The historian as controversialist.
Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
J. Anthony Froude
"HOW DELICATE, DECENT, is English biography, bless its mealy mouth." That was Thomas Carlyle in 1838, complaining of the hostile reception of a biography of Sir Walter Scott. The book had been criticized, Carlyle said, for being excessively "communicative, indiscreet," recording facts that should have "lain suppressed," mentioning circumstances "not always of an ornamental sort," and revealing the "sanctities of private life."
In fact, Victorian biographies were not nearly as mealy-mouthed as Carlyle thought, if only because their subjects themselves were often so indiscreet. Ruskin did not conceal from his intimates his sexual disposition (or lack thereof), which was made public when his marriage was annulled on the grounds of nonconsummation. Gladstone made no secret of his habit of picking up prostitutes in the street and bringing them home, where his wife plied them with hot chocolate while he tried to persuade them of the errors of their ways. And he carefully marked in his diary (which he then preserved) with the symbol of a whip those occasions when he felt obliged to flagellate himself because of some "filthiness of spirit." The Reverend Charles Kingsley sent letters to his future wife with sketches of them as naked lovers, and wrote novels celebrating sexuality when he was not otherwise engaged in tending to his parishioners and promoting Christian socialism. Robert Browning's letters to Elizabeth Barrett during their courtship, containing passionate declarations of love and disquieting revelations about her father, were
handed over to his son, and thence to biographers.
So, too, Carlyle provided the autobiographical material that made his biography anything but delicate and decent. And he chose a biographer who was himself notably indiscreet about his own private life, who had published barely disguised autobiographical novels that created a sensation at the time (and who later, like Carlyle, left to his heirs, and biographers, manuscripts of an even more revealing kind). James Anthony Froude is now remembered primarily as Carlyle's biographer. That hardly does justice to the author of the 12-volume History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (12 volumes for a period of 58 years), three volumes on the English in Ireland in the 18th century, several volumes of essays on historical subjects, numerous other books, and, of course, the much discussed and much controverted four-volume biography of Thomas Carlyle.
Nor is the subtitle of the latest biography by Julia Markus, The Last Undiscovered Great Victorian, accurate. Great? Well, not quite--important, intriguing, provocative, but surely not "great," in the sense in which we use that word of Carlyle himself or of the other greats of Victorian England--Mill, Darwin, Newman, Macaulay . . . And "undiscovered"? The two-volume work by Waldo Hilary Dunn, published in 1961-63, is still the authoritative biography, to which Markus herself, as she acknowledges, is much indebted. That is a "Life and Letters" in the Victorian mode, consisting primarily of manuscript sources (including all those indiscreet memoirs and letters) tied together with only the barest commentary by the biographer. There is also a more recent book by the historian A.L. Rowse, as well as serious essays by other historians and critics. More important, there is the constant flow of reprints of Froude's own works in America as well as England, including the 12 volumes of the History.
Then there is the inevitable appelation, "Victorian." Do Froude's revelations of his tortured childhood testify to the underside of the Victorian ethos, the ugly reality barely concealed by a repressive outward propriety and conformity? Or do the revelations themselves--the fact of the revelations--constitute a denial of the Victorian stereotype, of repression and suppression? The story itself, as Froude related it in his reminiscences, reads like something out of a Dickens novel, complete with a severe archdeacon father, an invalid mother, and a truly sadistic brother. Anthony, born in 1818, the youngest of eight children, never really knew his mother because she died when he was two, and his father refused to speak of her or to have a portrait of her (although she was reputed to have been a beauty). Sickly at birth, the child was subjected to such curative measures as being plunged into a gravel pit filled with icy water every morning before breakfast.