The Magazine

Victorian Worthy

The historian as controversialist.

Dec 12, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 13 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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"We were a Spartan family," he recalled. But it was more than Spartanism that motivated his brother Hurrell, 15 years older than he, the much loved and indulged first-born, to regale the fearful child with stories of a child-eating monster living just behind the house, or to hold him by the heels upside down in a muddy, toad-filled stream, or to throw him overboard into a river to make him "bold." Just before her death, Mrs. Froude wrote a letter expressing her "uneasiness" about her eldest son (then 17), who was "very much disposed to find his own amusements in teasing and vexing others," and went off happily whistling when she complained of what he blithely called "funny tormenting."

This was the Hurrell Froude who was later a leading figure in the high-church Oxford Movement, a close friend and associate of John Henry Newman. Conscious of his sadistic (and masochistic) predisposition, Hurrell kept his mother's letter (addressed to an unidentified "Sir" but obviously intended for him), rereading it often as a form of self-mortification and repentance. He then left it, with his diary and other manuscripts, to Newman, who chose to print it (with only a few deletions) in the opening pages of the Remains of Hurrell Froude, edited by Newman and another colleague in the Movement and published soon after Hurrell's premature death. This was at the very time that Carlyle was complaining about those "mealy-mouthed" biographies.

That year, 1838, was also the beginning of a new life for Anthony Froude. Two years after Hurrell's death, Anthony followed him to Oxford, occupying the rooms at Oriel College once inhabited by his brother and his father before him. College was a blissful release from the purgatory of home. With a newly acquired self-confidence, he applied himself to his studies so successfully that he was awarded a fellowship at Exeter, which carried with it the requirement that he take Orders in the Church; he did so reluctantly, because he had already been attracted to Evangelicalism and was disaffected with orthodox Anglicanism.

Froude also became a friend of Newman, in spite of the fact that he did not share Newman's theological views (and in spite of Newman's close relation to Hurrell). One of the many curiosities in this story is Newman's invitation to him to contribute to his series Lives of the English Saints. Newman did not seem to object to the opening remark in Froude's life of St. Neot, informing the reader that the Lives were "myths, edifying stories compiled from tradition," rather than literal facts. Nor did he correct those critics who attributed to Froude the final sentence: "This is all, and perhaps more than all, that is known of the life of the blessed St. Neot." In fact, a slight variant of that sentence concluded one of the lives coauthored by Newman himself. In 1845, fulfilling the expectations of many of his critics, Newman became a convert to Roman Catholicism.

The sequel to the Newman-Froude story introduces another eminent Victorian, Charles Kingsley, the low-church practitioner of "Muscular Christianity" and "Christian socialism." In 1864, in the course of a laudatory review of two of the volumes of Froude's History, Kingsley took the occasion to snipe at Newman, suggesting that, like other of his coreligionists, he had little respect for truth. Those few sentences prompted Newman to write his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which created a major controversy at the time and which has since become an enduring document in theological history. Froude's own attitude to the two protagonists in this affair was more subtle and complicated than might have been expected. Although he himself was as far removed as Kingsley from Newman's beliefs, he was entirely respectful of Newman himself, as a person and as a thinker.

Newman, Froude explained to Kingsley, was "a man of most perfect personal truthfulness," but, because "no sane person could ever have divined the workings of his mind," Kingsley and others could well have interpreted him as they did. Twenty years later, Froude returned to the subject, trying to do justice to both men: to Newman whose "whole life had been a struggle for truth," that is, the true relations between man and God, and to Kingsley who had gone through a similar struggle, in his case, seeking to reconcile the truths of religion and science.