James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet, by Ciaran Brady, Oxford University Press, 520 pp, £46, ISBN: 978-0199668038
Nearly half a century ago Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American historian, lamented that James Anthony Froude was “a forgotten worthy”. The memory of this once eminent Victorian deserved resuscitation because he was “demonic”. Himmelfarb was reviewing a plodding double-decker biography of Froude by another American, WH Dunn. Uniquely, he enjoyed access to Froude’s surviving papers ‑ his order that his archive be burned on his death was partly disobeyed ‑ but under the reverent scrutiny of his elderly children. Dunn’s trove of manuscripts vanished, hampering subsequent efforts to resuscitate Froude’s memory. In 2005 a third American, Julia Markus, sought to exorcise oblivion in J Anthony Froude: The Last Undiscovered Great Victorian. Engagingly readable, her biography evoked the man’s life with glimpses of his mind. It is her omission with regard to the intellectual dimension that Ciaran Brady, a Trinity College Dublin specialist in the history of early modern Ireland, remedies in James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet. Powerless to conjure Froude’s archive and squeamish about the method Markus used to paint a “psychological portrait” – “fascinating” if necessarily “speculative” ‑ Brady laboured to excavate Froude’s thought from his thousands of printed pages, referring to his life as clarity and the evidence seemed to warrant. The result is a book that Roy Foster rightly commends as “a rich slice of intellectual history as well as a memorable portrait of an impressive, if intermittently appalling personality who left an enduring mark on Irish historiography”.
Beginning with the question “Why write about Froude?”, Brady replies that he was curious to explore “how an individual whose passionate devotion to issues of faith and moral responsibility, and whose deep and conscientious engagement with the practices of historical research … should also, and unremittingly, have given free expression to judgements and opinions which now appear to be so willful, perverse and often repulsive”. Because Froude held Irishmen “in particularly low esteem”, Brady found him “a disturbed and disagreeable man”. Long immersion in Froude’s corpus however also led him to respect his profound and courageous engagement “with ethical, historical and spiritual questions whose subtlety and complexity we may ourselves have ceased to appreciate”. Illuminating in itself, Brady’s Froude also hints at the demonic side of the adoration of power.
But who was James Anthony Froude? Born into a precariously genteel family in 1818, he was motherless before his third birthday. That death unleashed a childhood of sub-Dickensian misery, which Brady’s index starkly summarises: “victim of physical and psychological abuse”. His father, an Anglican parson, was loath to spare the rod, and his oldest brother, Hurrell, a consumptive ally of John Henry Newman, subjected the sickly boy to a form of waterboarding in an effort to toughen him. At Westminster School, Anthony was a bright, and viciously bullied, student. After withdrawing him from that house of pain, his father beat him for refusing to accept responsibility for his failure. Following in the footsteps of the recently deceased Hurrell, Anthony went up to Oriel College, Oxford, where he avoided being drawn too tightly into Newman’s personal and theological orbit. As if reacting against Newmanism, he would engage with modern German scholarship, including biblical criticism, and come to admire the English Reformation. A spell of tutoring in the household of a Church of Ireland clergyman fixed his attitude toward the Irish masses and their religion: “particularly low esteem”. Professor Brady describes the place occupied by Ireland in Froude’s mind as “immense”, annd more central in his work “than in that of any other Victorian intellectual”. Froude’s “contribution to the development of research and interpretation of the island’s history” is, in fact, “unique”.
Despite achieving only a higher second degree in what became the “Greats” course, he was elected a fellow of Exeter College. Searching for a faith as his own Christianity waned, Froude cultivated fierce industry and ambition, together with a Romantic imagination, luxurious and prone to willfulness. “We Froudes,” he wrote, “have a way of our own of laying hold of the stick by the burnt end, and making the worst rather than the best of everything.” Decisive was his discovery of Thomas Carlyle, from whom he recalled learning that the standard for evaluating “every institution, secular or religious, was not, Is it true, but Is it alive? Life is not truth, but the embodiment in time and in morality of a spiritual or animating principle.” Froude’s capitalisation of the verb “Is” hints at an enduring veneration for masterful activity, just as his lower-casing of the pronoun “it” suggests less concern about the particular outcome of such activity. Late in life he denounced “the Gospel of Progress” as “falser even than” Christian practices.
His ideal, Brady observes, became “a Carlylean hero, continually revealing the supernatural within the events of the natural world”. Such heroes functioned as avatars of Providence. Writing the life of Neot, an Anglo-Saxon hermit, for a hagiographical series edited by Newman led Froude to define his approach to history. The vital question was, “Have these things a meaning? Do they teach us anything?” If they do, then as far as we are concerned, it is no matter whether they are true or not as facts; if they do not, then let them have all the sensible evidence of the events of yesterday, and they are valueless.” Neot’s meaning lay in what he did “for England”. If faith is a “matter of ultimate concern”, England was becoming the object of Froude’s faith.
Repenting of his ordination as a deacon to retain his fellowship, he abandoned hagiography for “quasi-autobiographical” fiction. His second foray was The Nemesis of Faith (1849), an operatic novel about belief and unbelief, love and betrayal. Brady summarises it as “a young man’s slide into atheism and a young woman’s drift into adultery and ruin”. Although Froude eventually repudiated the book, its composition felt as if, “I cut a hole in my heart and wrote with the blood”. Brady nonetheless cautions against “the uncritical assumption that Froude’s use of autobiography was merely a direct reflection of his own naïve and sentimental character”. The Nemesis of Faith was a succès de scandale. The sub-rector of his college publicly burned a copy, his father disowned him, and he resigned his fellowship, but Mary Anne Evans, not yet George Eliot and enduring a similar transition, hailed Froude as “a bright particular star”. Though alone and lacking prospects, he advanced from provincial tutoring to authorship and married for the first time. (He would twice be widowed.) As he created a niche for himself in Victorian literary society, he met Carlyle, with whom he became increasingly though ambivalently entangled. Froude “looked on him as my own guide and master”, “a teacher and a prophet in the Jewish sense of the word”, whose voice was … like the sound of “ten thousand trumpets”. But as Julia Markus shrewdly observed, Froude “could not love … [Carlyle], he learned to love him, he could not love him yet again”.
Froude reinvented himself as an historian, above all in a twelve-volume history of the English Reformation, which occupied him from 1850 to 1870. It sold and provoked controversy, in part because of what Brady calls Froude’s “disturbing reversals of the expected moral conventions”, especially his adulation of Henry VIII’s public conduct, “on the grounds that the outcome legitimated all”. More circumspectly, into the twentieth century, historians, including grave academics, have adapted Froude’s deference to this “very embodiment of will”, who set England on its way to domination. For Froude, the Protestant Reformation was not ultimately about theology and even less about political ideology; it was a dynamic principle, “the real source of spiritual vitality in the world, destined to bring triumph to all those who sincerely embraced its teaching”. Catholicism was, in contrast, “spiritually defunct”. The History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth achieved the popular acclaim that Froude desired. At Buckingham Palace on March 20th, 1858, Queen Victoria asked Macaulay “about Froude’s book; and I spoke better of it than I thought, not wishing to lower him or his work in the estimation of his Sovereign”.
With Macaulay’s death in 1859, Froude, a less flamboyant, more widely accessible stylist, became England’s best-selling historian. By the 1870s he was almost a national monument, but demographic change would ensure his eventual eclipse. The audience Froude sought “was the educated, rural, professional, and commercial middle class of his day”. During his lifetime England transformed from a predominantly rural into an overwhelmingly urban society ‑ in the 1901 census only 23 per cent of the population were country-dwellers. Froude’s cresting popularity inevitably provoked critics. Although he worked in domestic and foreign archives more diligently than any predecessor, he affronted the insecurities of the emerging historical professoriate. Doggedly virulent was EA Freeman, a medievalist who died as Oxford’s Regius Professor of Modern History. Freeman made trumpeting Froude’s errors, misquotations, and inconsistencies into a cottage industry. He was a High Churchman for whom Froude was an apostate and a High Liberal who venerated Gladstone as much as Froude execrated him. Yet no theological or ideological animus, however deep, can explain Freeman’s choler. He resolved to “live to disembowel James Anthony Froude”. Recently an Australian scholar diagnosed such academic repugnance as an allergic reaction to “Froude’s disease”, as the new “scientific” academic history sought to mark itself out from the old rhetorical history. For would-be savants like Freeman, an historian’s popularity demonstrated his meretriciousness.
Froude’s range was adventurous unto recklessness: histories, biographies, and essays on all matter of subjects ancient and modern, poetry, novels, translations, and travelogues. His productions included Caesar: A Sketch, a slapdash paraphrase of the Römische Geschichte of Professor Theodor Mommsen that offended by comparing the Divine Julius with Christ, and a longish essay on “The Norway Fjords”. But it was The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century, published in three volumes between 1872 and 1874, that provoked the greatest outrage and cast an enduring shadow. Widely researched, the book indicted past English misgovernment in order to justify the assertion that the condign penance was consistently stronger English government. Froude’s guiding principles were unflinching. First, “as a rule, superior strength is the equivalent of superior merit”. Second, Froude, following Carlyle, offered Oliver Cromwell as the model for how to govern a race unfit for self-government. The conclusion seemed self-evident: “Ireland can never be independent of England.”
Carlyle appointed Froude one of his literary executors and his putative biographer. The resulting volumes, though no forerunner of ‘pathography’, were unprecedented in their candour, perhaps the first modern English biography. Froude’s hero and friend was an unpleasant man up-close, especially in his treatment of Jane, his talented, neglected, and frustrated wife. Froude was convinced that the Carlyles’ marriage was unconsummated and that “it was his duty to indicate the case to those willing to take the hint”. Froude declared his subject to be at times “like a child, and like a very naughty one …It was not easy to live with a husband subject to strange fits of passion and depression, often as unreasonable as a child”. Carlyle’s litigious niece declared Froude a villain, and an American admirer of Carlyle castigated him as a “humbug” and “falsifier”. In his defence, Froude insisted: “I learned my duty from himself to paint him as he was, to keep back nothing and extenuate nothing.”
Two ironies coloured Froude’s final decades. South Africa occasioned his nearest personal contact with the exercise of power, about which he appreciatively wrote so much. This furnished an episode in the tragicomic history of writers dabbling in politics. Between 1874 and 1876 he twice visited there as a representative of the Colonial Office and participated in a London conference that sought to federate the Boer republics and the Anglophone colonies. On the ground he first gained and then “quickly compounded his unhappy reputation as an irresponsible interloper in South African politics”. The other irony was delectable. After the virulent Freeman’s death in 1892, Froude, a loud Unionist, accepted Lord Salisbury’s offer of the Regius chair. His lectures on sixteenth century subjects drew large crowds of students and townspeople. In October 1894 he died of stomach cancer. No obituary appeared in the English Historical Review. Its editor, a fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and England’s quintessential “scientific” historian, had applied to succeed Freeman.
Ciaran Brady summarises “Froude’s fundamental convictions regarding the purpose of his life and work” as “Sincerity, Prophecy, and Responsibility” but is alert to “their unresolved contradictions and their disturbing implications”. Thus Froude was confident that he could inspire “a self-selecting elite to fight for a future in which the political rights of ordinary English people would be decisively abrogated, the civil rights of millions of nonwhite peoples indefinitely denied, and the last of Ireland’s patriots hanged at Cork”. Off-putting though Brady’s qualifications are, do they capture the fullness of Froude’s “demonic” side that Gertrude Himmelfarb intuited? This account of Froude’s hoped-for future exudes the paternalism and nationalism characteristic of one expression of modern conservatism. But in striving to be evenhanded, Professor Brady may underestimate the fervour and implications of Froude’s adoration of power.
He eloquently chides the “crude view” that “ultimately might was right”. Instead his Froude, like “Carlyle and so many of the Romantics”, believed that “there existed beyond the level of finite and imperfect historical knowledge an eternal realm in which truth, justice, and beauty had an absolute meaning against which human perceptions of the same would ultimately be measured”. Yet Brady also hesitates. Weighing Froude’s public utterances about the native peoples of South Africa, he finds in them “little sign of racist determination”. He acknowledges, however, that Froude spoke in different voices to different audiences, and his tireless research has unearthed archival evidence that Froude’s private voice was more sinister. In an undated letter written sometime between 1892 and 1894 quoted in a footnote, Froude told the British commander-in-chief in Ireland: “Niggers multiply when they are not allowed to kill each other.” Brady allows that Froude’s “private comments are perhaps a closer and more disturbing indication of his underlying attitudes”. Such comments would have repaid scrutiny. For example, Lord George Hamilton, a Tory politician and imperial administrator, remembered that he wrote off Froude in 1879 after hearing him privately advocate the extermination of black Africans, while publicly urging that they be treated with “perfect justice”.
In June 1895 Lord Acton, the founder of the English Historical Review, memorably paraphrased Froude’s public voice in his inaugural lecture as Cambridge’s Regius Professor of Modern History: “Opinions alter, manners change, creeds rise and fall, but the moral law is written on the tablets of eternity. For every false word or unrighteous deed, for cruelty and oppression, for lust or vanity, the price has to be paid at last.” Deferring to the principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum, Acton vaguely alluded to “moments when we may resist the teaching of Froude”. Eight years earlier in a private letter Acton explained what he resisted: “Whilst the heroes of history become examples of morality, the historians who praise them, Froude, Macaulay, Carlyle, become teachers of morality and honest men … I think there is no greater error.” In the preceding paragraph, Acton famously insisted: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton may have captured the “demonic” side of James Anthony Froude.
Robert Sullivan teaches history at the University of Notre Dame (US) and is the author of Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power.