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.

Significantly, it was Tom, who had not a tithe of the intellectual power of his brother Matthew, or of Arthur Clough, who alone gained Firsts in Mods and Greats. His friends and relatives despaired of his habit of ruining his worldly chances by a constitutional impulsiveness of character, beginning with his decision to emigrate to New Zealand at the age of 24 when an Oxford fellowship had lain within his grasp. Yet Tom was less of an oddity and more representative of the tergiversation of the times than at first appears. Oxford in the 1840s took the double strain of the combat between the Evangelical tradition and Anglo-Catholicism and the invasion of what Newman saw as the real nightmare enemy – intellectual liberalism or ‘the wild, living intellect of man’ torn free from institutional authority. It was common enough for young men to pass from one camp to another, except that for many like W.G. Ward or Tom Arnold sceptical humanism provided only a temporary resting-place. But neither did it in the end satisfy Matthew Arnold or Clough. For all the heady elixir they imbibed together in Clough’s fellow’s rooms in Oriel, brewed from copious draughts of Carlyle, Emerson, George Sand and Goethe, they were unable to shake off their religious concern. In Clough’s case, the sheer self-destructiveness of the sceptical process and the guilt which haunted him over his sexual impulses revived his religious questionings. In the end, his overtaxed spirit sought safety in the sterile conformity of marriage, humdrum work for others, and a God taken on trust from the Anglican Establishment. He appeared to hand over the keys of his mind and will to his wife and Florence Nightingale almost at the same time (1854) as Tom Arnold in Tasmania had decided to hand his over to Newman. For Clough, the lenitive was as deadly as the disease. Florence Nightingale’s demands for unending labour reduced a weakened frame to complete nervous and physical collapse: by 1861 he was lying in the graveyard at Florence, having only reached the age of 42.

Matthew Arnold, the most balanced of the trio, went through a similar circle of experience, rejecting religion, giving up the prospect of an Oxford career because of its restrictive clericalism, stifling, as Clough and Tom had done, the pangs of frustrated first love, and finding for a time an answer in marriage, elegiac verse, hard study and a Leavis-like belief in literary culture. Yet he was unable to rest on the conclusion that ‘through culture seems to lie our way, not only to perfection, but even to safety’ (Culture and Anarchy). The deaths of three of his four sons between 1868 and 1872 drove him back to what he termed the experimental truths of Christianity, and these he sought desperately to reconcile with the ‘function of criticism’ he had celebrated in his National Review article of 1864. Literature and Dogma and its successors doubtless marked the decline of Matthew Arnold as a literary critic, but that perhaps was the price he paid for discovering that ‘conduct, plain matter as it is, is six-eighths of life, while art and science are only two-eighths.’

Hence Tom Arnold’s life with its violent shifts of scene and faith caricatured rather than contradicted that of his more distinguished Oxford contemporaries. Even the move to New Zealand to set up ‘some kind of pantisocracy’ was less bizarre than it seemed. James Mill had stigmatised the colonies for being a grand system of poor relief for the aristocracy, but in practice it was the professional middle classes who turned to exploit their employment opportunities. Before the expansion and opening up of the public service in Britain, and before the loosening of clerical control over all educational appointments, even able graduates were looking abroad. Eight men could already sit down for an Oxford dinner in the little town of Hobart in 1851. Dr Arnold had maintained a life-long interest in colonisation – he himself considered emigrating to Western Australia and also bought land in New Zealand – and the prospect of a new educational empire to be colonised from Rugby had solid attractions. J.P. Gell was dispatched in 1839 to start up the interdenominational Christ’s College at Hobart; John Buckland followed in 1846 to be headmaster of the Hutchins School. In his uncertainties over employment Clough kept open the antipodean possibility, making an unsuccessful application for a chair of Classics at Sydney in 1851. J.A. Froude, after the ritual burning of his book, The Nemesis of Faith, by the senior tutor of Exeter in the college hall, resigned his Oxford fellowship and accepted an appointment at Hobart Town High School in 1849, only for it to lapse when it was found that his views were too broad even for the latitudinarian Tasmanian public. Matthew Arnold himself, when he learned that Tom had landed a £400-a-year inspectorate of schools in Tasmania, commented to Clough with only half a tongue in his cheek: ‘I think I shall emigrate: why the devil don’t you.’

Tom Arnold stuck nothing long, but again his volatility was not untypical. His horror at the gulf between himself and the London poor and his resolve to work with his hands in a class-free society lasted little longer than the time it took him to clear a five-acre plot and find that he could not obtain title. He quickly rediscovered education as the family trade and as the only sure source of livelihood. All five of Dr Arnold’s sons went into education, four as inspectors of schools. As Tom rightly observed, ‘our father’s name has been to us, not only a source of proud and gentle memories, but actually and literally better and more profitable than houses and land.’ By 1851 his colonising enthusiasm was largely dissipated, and he began to write of ‘this hateful land’ and itch for a post back in Britain. His revolutionary ardours, which inspired him to champion the cause of Young Ireland and to greet the news of the 1848 revolutions by publicly singing the ‘Marseillaise’, were equally transitory. By 1853 life in the convict colony of Tasmania had dimmed his republican and democratic faith, and he was bewailing colonial ‘bounceableness’ and separatist sentiment. Yet ‘Citizen’ Clough’s political ardours cooled with even greater rapidity: his ‘Amours de Voyage’ recorded his disenchantment with the revolutionary movement after he had experienced it at first hand in Paris and Rome in 1848-49. Matthew Arnold took longer to arrive at his highly authoritarian views over the maintenance of public order in London and Ireland, and liked to proclaim himself a liberal, though a liberal ‘poorer for the loss of some illusions’. Nevertheless those illusions were shed early.

The different rate and directions in which their changing opinions carried them quickly distanced the three men from one another. Clough had a tenderness for Tom Arnold that made him an exception to his habit of breaking from those with whom he could not fundamentally agree. In the brief time that elapsed between Tom’s return to Britain as a Catholic in 1856 and Clough’s death in 1861 they planned the writing of a joint series of lives of the English poets in continuation of Johnson’s celebrated work. But the note had changed. Tom’s conversion to Catholicism drove him in upon himself and left him with no intimate in whom he could confide. The old, unbuttoned, loose-tongued comrade was replaced by a much more formal correspondent. It was as though the speech impediment which he managed increasingly to master had transferred itself to check the flow of soul. To his wife he stammered pathetically in 1859: ‘God grant that this Christmas time may be a time of new birth in the hearts of us all. I cannot you know speak out freely to you; you would tell me it was cant; and perhaps it might be, so hard it is to give exact expression to the inner thought, and so great the temptation to use stereotyped forms of speech which are near at hand. Again the constant system of repression to which you compel me cramps and stiffens my very thoughts.’

Of the workings of his sudden conversion we learn almost nothing. Professor Bertram thinks the loss of his day-old child may have affected him. Perhaps he found, as he said 30 years later, that ‘the Carlylian religion won’t wash ... it will not bear the strain of life.’ His conversion brought him into close touch with two great men, Newman and Acton. But it was not on terms of equality. Newman was his paymaster as well as his confessor; and although Acton had him to stay at Aldenham, during their early relationship Arnold had to beg constantly for payment of his articles to the Rambler, having, as he said, many small children and a hard fight of it to live. In his letters to the two men he also aired larger issues of historical or religious interest but could not escape a tone of artificiality and constraint. With Newman, as he acknowledged to Acton at the end of his life, he was never on terms of intimacy either in Dublin or Birmingham: ‘greatly as I revered Newman’s intellect, and valued the preaching and polemic side of his extraordinary character, still there was never anything of the clerical temper about me, and he inspired me in those days with a certain uneasiness.’ Newman treated Arnold throughout with a large-mindedness and charitableness the latter was not always capable of reciprocating. Arnold had that quick eye of the unsuccessful for the weaknesses of the renowned. Already in 1857 he was observing at Dublin that Newman lacked the genius of command, and when he learned the news of the Cardinal’s death in 1890 he wrote at once to his sister noting that Newman had been of service to the mind of many but not so much to the character. He had spent 45 years as a Catholic largely immobile; on being received, he seemed to have slackened his efforts, almost to fold his arms. ‘For a time he strove and preached and lectured; but gradually his tastes, feelings, sympathies, were all so froissés by the comparatively dull, inert, mindless milieu which surrounded him, that it seemed at last better to lie still.’ Even Lytton Strachey was to be more sympathetic in his judgment. Jowett, from whom Arnold had received a tart refusal to help him find pupils when he was in serious financial need in 1880, received an equally astringent analysis: ‘It is touching to observe how much he was beloved by a host of friends, to all of whom indeed, so long as they did not make what he called “a mess of life”, he was truly affectionate and “serviable”. On the unfortunate and perplexed he turned a cold unpitying eye; failure, or what he deemed such, awakened not his censure only, but his dislike.’

Arnold spent the larger part of his career too far from the mainstream of literary and intellectual life for his letters to throw much light upon it. Paradoxically he was closest to it when far away in New Zealand and Tasmania and corresponding familiarly with his Oxford circle. Nearly a quarter of this collection covering half a century has very properly been devoted to the brief Tasmanian period (1850-56). But even then it is only Tom’s letters we are given, and the scholarly apparatus has had to be kept so exiguous by the editor on grounds of economy that there is no indication whether replies can be found in the published correspondence of Clough, Newman or Acton. Strangely, there are no letters to his brother Matthew, who, while he may have spoken of Tom as ‘my misguided Relation’, retained a warm affection for him. When Tom returned to Oxford with his family in 1865, Matthew was still lecturing as Professor of Poetry. The two brothers walked the Oxford countryside together, celebrated with such nostalgic sweetness in ‘Thyrsis’, Matthew’s elegy on Clough completed in 1866.

If material of literary or public interest falls away in the later years, Tom Arnold’s personal life carried a poignancy of its own. His whirlwind marriage to Julia Sorell, the flirtatious, twice-betrothed belle of Hobart, had sprung from deep physical passion, the most enduring cement of the marriage bond. It held the couple together through the violent upset occasioned by Tom’s first conversion, the rows over the religious upbringing of the children, and the lean years in Dublin and Birmingham. But the headstrong and loving Julia was never able to forgive him for his second ‘apostasy’, which at a stroke deprived them of their Oxford livelihood. She refused to go on living with him and in the following year contracted cancer of the breast. Tom continued to write the most tender and contrite letters, but remained curiously oblivious of the exquisite cruelty which he inflicted by hounding the sick woman over money matters. Mary Ward, his daughter, rebuked him for his insensitivity. ‘You might as well give her something deadly to drink as write letters to the tradesmen about her. Every such proceeding on your part shortens her chance of life.’ In 1882 Arnold got back his professorship of English literature at Dublin, but Julia refused to follow. The iron had entered her soul.

Dearest Tom, It is not easy to look ‘all eventualities in the face’ when you have a deadly disease knawing at your vitals, and your life is so shipwrecked as mine is ... Once and for all I will not leave England and go to live in Ireland ... You have pleased yourself and as you have made your bed so you must lie on it, but while I live I will never know one of your RC friends. Your whole life is outside mine and this is of your own making.

Few such trenchant letters, illustrating the tensions that could be contained within the Victorian family, can have survived the pieties designed to hide them from the outside eye. In 1886 Tom was still writing to her: ‘my darling, you were beautiful enough in your prime to justify a war of Troy, or the venture of an empire.’ Only when she died in April 1888 and called him to be with her at the last did he appreciate what he had done to her, although even then he could not bring himself to feel regret at having re-entered the Catholic fold. In the end, it is the light which this work throws on the narrow things of the Victorian household that catches the imagination.