Unsaying

Philip Davis

  • A Victorian Wanderer: The Life of Thomas Arnold the Younger by Bernard Bergonzi
    Oxford, 274 pp, £25.00, July 2003, ISBN 0 19 925741 8

Roughly every ten years there was a crisis and an upheaval. In 1847, in his early twenties, he lost his faith, but in 1856 he converted to Catholicism. In 1865 he returned to Anglicanism, only to convert back to Catholicism in 1876. Each time this led to a change of scene: in 1847 from Oxford and London to New Zealand; in 1856 from New Zealand to Dublin and then Birmingham; in 1865 back to Oxford; in 1876 to London again and then Dublin. And, worse, with each shift came the risk of family betrayal: at first of the inheritance of the broad-church Anglicanism of his famous father, Thomas Arnold; and then – not once, but twice – in the danger to his marriage to Julia, the anti-Catholic he had married in New Zealand.

Bernard Bergonzi’s description of Thomas Arnold the Younger as a ‘Victorian Wanderer’ is borrowed from Arnold’s own autobiography, Passages in a Wandering Life, but there is far more feverish guilt and self-contradiction in his life than the term ‘wandering’ suggests. The narrative of this life is in no sense straightforward. It has lost that classic linear imperative that characterised the religious quest of Pilgrim’s Progress.

What Matthew Arnold detected in their friend the poet Clough, he also found in his younger brother Thomas: a want of ‘rest’. It had all started so well: Tom gained the first at Oxford that eluded both Matthew and Clough; he was Clough’s model for Philip, the radical poet, in his poem The Bothie. But a mixture of religious doubt and social concern led Tom, like Philip, to seek a new world elsewhere: in 1848 he first attempted to start a small farm in New Zealand, then opened a school instead. When that failed too, he was offered the post of inspector of schools in Tasmania on the strength of the Arnold name. But his conversion to Roman Catholicism led to fears that he would use his position to propagate Catholic views, and he returned to England in 1856, where he was asked by John Henry Newman to go to Dublin, with the prospect of becoming professor of English literature at Newman’s new Catholic university. It was a disaster for Julia, Arnold’s wife, but ” to Newman it felt like a providential coup: the son of the leading Protestant educationalist, his old antagonist Arnold of Rugby, now about to educate a new generation of Catholics. Though the university proved a long and messy failure, Arnold struggled on for six years, writing a basic Manual of English Literature before following Newman to the Birmingham Oratory School in 1862, where he had to be content to be first classics master. When he lost his faith in Catholicism he once again lost his job, returning to Oxford in 1865, where, without any official position, he built a large house, took in pupils, and struggled unsuccessfully to hack out a living as a tutor. What he really wanted to do was pursue his research as a textual scholar. He published his edition of Beowulf in 1876 but at the same time ruined such chance as he had of securing the professorship of Anglo-Saxon by rejoining the Church of Rome. He left Oxford, where Julia remained, went to London as an examiner for the Civil Service Commission, and finally returned to Dublin in 1882 as a fellow of the Royal University of Ireland, and died there in 1900. A stutterer, he was always ‘an anomaly, a walking category mistake’, as Bergonzi calls him. And the saddest thing is all that didn’t happen: the ill-fated schemes and dreams, posts mentioned or applied for, openings that never came to anything.

To Tom Arnold himself it was a restlessness that seemed intrinsic to modern living and modern thinking. This was, he felt, increasingly a world in which having a thought was a disturbing rather than a contemplative experience. As he put it in a review of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in 1859, when we are unsure of the truth of received ideas, what follows is not ‘constant meditation upon them’, as if we could dwell and rest in them, but, more critically, a ‘constant discussion of their grounds’.

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