Misguided Tom

Eric Stokes

  • Letters of Thomas Arnold the Younger 1850-1900 edited by James Bertram
    Auckland/Oxford, 276 pp, £15.00, August 1980, ISBN 0 19 647980 0

Tom Arnold owes the preservation of his name to his connections. Although he ended life as an obscure don in the struggling Catholic university at Dublin, his lineage and acquaintances kept him close to those who set their mark on the public life of 19th-century Britain: second and favourite son of Dr Arnold of Rugby, brother of Matthew and William Delafield Arnold, brother-in-law of W.E. Forster, father of Mrs Humphry Ward, grandfather of Julian and Aldous Huxley and of Mrs G.M. Trevelyan. His knockabout career helped enlarge his connections. At Oxford he stood on even closer terms of friendship with Clough than did his brother Matthew, despite all the effusive lamentation of the latter’s Thyrsis’. Emigrating in 1847 to New Zealand and then in 1849 to Tasmania, Tom Arnold made friends with Alfred Domett, Browning’s ‘Waring’, and with F.A. Weld and Andrew Clarke, both subsequently important as Singapore proconsuls at the time of British expansion into the Malayan peninsula. His conversion to Catholicism in 1855, and his enforced resignation as Tasmania’s inspector of schools, brought him back to Britain and to Newman’s door.

Doubtless aware of the propaganda value of recruiting the son and namesake of one of the most powerful earlier enemies of the Oxford Movement, Newman secured for Arnold a professorship of English literature at Dublin and later brought him over as a Classics master to the Oratory school in Birmingham. The cold grimy air of Edgbaston, indifferent pay, and – according to Newman – the remorseless tendency of his fiercely anti-Catholic wife to ‘nag, nag, nag him, till he almost lost his senses’, gradually converged in Arnold’s mind with doubts over Papal Infallibility and annoyance at the proscription of Döllinger’s work as a school prize. In 1865, he abjured his convert’s faith, set up as a private tutor at Oxford, built the imposing house named ‘Laleham’ in the Banbury Road near the Parks to house his family and pupils, and infiltrated himself back into University life. Eventually he succeeded in securing a combined college lectureship and was on the verge of being elected to the new chair of Anglo-Saxon in 1876 when he suddenly threw everything away by reverting to Catholicism. At the age of 53 he found himself again knocking as a penitent at Newman’s door, and a few years afterwards re-treading the lonely exile’s path to Dublin – for this time his wife resolutely refused to go with him.

The record of such a life is chiefly of interest for the celebrities which it encountered. In 1966, Professor James Bertram brought out the New Zealand Letters of Thomas Arnold, which included all Clough’s longer ‘anti-podistic’ letters to his friend between 1847 and 1851: these had been omitted from F.L. Mulhauser’s Correspondence of A.H. Clough (1957). The New Zealand Letters proved a fresh and vivid collection, which R.K. Biswas exploited to advantage in his penetrating full-length study of Clough (1973). The letters spanned the vital four years when all Clough’s major poetry was composed – ‘Ambarvalia’, ‘The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich’, ‘Amours de Voyage’ and ‘Dipsychus’. Tom was a favoured confidant. One of Clough’s letters contained an MS version of ‘Say not the struggle nought availeth’, and Tom in large part supplied the model for the hero of ‘The Bothie’, who emigrates to New Zealand to find a more equitable society.

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