The Voice from the Hearth-Rug

Alan Ryan

  • The Cambridge Apostles 1820-1914: Liberalism, Imagination and Friendship in British Intellectual and Professional Life by W.C. Lubenow
    Cambridge, 458 pp, £35.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 521 57213 4

The Apostles – the semi-secret society that George Tomlinson (a future Bishop of Gibraltar) and II of his friends at St John’s College, Cambridge founded in 1820 – occupies a distinctive niche in British social mythology. Or, rather, it occupies several niches, according to the taste of the mythologiser. In the eyes of many of its members, looking back in later years on the friendships of their youth, it represented human relationships at their most perfect. To other members, including both G.M. Trevelyan and Noel Annan, it was one of the recruiting grounds of the intellectual aristocracy that they looked to as the proper replacement for the landed variety. To cynical outsiders, after the revelation of Anthony Blunt’s long service as a Soviet agent, it was one of the recruiting grounds for the homintern.

Why should one care about the Apostles at all? For several rather different reasons. For one thing, the Society recruited an extraordinary group of highly talented young men, perhaps peaking between 1890 and 1914, and it is impossible not to be interested in what Russell, Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore made of each other. For another thing, some of them had an extraordinary impact on the intellectual and political life of Britain for much of the 20th century; philosophers still work in the shadow of Russell, Moore and Wittgenstein; Keynes’s economics is unfinished business; G.M. Trevelyan’s popularisation of the subject of social history has recently come back into favour; and earlier, Henry Sumner Maine and F.W. Maitland made historical jurisprudence reputable subjects.

More elusive is the question that lurks behind the immediate human interest of the lives of the Apostles. Given that most societies recruit élites for a variety of purposes and in a variety of ways – intellectual, literary, military and political élites, via formal academies and informal family networks, for a start – the ways in which a small society like the Apostles acted as a recruiting mechanism for different kinds of élite have an interest of their own. And they must raise questions, most of them unanswerable with any degree of precision, about the qualities of the élites so created. Did it make a difference to the way the Treasury worked to have so many Apostles in its higher reaches? Or did the Treasury simply mould them to its own image rather than the other way about? To the outsider, the curious fact is how far the Apostles resembled their non-Apostolic colleagues in whatever occupation they took up. The headmasters of the great Victorian public schools – some of whom were former Apostles – had to conform to the views of their governors and their pupils’ parents. It was obviously easier to do so if those were their views, too. Yet, we know now that Anthony Blunt was for many years a Soviet agent; all of us are capable of putting on a plausible front no matter what we might think in our hearts. Were Angels – the label that Apostles affixed to themselves after they had left Cambridge – more divided in their allegiances than most of us? It seems impossible even to guess intelligently but there is little evidence that they were.

It is the twenty-odd years before the First World War that most catch the eye. This was when the Apostles were something like a recruiting agency for what we loosely call Bloomsbury, but what we ought perhaps to acknowledge as a cultural-cum-political formation of an entirely novel sort. Setting the intellectual eminence of Whitehead, Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, Keynes and Trevelyan to one side, there are Forster, Lytton Strachey and Rupert Brooke; those who put their faith in something other than words will recall that Roger Fry, too, was an Apostle. But the tentacular reach of the Apostles was epitomised by others. Eddie Marsh was, narrowly considered, a superior civil servant; less narrowly, he was not only an assistant private secretary to Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Lyttelton, but an essential support to Winston Churchill. Nor ought we to overlook such figures as Sir John Sheppard, whose hard to characterise labours at King’s made that previously rather obscure Cambridge college the political and social force it has been for the past seventy-five years.

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