in the presence of God, it seemed to me that we were in the presence of God already, and in our relations with so awful a being there could not be a more or a less.” (This reflection occurs in the course of his account of the interview with his father; earlier he had said that his feeling toward his father was “resolving itself into dread.”)
Death was his salvation—but as it happened the death was that of Hurrell. Hurrell died before Anthony entered Oxford, so that while his memory was very much alive, Anthony was spared his physical presence. Oxford was pure joy and liberation. In his exuberance, Anthony even fell in love, and his engagement had already been announced when his father, grieving over the death of Hurrell and resenting Anthony’s happiness, deliberately broke up the engagement. It was at this point that Anthony rebelled: “Reviewing my past life, observing where I had laid myself open to the enemy, [I] determined to defy him,” Defiance took the form of work and study. In a few years he was rewarded with a fellowship at Exeter and a reputation as one of Oxford’s most promising scholars.
The Oxford Movement was then at its height, and Newman and his apostles seemed well on their way to revolutionizing—Romanizing, their opponents had it—the English Church. As a challenge to rationalism and skepticism, and in reaffirmation of a faith that could create and credit miracles, Newman initiated the series on the Lives of the Saints. He invited Froude’s collaboration, perhaps as much out of respect for Hurrell as for Anthony. The episode is full of curiosities and ironies, for Newman evidently did not know, and Froude evidently did not tell him when he accepted the invitation, how little in sympathy with the project he must have been, having already discovered the attractions of Evangelicalism, of Carlyle and Goethe, of the Tudor monarchs and Protestant Reformers. Yet in spite of all this, Newman was perhaps less displeased with the result than has been supposed. (We do not actually know what he thought of the book.) He might have preferred not being saddled with the famous quotation: “Rationalize where the evidence is weak.” And he might have expressed more delicately than Froude the mythical and moral rather than biographical or historical function of the Lives. Yet essentially he agreed with him. The final irony of the affair (and a perfect specimen of the myths that pass as history) is the fact that the bon mot which has done most to discredit the Lives and which is generally assumed to be the final sentence of Froude’s book—“This is all, and perhaps more than all, that is known of the life of the blessed St. Neot”—does not in fact appear in that book. Mr. Dunn was apparently the first to perform this simple bit of research and to find a slightly different version of it, with a quite different and distinctive nuance, in the Life co-authored by Newman himself: “And this is all that is known, and more than all—yet nothing to what the angels know—of the life of a servant of God….”
In the same year that Newman entered the Catholic Church, Froude was being carried in the opposite direction, towards a theological skepticism that saw religion as morality rather than as metaphysics. Yet even when he was the unwitting occasion for the attack on Newman that led to the writing of the Apologia (it was in the course of a laudatory review of Froude’s History that Kingsley casually referred to Newman’s disrespect for truth), Froude defended Newman as “a man of most perfect personal truthfulness.” And twenty years later, he wrote an essay on the Oxford Movement (reprinted in the Short Studies) that remains today perhaps the best short analysis of that movement—sensitive and sympathetic, yet detached, acute, and superbly lucid.
Unfortunately Froude was not always so sympathetic or detached. In a lecture on “The Science of History,” he made the remark that has been quoted against him: “It often seems to me as if History was like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please.” He may not have meant to condone this way of playing with history, but he did often seem to practise it. To him, as to another Regius Professor, history was past politics and politics was present history. In Tudor England he found the lesson for all time:
I regarded the Reformation as the grandest achievement in English history, yet it was equally obvious that it could never have been brought about constitutionally according to modern methods. The Reformation had been the work of two powerful sovereigns, Henry VIII and Elizabeth, backed by the strongest and bravest of their subjects. To the last, up to the defeat of the Armada, manhood suffrage in England would at any moment have brought back the Pope.
Distrusting the populace in the past, he also distrusted democracy and liberalism in the present. He was for a strong state then, and he was for one now; like Carlyle he despised the materialist, capitalist, laissez-faire temper of modernity. He also—and this may upset the liberal image of the conservative—opposed imperialism and militarism while favoring the establishment of a strong British Commonwealth.
His History of England was attacked not only for its tendentiousness, but also for a gratuitous carelessness that went beyond the deliberate selection or suppression of facts. He seemed to be constitutionally incapable of transcribing a document accurately. Thus he became the principal in one of the great academic feuds of the century—and one of the most farcical feuds, since his antagonist, Edward Freeman, proved to be quite as irresponsible as Froude: if Freeman did not so often misquote manuscripts, it was only because he refused to consult them. Mr. Dunn, who defends Froude’s scholarship as zealously as his interpretations of history, finds it eminently just that Froude should have succeeded Freeman as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. Perhaps a more fitting comment on this appointment may be found in the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (the sentence has been deleted from the present, more sedate edition): “Except for a few Oxford men, who considered that historical scholarship should have been held to be a necessary qualification for the office, his appointment gave general satisfaction.”
Even more provocative than Froude’s History was his work on Carlyle. Carlyle himself once said of the typical English biography: “How delicate, decent it is, bless its mealy mouth.” As if to make sure that such would not be his fate, or perhaps as an act of atonement, he left in his Reminiscences an account of his wife’s unhappiness and of his own ill-treatment of her. Instead of publishing it, however, he entrusted the manuscript to Froude to do with as he thought best. Froude’s publication of it after Carlyle’s death involved him in law-suits and public scandal, and even his four-volume biography of Carlyle, intended as tribute, was greeted with abuse. The abuse was obviously unmerited. Yet it is not enough to say, as Mr. Dunn does, that Froude wanted nothing more than to tell the whole truth. For in fact Froude entirely shared the prejudices and values of his critics. And certainly on other occasions, as in the domestic affairs of Henry VIII, he managed to restrain his zeal for the whole truth. Clearly it was something else that made him pursue the subject of Carlyle’s personal life at such cost to his own reputation and peace of mind, so that even during a tour of the West Indies he was kept awake night after night by the “Carlyle worry”: “I ought to shake the whole subject off me, but it is not easy to do…. I know that my own heart and purpose were perfectly clear in that matter…. I am surprised that the Carlyle business hangs heavy on me and spoils all.”
There was something “demonic” in the Carlyles, Froude once said; and it was as if the demon had taken possession of him. Just as Carlyle fatally implicated Froude by making him responsible for the publication of the Reminiscences, so Froude bequeathed to his children the manuscript of My Relations with Carlyle, with its startling disclosure of Carlyle’s sexual impotence—at the same time instructing them in his will to destroy all his manuscripts, letters, and papers! His instructions, of course, were disobeyed and the book was published, with the predictable results.
A demonic subject is worthy of a demonic biographer: Frederick the Great found his in Carlyle and Carlyle in Froude. The line of succession has unhappily broken off here. Although Mr. Dunn, Professor Emeritus of English at Scripps College, has devoted over thirty-five years to this work (the first volume appeared in 1961), has read all Froude’s papers and now owns a good many of them, and has even composed his work on Froude’s writing table, the demon has evaded him. He quotes Carlyle on the delicate, decent, mealy-mouthed biography, but is himself capable of writing: “As a decent family man, Froude naturally objected to a celibate clergy.” (But not, apparently, to a profligate monarchy.) And although we are assured that Froude’s life is “an open book” and that “there were no skeletons in his closet” (much of the writing is of this order), there is in fact at least one skeleton tucked away: a son described in Froude’s letters as “made for dishonor,” one “with whom no good could be done”—of whom we learn no more from Mr. Dunn (in a footnote) than his name, the date and place of his death, and his occupation at that time. (Even when Froude announced the birth of a child and worried about the reaction of his older daughters but failed to mention this son, Mr. Dunn does not comment on the curious lapse.) The same piety is evident in his treatment of Froude’s works, so that hostile reviews, for example, are represented largely by quotations from the concluding paragraphs with their meaningless amenities, rather than from the heart of the critique. Froude himself, as much as the reader, is ill-served by such solicitude. How can we respect or even understand his reverence for Carlyle (“Carlyle to me spoke as never man spoke”; “no writer in any age had equalled him…”) when we are told that Carlyle was “provincial,…theoretical and dictatorial” and that Froude was much the greater of the two?
One of Froude’s Short Studies is devoted to “England’s Forgotten Worthies”—the seamen who contributed to the greatness of Elizabethan England. It would be enough if Froude were restored to us not as one of the giants of Victorian England but as one of her Forgotten Worthies.