James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet 
by Ciaran Brady.
Oxford, 500 pp., £45, May 2013, 978 0 19 966803 8
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The scene had been too trying even for the practised headsman of the Tower. His arm wandered. The blow fell on the knot of the handkerchief, and scarcely broke the skin. She neither spoke nor moved. He struck again, this time effectively. The head hung by a shred of skin, which he divided without withdrawing the axe; and at once a metamorphosis was witnessed, strange as was ever wrought by wand of fabled enchanter. The coif fell off, and the false plaits. The laboured illusion vanished. The lady who had knelt before the block was in the maturity of grace and loveliness. The executioner, when he raised the head, as usual, to show it to the crowd, exposed the withered features of a grizzled, wrinkled old woman.

This account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots wasn’t written by Hilary Mantel or Antonia Fraser. It was written more than 140 years ago by James Anthony Froude, whose History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada put the Tudor show on the road.

That wasn’t Froude’s only legacy. His Life of Carlyle, published in 1885, inaugurated modern biography, biography with no holds barred. If Carlyle hadn’t lumbered him with a preposterous legacy – his papers, responsibility for his reputation, an exhortation to truth, and uncertainty as to whether he wanted a biography or not – and if Froude hadn’t put truth first, the bedroom door wouldn’t now be open in every biography worth a publisher’s advance. The subjects of Victorian biography, as Virginia Woolf put it, had been ‘like the wax figures now preserved in Westminster Abbey, that were carried in funeral processions through the street’. Froude’s Carlyle blew open the citadel of privacy. It encouraged public speculation about what Jane Carlyle’s friends were saying in private, by strongly hinting that Carlyle was impotent. It was doubly shocking in being as much about her as about him: a portrait of the silently suffering and profoundly unfulfilled wife as well as the brilliant, atrabilious and harshly egocentric husband. It was the first unwrapping of a real-life marriage. Scandalised critics called Froude a muckraker and traitor. Tennyson said he’d sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. Froude was mortified but unrepentant. He was used to controversy.

James Anthony Froude by George Reid, 1881.

James Anthony Froude by George Reid, 1881.

The Life was a homemade bomb; the History was a meteorite, a bolide from somewhere remote and unknown. It inspired Tennyson to try to reactivate English verse drama with Queen Mary. It’s huge – two and a half million words in six and a half thousand pages and 12 volumes, twice the length of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and three times that of Macaulay’s History of England – and it was unprecedented. Nobody else had been able to say what Froude said in a lecture at Newcastle in 1867: ‘I know more about the history of the 16th century than I know about anything else; I have spent the best years of my life in reading and writing about it.’ The Tudors were familiar, but they hadn’t hitherto been known: no one had ever supposed that they were worth knowing about. Bluff King Hal, Bloody Mary, the Queen of Scots, the Virgin Queen: like Drake finishing his game of bowls and Raleigh spreading his cloak over a puddle, they all belonged as much to folklore as to history; and folklore, so far as enlightened opinion was concerned, could have them. Modern sensibility shuddered at the gore, graft and fanaticism of the 16th century: the most sordid and shameful era in the national saga. Reviewing Henry Hallam’s 1827 Constitutional History of England, a two-volume work covering the period 1485-1760, Macaulay savaged the English Reformation:

In Germany, in France, in Switzerland and in Scotland … worldliness was the tool of zeal. Here zeal was the tool of worldliness … The work which had been begun by Henry, the murderer of his wives, was continued by Somerset, the murderer of his brother, and completed by Elizabeth, the murderer of her guest. Sprung from brutal passion, nurtured by selfish policy, the Reformation in England displayed little of what had, in other countries, distinguished it – unflinching and unsparing devotion, boldness of speech, and singleness of eye.

So the Tudors had been left to poets and novelists – Schiller, Scott, Southey – and the French historian François Mignet, whose highly romanticised Histoire de Marie Stuart appeared in 1851. British historians wrote about ancient Greece and Rome, the Italian Renaissance, and Anglo-Saxon and post-Reformation England. The runaway bestseller of the 1840s and 1850s was Macaulay’s History of England, which took up the story in 1685 and spotlighted the Revolution of 1688 as Britain’s entry into the modern era of popular sovereignty, constitutional government and the rule of law.

A mammoth work on the Tudors was the last thing anyone wanted; and when Froude’s appeared it was the last thing anyone expected. It exasperated and thrilled as it pushed back the frontier of modernity by 150 years and overturned traditional evaluations. Henry VIII wasn’t a coarse and cruel tyrant, but the deliverer of his people and the founder of the modern state. Anne Boleyn wasn’t the innocent victim of a monster’s caprice, but a nymphomaniac and serial adulteress who was properly tried and legally executed. Thomas More, the genial philosopher, was not a saint but a sadistic bigot. The real Mary Tudor wasn’t the hate figure of myth. Pious, well-meaning and emotionally fragile, she’d been manipulated by Cardinal Pole, a ruthless éminence rouge with his sights on the papacy. Mary Queen of Scots wasn’t a tragic romantic heroine but a lethal combination of beauty, intelligence and homicidal infatuation – ‘a dangerous animal which had run into a trap … a bad woman, disguised in the livery of a martyr’. Elizabeth I wasn’t an Amazonian mastermind rallying the free world against the forces of darkness. Although her portraits ‘are usually without shadow, as if her features radiated light’, she was muddled, volatile, indecisive and impulsive, and would have floundered without Burghley, the power behind the throne and saviour of her and her realm. The navigators and privateers weren’t despicable buccaneers, but knights of the sea upholding chivalry and national honour. Most startling of all was Froude’s reassessment of the age as a whole. ‘For the rack, the thumbscrew, the Tower dungeons,’ he wrote, ‘no detestation can be too strong, no gratitude too vehement that we have left them, with stake and wheel and red-hot pincers … long and for ever behind us.’ Yet here were all those ‘ferocious refinements of another age’ graphically recalled, with the message attached that this was an epoch to make England proud.

The shocks were all the greater for the weight of authority behind them. Froude, together with his older German contemporary Leopold von Ranke, was one of the first to consult the newly opened archives of Europe. ‘During the twenty years in which I was at work,’ he told students at Oxford in 1892,

I must have read, made extracts from, or copied with my own hand tens of thousands of manuscripts … often in cipher for which a key was not always at hand. I worked long in our own Record Office … the archives at Paris, Brussels, Vienna and Simancas. The letters which were of most importance were in half a dozen languages and in the desperate handwriting of the period … Often at the end of a page I have felt as after descending a precipice, and have wondered how I got down. I had to cut my way through a jungle, for no one had opened the road for me. I have been turned into rooms piled to the window sill with bundles of dust-covered dispatches, and told to make the best of it. Often I have found the sand glittering on the ink where it had been sprinkled when a page was turned.

Critics accused him of misreading, falsifying and even inventing his evidence. But Geoffrey Elton, no less, rubbished the rubbishers: not only was Froude prodigiously competent and industrious, he was pretty accurate too.

Why did he do it? An answer is in the Life of Carlyle, which is as much about Froude himself as about the Carlyles. When they first met, in 1849, Froude was a tormented 31-year-old: adrift and with ‘nothing left to steer by except the stars’. He’d been vilified in Oxford and stripped of his fellowship at Exeter College, and he sorely needed what George Eliot defined as the essential therapy for religious doubt – ‘something [to] believe in and do’. Like many Protestant intellectuals immersed in German biblical scholarship and geological science, he was repelled by the rigid fundamentalist Christianity that the Evangelicals had foisted on the Church of England. This crisis of belief had pitched him into fiction. He wrote The Nemesis of Faith, an overcharged, polemical novel in the Sturm und Drang mode, turgid with religious anguish, illicit passion and moral panic. Its message – loss of belief means moral collapse; yet belief is being destroyed by Protestant ‘bibliolatry’; Anglicanism, intellectually bankrupt and pastorally paralysed, is incapable of doing anything about it – was highly offensive to Anglican Oxford. The book was publicly burned by the sub-rector of his college and Froude limped away with his career in ruins. The learned professions were closed to him because he was in Anglican orders and there was no means of renouncing them. ‘A deacon I was and deacon I must remain.’ He later told Carlyle: ‘My own self … was falling to wreck when I first came to know you.’

Carlyle gave him something to believe in and do, because Carlyle believed that divine revelation wasn’t in scripture but in providence. Writing history was therefore a sacramental act, a means to rediscovering God. Carlyle, Ruskin said, had been ‘born in the clouds and struck by lightning’. To Froude, he was ‘a Calvinist without the theology’, Scotland’s new John Knox, ‘whose voice was like the sounding of ten thousand trumpets’. In the 1830s fashionable London had been spellbound by his charismatic presence and his inspirational brew of fire and brimstone. He taught that right is might and might is light and liberty; that sin is sickness and sickness is darkness and servitude. That’s the lesson of The French Revolution (1837), The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (1845) and Frederick the Great (1865); and it’s the lesson, too, of Froude’s History of England, which is the history Carlyle never wrote.

Froude took up Carlyle’s idea that the single most important event in the national history wasn’t the Revolution of 1688 but the Reformation. The medieval Catholic Church had been truly and beautifully Christian, but by the late 15th century it was rotten. It had transformed the religion of Christ into the Christian religion and this was destroying the idyll of merry England. Turpitude was rife behind a thicket of rituals, formulas and theologies. England had therefore chosen right by choosing the Reformation, which preached salvation through inward holiness. The Reformation was ‘a protest against the dogmatic system and an admission of the rights of conscience’. But the story wasn’t of an unbroken transformation, of midnight into meridian. There had been a turbulent alternation of changes and reversals, and Froude coped with these by mixing Carlyle with Hegel. Action and reaction pursued each other in an upward spiral of progress. The Reformation of Henry VIII and Edward VI had been followed by Mary’s Counter-Reformation; and this was then counteracted by the new Reformation of Elizabeth. Each turn in the cycle was tragic, because Protestant ‘enthusiasm’ mimicked Catholic ‘fanaticism’ and the persecuted of one dispensation became the persecutors of the next. Yet all was for the best in the end. In its final formulation the English Reformation was a syncretic hotchpotch, but it redeemed the nation from turmoil and ensured its worldly triumph.

Froude’s History has no sense of an ending, however. He’d intended to finish with the death of Elizabeth, but then decided that 1588 was the right place at which to stop. The defeat of the Armada ‘answered once and for ever … the largest problems ever submitted in the history of mankind to the arbitrement of force’: it made the English Reformation irreversible. Yet the note of finality eluded him because he was still haunted by other presences besides Carlyle’s – presences he needed to exorcise but couldn’t. One was his dead elder brother, Hurrell, whom he’d followed to Oxford and whose rooms at Oriel he’d occupied. Hurrell, the brilliant, handsome, twisted and cruel older sibling who’d helped make his childhood a nightmare, had been a leader of the Oxford Movement and Anglicanism’s enfant terrible. His filibustering hostility to the Reformation and his penitential excesses (including fasting and hair shirts) had convinced everyone that he wanted to reunite England with Rome. The other figure was someone whose life was almost as deeply entangled with Froude’s as Carlyle’s. He is fictionalised in The Nemesis of Faith as Mornington, an oneiric and sinister apparition who saves the hero from suicide:

How well he knew it! How often in old college years he had hung upon those lips; that voice so keen, so preternaturally sweet, whose very whisper used to thrill through crowded churches, when every breath was held to hear; that calm grey eye; those features, so stern, and yet so gentle! Was it the spirit of Frederick Mornington?

Mornington was John Henry Newman; and Froude wrote his History in order to save himself and England from the fate of his fictional hero, who’s lured by Mornington into a monastery – clearly a synecdoche for the Catholic Church. Now Protestantism was decrepit and the Catholic beast rampant again.

When Froude was born, in 1818, the long cold war between Britain and Rome was rapidly thawing and a portrait of the pope was hanging in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor. In the 1820s, British Catholics were admitted first to public corporations and crown offices, then to Parliament itself: no longer second-class citizens, because no longer a first-class threat. The death in 1807 of the Cardinal Duke of York, the last pretender, had put an end to the exiled Stuart court in Rome and the suspicion and espionage that had for a century poisoned Anglo-Roman relations. Ranke declared in his History of the Popes (1840) that the papacy was now an extinct volcano: ‘We have certainly no cause to expect that the exertions of the hierarchy will enable it ever again to take possession of the world.’ But by the early 1850s the thaw was in rapid reverse and Macaulay contradicted Ranke: ‘The papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour … The number of her children is greater than in any former age.’ And it would still be vigorous in a distant future when travellers from New Zealand, ‘in the midst of a vast solitude’, would stand ‘on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s’. The translator of the second, 1847, English edition of Ranke’s book warned Protestants not to lower their guard: the Catholic Church was now more truly a global force than it had ever been.

Irish immigration was swelling the Catholic population not only of the US but also of England. Catholic priests like Nicholas Wiseman were preaching to huge congregations. In 1850 the pope issued a brief dividing England into 12 bishoprics, under Wiseman as cardinal archbishop of Westminster, and Wiseman responded by proclaiming that England was about to rejoin the Mother Church. ‘Am I queen of England or am I not?’ an outraged Queen Victoria demanded. The prime minister railed against ‘papal aggression … insolent and insidious’, and Parliament urgently legislated against ‘the mummeries of superstition’ by outlawing Catholic territorial titles in Britain. More insidious still was the Catholic appropriation of history. Between 1819 and 1830 the Catholic priest John Lingard published an eight-volume History of England from the First Invasion by the Romans to the Accession of William and Mary, using sources inaccessible to Protestants. The four volumes on the 16th century were contrived, as Lingard admitted, to ‘make the Catholic cause appear respectable in the eyes of a British public’.

Newman, Anglicanism’s arch-traitor, was crucial in all this. His 1845 conversion to Rome had been the sensation of Froude’s Oxford years. Froude, once Newman’s pupil at Oriel, had been badly shaken but not surprised. His brother Hurrell, Newman’s soulmate and chief associate in the Oxford Movement, had clearly been on the road to Rome when he died in 1836, and Froude himself could hear the Catholic siren. He said he’d been saved by Carlyle, but that’s only half the story. He’d also been disenchanted by Newman’s intellectual subterfuge. When he was contributing to Newman’s big hagiographic project, Lives of the English Saints, he’d discovered that ‘the object was to get the supernatural believed in somehow.’ Like Leslie Stephen, and like many Catholics, he reckoned that Newman was a sceptic who’d opted out, and was all the more dangerous for being insecure in his new allegiance. His History of England therefore strives to nullify Newman by pulverising the Catholic religion: ‘a superstition which was but the counterpart of magic and witchcraft’, ‘incredible then and evermore to the sane and healthy intelligence’.

Froude had his revenge, returning to Oxford in 1892 as Regius Professor of Modern History. Newman, also scarred by Oxford malice, never re-established his links with the university. For more than thirty years after his conversion he lived ‘apart from the world’ and never saw Oxford – ‘excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway’. The reparation offered by Trinity College (an honorary fellowship in 1877) was tardy and meagre. But he had his revenge on oblivion, and by a supreme irony it was Froude’s History that opened the door to his apotheosis. In his review of Volumes VII and VIII, Froude’s brother-in-law Charles Kingsley libelled Newman: ‘Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy. Father Newman informs us that it need not, and on the whole ought not to be.’ Newman’s response was Apologia pro Vita Sua, the autobiography that set him on the road not only to the Sacred College but also to a place among the saints.

And Froude? ‘Froude is forgotten.’ The opening flourish of Ciaran Brady’s book isn’t exactly true, since the literature of Victorianism often mentions him, and a full-length biography appeared in 2005. But it’s true that he’s no longer read. The History of England is now a sunken battleship, with nothing visible save a few extracts, edited by Eamon Duffy and published as The Reign of Mary Tudor. The Life of Carlyle briefly re-emerged, abridged, in 1979, but then sank again. Given that we now can’t get enough of the Tudors whom Froude resurrected, and that critics as varied as Elton, Conyers Read and Christopher Ricks rate him very highly, his fate is a puzzle, and Brady’s exhaustive investigation is the first to give it the attention it deserves.

Brady makes a good case for rehabilitation. We are wrong to ignore Froude, he writes, because he was working for the moral and spiritual regeneration of society, and spiritual and moral values are something we need reminding of. In addition, he was unique among English intellectuals in that he not only gave Ireland full coverage (both in his historiography and in Fraser’s Magazine, which he edited from 1860 to 1874), but exposed all the vices of colonial administration, and required the English to take full responsibility for their sins. Froude’s problem, Brady argues, has been that he undermined his own moral authority by adopting fake ideological postures and shabby rhetorical tricks (a series of ‘artificial’ voices) in order to ingratiate himself with the bourgeois reading public. Consequently, his work is not only steeped in the murkiest shades of Victorianism (racism, imperialism, hostility to democracy, all intensified by self-righteous judgmentalism) but riddled with self-contradiction. In his late travel books and lectures, for example, he appeals to history, not ‘science’ (phrenology, physiognomy), to support racism. Racial differences are cultural not biological; and it’s history, not nature, that determines culture. Native Americans and the Maori have been depraved by contact with Europeans, whereas the Negro (as with domestic animals) ‘submits … becomes useful, and rises to a higher level’. Yet Froude’s historical writing postulates biological diversity. And this isn’t playful, proto-postmodern reflexive deconstruction. Dressed up in off-the-peg Victorian fustian, Froude is ugly. He sabotages his own better self, and his penalty has been ‘the obscurity of history’s ash-heap’.

How did Froude manage to write so much? Even today, assisted by photocopying, word-processing and online resources, the History of England would rank as a lifetime’s achievement; yet its dozen fat volumes are only so many items in a bibliography of more than 150 works, many of them also comprising several volumes. While he was working on the History, Froude was editing Fraser’s Magazine; and in the 1870s he took on a public role as government adviser in South Africa. Brady’s book leaves us flabbergasted – but it doesn’t leave us much the wiser about why Froude’s work is so forgettable, or why he was such a complex character and so compulsively driven. An arsenal of epithets – ‘naive’, ‘arrogant’, ‘hypocritical’, ‘unsavoury’, ‘disturbing’, ‘abhorrent’ – tells us only that a moralist is hot under the collar because another moralist, on equally high but different ground, said things that then were totem but are now taboo. In any case, such judgments apply only selectively. They can’t explain the disappearance of the Life of Carlyle, rated by Brady as morally impeccable and by Ricks as a masterpiece.

‘It is perhaps impossible,’ Brady says, ‘to determine which of Froude’s voices is the genuine one.’ But what if they’re all genuine? The data Brady mistrusts – concerning Froude’s abused, motherless and loveless childhood in a Devonshire rectory and at Westminster School, his ritual assassination at the hands of the Oxford elite – suggest that his free-standing, undivided Froude is an existentialist myth. Froude was damaged – ‘his eyes,’ Jane Carlyle’s friend Geraldine Jewsbury said, ‘never looked at you, though they saw you’ – and his work was propelled by complexes and quirks that he neither understood nor wanted to admit. His judgments on Catholicism and the Celts are not some calculated ruse: they are visceral and obsessive. Carlyle’s prejudice is elaborately orchestrated, Gibbon’s sounds forensically wise, Macaulay’s generously sane. Froude’s comes naked between his readers and his subject. His narration of martyrdom, mutilation and execution borders on the pornogothic. He wrote to exorcise his demons, and to escape those Victorian basilisks, penury and death. He had no other source of income and he was three times traumatically bereaved: he lost both his first and his second wife; his eldest son committed suicide. He wrote too much too fast, and much of what he wrote is half-baked. ‘Too much raw material,’ Carlyle complained – more labour than art.

There are many Froudes, and one of them at least is not surprised by the mortality of his magnum opus. The bleak, anxiously expectant figure in the later photographs, waiting for something to happen and knowing it won’t be good, isn’t a historian who claims to write for posterity. No postmodern deconstructionist is more aware of the solipsistic instability of historical writing: ‘History … is all more or less fictitious,’ he said. ‘We all write legends.’ For Ranke, the archival experience was an epiphany, a retrieval of the past ‘as it had actually been’. For this Froude, it revived the incubus of doubt, because it revealed history to be not divinely ordained, but random and unpredictable.

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