The Magazine

Victorian Worthy

The historian as controversialist.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Shortly after Newman made his dramatic turn to Catholicism, Froude took exactly the opposite path. Having created a scandal earlier by publishing, under a pseudonym, a fictionalized account of his tormented childhood and school life, he went on to write another barely concealed autobiographical novel, this time under his own name. The Nemesis of Faith was, as one reviewer put it, "a manual of infidelity." It related the crisis of faith experienced by the hero as he gradually came to question the credibility of the Bible, the divinity of Christ, and Christianity itself as the vehicle either to salvation or to morality. The protagonist of the novel did not cope with his crisis very well. Froude, more strong-minded, fared better, although the book cost him both his fellowship at Oxford and his inheritance (his father cut him out of his will). It also made him, at the age of 31, something of a celebrity, an outcast among the orthodox (the senior tutor at his own college burnt the book in hall before the assembled students), but a hero to those like George Eliot, who were liberating themselves, as they thought it, from the nemesis of faith.

Seven years later, with the appearance of the first two volumes of his magnum opus, Froude found himself involved in another controversy that lasted for the 12 volumes and 14 years of the History. (The final volumes appeared in 1870.) If the Nemesis was essentially negative in its critique of established religion, the History was a positive affirmation of the English Reformation as the most important national as well as religious event in the country's history. The subject may seem esoteric or academic to a later generation, but at the time it was at the heart of some of the major issues that exercised thinkers and even politicians. Froude managed to antagonize most parties in these disputes. Against those conservatives, in the Oxford Movement most notably, who objected to what they took to be the religious excesses of the Reformers, and those liberals who deplored what they saw as the cruel and despotic methods of Henry VIII, Froude vigorously defended both. He later explained that it was "the political and not the theological" aspect of the Reformation that interested him. It was "the grandest achievement in English history" because it not only liberated religion from the tyranny of priests but, more important, liberated England from foreign potentates. Henry's successors very nearly succeeded in undoing that achievement, but Elizabeth confirmed it, revitalizing the English character and intellect and reasserting the "nation's greatness."

Whether because of this message or because of Froude's narrative skill in sustaining the dramatic effect of the story in spite of its length and wealth of detail, the work was a commercial success; the individual volumes as well as the completed work were sold out in their original editions and were quickly reprinted. Yet the reviewers were almost universally hostile. Unimpressed by the large and previously unexplored mass of archival material that Froude drew upon, they complained that he used that material tendentiously and, often, inaccurately. (Then and later, Froude was notoriously careless in transcribing from manuscripts.) His most vitriolic critic was the historian Edward Freeman, who was undeterred by his own confession that he was "profoundly ignorant of the 16th century." (His main work was on the Norman Conquest, which was devoid of archival material and was not without error.) The final irony is that many years later Froude succeeded Freeman as the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica sardonically commented on that appointment: "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." (This sentence was removed from later, more sedate editions.)

Some of the hostility was clearly political. Froude, like Freeman (and Macaulay as well), wrote history in the familiar Victorian mode, in which "past politics," as has been said, was a barely disguised form of "present politics." Certainly the idea of a "great" England, an imperial England, was anathema to the "little Englandism" of Gladstone and his party. And liberals were hardly reassured by Froude's insistence that that greatness could never have been brought about by modern constitutional methods.

"To the last," Froude later reflected, "up to the defeat of the Armada, manhood suffrage in England would at any moment have brought back the Pope." Such sentiments were hardly to the liking of liberals at the time, or of most historians since. Yet it is interesting that G.P. Gooch, a capital-L Liberal (he was briefly in Parliament) as well as a reputable historian, judged the first part of the History "the most brilliant historical work produced in England in the middle of the century, with the single exception of Macaulay," and the work as a whole (although with many faults) "the first by a single hand . . . of one of the most critical periods of our history." More recently, Rowse, a Tory, pronounced Froude a "historian of genius."

Four years after the appearance of the last of the History volumes, Froude published the even more provocative three-volume The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. Undertaken on the urging of Carlyle, it reflected Carlyle's view that the English should have pursued an even more vigorous policy of Protestantizing Ireland and should have abstained from the few concessions toward Catholics that were later made. At a time when Home Rule was becoming the battle cry of liberals, Froude opened his work with what amounted to a declaration of war: "On the whole, and as a rule, superior strength is the equivalent of superior merit; and when a weaker people are induced or forced to part with their separate existence, and are not treated as subjects, but are admitted freely to share the privileges of the nation in which they are absorbed, they forfeit nothing which they need care to lose, and rather gain than suffer by the exchange."

Yet the following year, after returning from a trip to South Africa and delivering a report that pleased neither party, Froude was approached by Liberals to stand for Parliament in a secure Liberal seat. Disraeli personally urged him to accept the invitation, promising not to put up a Conservative candidate in opposition on the assumption that, on most issues, Froude would support his policies. Froude admitted as much when he explained to Lady Derby that he was "neither Conservative nor Liberal per se, but would not oppose Mr. Disraeli," at the same time suggesting that he would "stand on the Conservative side, if any." In fact, the Conservatives never invited him to stand and he never served in Parliament.

Froude was not a plausible parliamentary candidate, any more than Carlyle would have been. They were both too passionate in their views and much too idiosyncratic. Contemporary critics who saw in Froude's writings the fine hand of Carlyle were quite right. Later historians inevitably recall Carlyle's History of the French Revolution (published 20 years earlier) when they speak of Froude's History of England, and Carlyle's six-volume life of Frederick the Great, which preceded Froude's four-volume life of Carlyle (again, by about 20 years). Carlyle himself took the first steps toward his own biography by providing the autobiographical material upon which much of it (and the more sensational parts of it) was to be based.

The death of Jane Carlyle in 1866 brought about something like a crise de conscience in her husband. He immediately set about writing an account, almost in the form of a confession, of their difficult marriage: of his failures as a husband (not the nonconsummation of their marriage--that was left to Froude to reveal after his own death), his ill treatment of his wife (mental and moral although, others suspected, physical as well), and her acute unhappiness. He also set about collecting her letters (she was a brilliant and prolific correspondent), some of which were equally candid and troubling. He later turned over all this material to Froude, in effect designating him his biographer and literary executor. Froude interpreted the instruction to use it at his discretion as tantamount not only to permission to publish but also as an expectation that Froude would do so, else why collect and preserve those documents and bequeath them to a friend who was also a professional writer?

It was thus that Froude became irrevocably identified with Carlyle, so that today he has almost no existence save as his biographer--and, some think, denigrator. A month after Carlyle's death in 1881, Froude published the two volumes of Carlyle's Reminiscences, which created a sensation; Carlyle's revelations about his marriage were compounded by acerbic comments about his contemporaries. The following year, dismayed but not deterred by the hostile reception given that work, Froude published the first two volumes of his own biography of Carlyle. The quotation from Carlyle, in the introduction, about mealy-mouthed biographies was an obvious, but futile, attempt to forestall criticism. The next year Froude published the three volumes of Jane Carlyle's Letters and Memorials, and the year after that the final two volumes of his biography of Carlyle.

Quite apart from the merits of these works--and they were all eminently readable as well as instructive--these nine volumes testify to Froude's extraordinary literary facility and productivity. He himself intended them as homage to a man whom he regarded as one of England's greatest thinkers, and whom he was proud to claim as a mentor and friend. But critics saw them as a betrayal of confidence and a sensationalist exploitation of friendship. The affair very nearly ruined Froude's personal as well as professional life, involving him in scandal and even lawsuits, and becoming an obsession as he endlessly agonized over his decision to write and publish books that brought him so much grief.

There was something "demonic," Froude once said of the Carlyles, and it was as if that demon had taken possession of Froude as well. Just as Carlyle wrote a memoir to come to terms with his relations with his wife, so Froude wrote one to justify his relations with Carlyle. And just as Carlyle bequeathed his memoir to Froude to be published after his death, so Froude left his to his children. Published after his death, it was received with the familiar criticisms and recriminations. Among other things, it recounted, in even starker form, Jane Carlyle's misery and disclosed what the biography had only hinted at (and what some of their acquaintances knew), Carlyle's sexual impotence.

Another cache of Froude's manuscripts, the "Autobiographical Fragments," as they have been called, are more than fragmentary; they are carefully composed memories and reflections totaling almost a hundred tightly printed pages relating the story of Froude's childhood and early life. In periods of delirium toward the end of this life, Froude implored his daughter to destroy them, fearing that they, too, like the Carlyle books, would be used to vilify him. His daughter, predictably, preserved them, and turned them over to his biographer, Waldo Hilary Dunn, who incorporated them (not in snippets but in long extracts) in his biography.

This mass of autobiographical material is so revealing that there is little left for a biographer to reveal--and so well-written, too; a biographer is hard put to compete with such an autobiographer. What the biographer can do, however, is to explore the ideas and writings that made these people important in their time and challenging in ours. This task Markus, like Dunn before her, has shirked. Her account of Froude's personal life is interesting, because his life was interesting, and some of the leading intellectuals of the time make their appearances as characters in that life: Newman, Kingsley, Ruskin, George Eliot, even Gladstone and Disraeli. But there is only the most superficial treatment of the ideas that brought them into Froude's orbit, either as admirers or as deriders.

The description, for example, of the Tracts inaugurating the Oxford Movement--"intent on purging the Protestant elements of the Church of England, and thereby returning the church to its earlier authoritarian, Catholic roots"--hardly does justice either to the adherents of the movement or to its critics. (Dunn's comment on Froude's attitude toward the Reformation is not much better: "As a decent family man, Froude naturally objected to a celibate clergy"--but not, evidently, to a promiscuous monarch.) We are told much about the reception of Nemesis and its effect on Froude's life and career, but too little about the book itself, so that we cannot understand why that "manual of infidelity" took so kindly a view of Newman. The most conspicuous failure is the account of the History, the 12 volumes of which are represented by four brief quotations totaling six sentences. One of Froude's lesser books, on the other hand, Oceana, about his tour of South Africa, Australia, and the United States, is treated more amply--and respectfully. Froude's imperialist views are said to reflect his "deeply felt patriotism." But imperialism itself is given an oddly modern gloss, as if what was important about it was the fact that "many of the natives of the colonized countries of the 19th century have become emigrants" in the 20th century, thus prefiguring the "diversity throughout the Western world."

The book concludes on a peculiarly inept and jarring note. After remarking upon Froude's great admiration for American democracy, and for the Puritan spirit that put "duty, community, and country beyond material gain" (Markus's words), and quoting Froude's own words to an American publisher--"When I am most despondent about the future of mankind I can always comfort myself in thinking of America"--Markus wonders what he would say of America today: "About greed, corruption, globalization, the immense disparity between the captains of industry (CEOs) and the ruthless downsizing of their work-forces. Has all this brought us to the edge of the decline of yet another Roman republic, as he saw was the case with all democracies?"

"Perhaps," Markus continues, "it is time to read Froude again." Yes, indeed. Another reading of Froude might well find in him quite another view of present-day America and, more important, restore him to a Victorian England that was more varied, vigorous, and contentious than the stereotype would have it. Froude once wrote a stirring essay, "England's Forgotten Worthies," celebrating the voyagers and explorers of Elizabethan England. So Froude deserves to be remembered, not, to be sure, as an Eminent Victorian, but as an eminently Worthy Victorian.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is professor of history emeritus at the City University of New York.