James Anthony Froude: A Biography
by Waldo Hilary Dunn
Oxford, 2 vols., 652 pp., $8.80
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 …