Victorian Vocations

Frank Kermode

  • Frederic Harrison: The Vocations of a Positivist by Martha Vogeler
    Oxford, 493 pp, £27.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 19 824733 8
  • Leslie Stephen: The Godless Victorian by Noël Annan
    Weidenfeld, 432 pp, £16.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 297 78369 6

Frederic Harrison once climbed Mont Blanc and found Leslie Stephen on the top. Not an improbable location for the encounter of two eminent Victorians: and they might equally have met in George Eliot’s drawing-room. Whereas Stephen was much the more distinguished mountaineer, Harrison probably knew George Eliot better: he helped her work out the legal plot of Felix Holt, a service for which she may have owed him more gratitude than we need to feel. Perhaps she was showing it when she warned Harrison against employing her cook’s daughter, a girl whose underwear she described as ‘arrogantly good’ and whose manners with men she thought ‘too refined’. Obviously unsuitable, and Harrison did not take her on, though in the way of eminent Victorians he had a lively conscience, and once, after dismissing a housemaid who knelt before him and wept, mused a while on the ‘arbitrary power’ wielded by persons in his position.

His position, as these remarks are intended to suggest, was very like that of Leslie Stephen only more so, since he was rather better-off. They were upper-middle-class intellectuals, though they might not have called themselves so, and in their day that status ensured an unusual degree of both comfort and influence. From Ann Thwaite’s biography of Gosse one remembers the remarkable moment when Gosse passed a note to Haldane as he sat on the Woolsack presiding, on 5 August 1914, over a debate, and so helped to ensure Kitchener’s appointment to the War Office. That may have been the high point of literary influence on great matters of state, but it may also have been a freak; certainly neither Harrison nor Stephen was ever in a position to exert such influence, and Stephen would probably not have wanted to. But they were listened to, and in various ways honoured, as their modern descendants cannot hope to be. And although they were probably more industrious than their successors, they also had more privilege. Work was a duty, but it could not be done without means.

Harrison was of yeoman ancestry, but his father was a rich and generous stockbroker. As a young man, Frederic had the means to lead a very agreeable life, his hard reading interrupted at will by cricket at Lord’s, boating and climbing. When he married, his father increased his allowance, and did so again as each child was born, for he assumed that his son could not do his proper work in the world if he had to earn his own living. He gave Frederic the best available education; King’s College School in the Strand produced, during the 35 years of Major’s headship, almost a hundred boys who got into Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography; and if Oxford seemed a bit disappointing after that, Harrison could still claim that he read enough there to ensure his conversion from orthodoxy and Toryism to republicanism and free-thinking.

Oxford and Cambridge, virtually the sole nurseries of upper-class English intellect at the time, figure prominently in these biographies. Of Cambridge in particular we have in Noel Annan’s an account that is not only detailed but exceptionally animated. And I suppose we need help to imagine a Cambridge with little time for science and a suspicious attitude even to the newly-established Moral Science Tripos; a celibate institution which applied religious tests that sometimes drove men to hypocrisy and sometimes to agonies of conscience, as, though somewhat belatedly, they did Leslie Stephen. (He eventually resigned his fellowship at Trinity Hall, and we now learn that he may have been brought near to suicide.) Not that life was always so thrilling; Stephen, in fact, found Cambridge dull. ‘The only persons I thoroughly liked were Jebb the public orator and Mrs Jebb,’ he wrote later: ‘but Mrs Jebb is an American lady and so is naturally unlike Cambridge and indeed thoroughly charming.’ In the first version of his book, published in 1951, Lord Annan obviously thought it sensible of Stephen to get out: ‘most young dons who tear themselves away from the numbing embrace of that insatiable being, who is at once their mother and their bride, never regret the step they take.’ When he wrote that sentence Annan was a don himself, but twenty years or so after leaving Cambridge he has found no reason to change it. Like Stephen, he saw all the administrative absurdities; like Stephen, he proposed reforms. But Cambridge takes very little notice if it chooses not to, and in time the young émigrés may be reconciled, as Stephen was. In time, as Annan reminds us, he won the rather improbable sponsorship of Mrs Leavis as a progenitor of Scrutiny; and the Leslie Stephen Lecture is still a considerable occasion. For his part, Harrison became an honorary fellow of Wadham, and had his ashes, mingled with his wife’s (though of course she wasn’t at Oxford) laid to rest in the ante-chapel of the college.

Such were the bonds placed upon men of this sort by their almae matres, though they couldn’t help noticing the extraordinary ignorance of the undergraduates, the studious indifference of the dons, and the ridiculous examination system, attacked by both Harrison and Stephen. And it is clear from Annan’s book that the higher education provided by the university was not much of a preparation for the intellectual struggles to come. If Stephen had stayed in Cambridge, he might have done very little of the work he is known for; we see him being not wholly serious in his teaching of New Testament Greek, coaching the boat, being a don. His real work lay elsewhere.

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