With Friends Possessed: A Life of Edward FitzGerald
by Robert Bernard Martin
Atheneum, 313 pp., $17.95
An excellent book could be written on the Victorian bachelor. Some never intended to be bachelors. Senior subalterns in regiments of the line waiting until their forties for promotion, college dons waiting for country livings whose incumbents declined to die, men waiting to inherit from a distant kinsman, clerks in the civil service who had to keep up appearances and could not afford to set up house in the style which they imagined was expected of them—who, when at last their constraints were removed, shuddered at the thought of giving up their comfortable bachelor habits and forgoing the petty tyrannies by which they kept up their morale.
On the other hand there were bachelors who never had any intention of marrying. In their youth they did not know girls. The thought of being in their company was odious and the thought of making love to them terrifying. Educated in boarding schools and Oxford or Cambridge colleges they formed romantic friendships with other boys. But as they grew older anything might happen. They developed odd habits, became interested in queer subjects and curious practices, or collected strange objects. Their friends became more bizarre or in a moment of aberration they married their cook or disappeared to Europe with a footman.
Edward FitzGerald was such a bachelor and he was very rum indeed. He was a lucky man. He nearly always had as much money as he needed to do anything he liked, and he made friends with some of the most interesting men of his generation. He is lucky too in his new biographer. Robert Martin has a tenderness for the eccentric. His biography of Tennyson revealed just how mad the Tennyson family was and how solitary and strung-up the young poet. FitzGerald’s family came a strong second to the Tennysons. His parents were first cousins and belonged to a line renowned for its haughtiness and total disregard for any opinions other than their own. His father had the tastes of a country squire and mismanaged his estates in Suffolk. In old age he went bankrupt by refusing to close an uneconomical coal mine. His mother, a vast, imperious woman, possessed a fortune to match her shape. She regarded her husband as a female spider regards her mate, preferred to live in London, and cared only about cutting a pretentious and vulgar figure in society. She was a bad absentee mother and her son at once was intimidated and obsessed by her. Edward was tough enough as a young man to refuse to act as her walker even though she cut his allowance. He so loathed the splendor of her Portland Place life that he lived in shabby lodgings and wore slovenly clothes and was so determined not to fall under her sway that if the idea of conventional marriage with its family obligations ever entered his head he whisked it away.
Her elder son displayed more remarkable symptoms of withdrawal. He became a primitive Christian, and when preaching …