Likeable Sage

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • Matthew Arnold: A Life by Park Honan
    Weidenfeld, 496 pp, £9.95, August 1981, ISBN 0 297 77824 2

It is impossible not to like Matthew Arnold now that we know him so well. There is no stereotyped Victorian sage in this excellent biography, which is a joy to read, nor are there stereotyped fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers or friends. Yes, the formidable Dr Arnold used the cane, and there was solitary confinement of sorts for sons who wilfully refused to do their lessons. Half-knowing medical men of distinguished metropolitan status did invent mechanical appliances for correcting bone deficiencies that resembled leg-irons fastened on captives. Yes, sisters doted on brothers and followed their careers anxiously, not being given similar opportunities for self-expression through gainful employment. Yes, the Victorian world was filled with status-seekers who complained incessantly about income and nursed social slights while prattling on about duty. Yes, the young Matthew Arnold, even the aging, egregiously corpulent Matthew Arnold, was a dandy who enjoyed titles, women in smart attire, the company of a Rothschild, the compliments of Disraeli, the wealth of a Hudson River estate (where in 1883 he went to see Delanos and Astors), and yes, it mattered to him that his famous lecture tour of the United States netted upwards of £1000, since he was perpetually in debt. Yes, Victorian biographers, memoirists, members of the family worried about propriety and suppressed unflattering information. Sometimes we may forgive them. Arnold’s wife Fanny Lucy (‘Flu’) struck out all favourable references to herself – exactly why? At other times we encounter outright lies or convenient omissions. Matthew skipped out on his sister Jane’s wedding to William Forster of the landmark Education Act. Forster’s personal style was flat, but Matthew was also jealous of his political success. Still, he did not give his sister away – in the Lake Country ‘with the great fells standing sentinel’, as family propaganda put it – because he was chasing his future wife abroad.

Yes, we can recognise many of the storybook features of Victorian culture here, but the reality is stronger and more interesting. Matt’s father, Dr Arnold, was a man of intense social and moral purpose, but he was not a sexually-repressed Victorian. His ‘appetite for love-making was as keen as his letters announced; after becoming Dr Arnold of Rugby he could fly into a rage over a clergyman who wanted to take sexual allusions out of the classics.’ He was also an affectionate father who called his children by nicknames (Matt was ‘Crabby’ or ‘Crab’, not because of temperament but because he was always scuttling off). Mrs Arnold came of a line of clergymen higher in origins than the Arnolds, who recently had managed to climb into the minor bureaucracy. She worked hard, bore a large family and watched her children closely and sensitively. Both parents indulged the poet and established a nurturing domestic environment for him where love was openly expressed. Matthew admired his father but depended upon his mother. He was jealous of her attention and sought her approval implicitly in almost everything he did. He was desolate when she died, although it had been a long life. His sisters were certainly not doting to the point of uncritical adoration. They, too, had grown up in an intellectual household with an intelligent mother. They were independent-minded and reproving, even deflating. With Jane, as she and Matthew grew older, there was a cooling-off in intimacy if not loyalty. Those hideous, embarrassing leg-irons that Arnold wore to correct a rickets problem from the age of two to nearly four were not a source of psychological repression and did not prevent him from daredevil jumps off high railings at Oxford, or the small leap that he took at 66, exacerbating an angina condition and bringing on his death. He was on his way to catch a horse-drawn tram at Dingle Bank, where he was visiting a Liverpool sister. Nor did all his social climbing, his delight in fashion and happy Georgian façades, make him less sensitive to suffering and poverty, or turn him into a hypocrite. There are no hidden skeletons in this Victorian’s closet. He was attracted to pretty young women with narrow waists, and he seems to have believed in sexual intercourse outside marriage, but he loved, adored and needed his wife and was absolutely faithful to her. To his children he was demonstrative and tender, indulging them as he himself had been indulged at Fox How, the Arnold family home in the Lakes.

From the start, he was exasperating. Even the awful presence of the great Doctor could not make him grind away at his studies, whether at private school, at Winchester, where he spent a year, at Rugby, where he did win some lesser prizes, or at Balliol, where he drank whisky – not really to excess – and gambled – not immoderately, but he was always careless about money. (His son Dick acquired the habit, ran up large debts in his Oxford years and even went down without a degree. However, he had another side and is remembered in the fifth of Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’.) Arnold exhausted the patience of tutors, lounging back and refusing to take notes. Naturally he did not take a First in Schools. How could he, cramming three years of reading into a like number of weeks? The family was devastated. He himself began to worry about the consequences of his failings. Without money, without prospects, what would become of him? It is always amusing to hear these Victorian whimperings. Dr Arnold’s son, even with only a Second Class, was surely employable? Matthew was bailed out by his father’s Whig connections: Lord Lansdowne took him on as private secretary with minimal responsibilities. He pulled in some £288 a year and an additional £480 from an Oriel fellowship (Oriel had not yet tied its fellowships to Schools, and Oriel was Dr Arnold’s old college) – not bad at all for a pair of sinecures. So he could explore London, be invited into swank houses, visit his tailor to the extent of his purse, travel abroad and write the lyric, elegiac poetry which some critics rank with Milton’s. There were anxious moments. The Radicals turned the Whigs out, but abruptly the Whigs came back. After four years with Lansdowne Arnold became a schools inspector in 1851, and there, in the Privy Council’s education office, which underwent a number of bureaucratic transformations in the 19th century, he spent the rest of his working life. This sort of thing was not totally unknown. Both Mills had sojourned in the India Office. But it was not truly what Arnold wanted, although his mother wanted it, and after Kay-Shuttleworth’s departure from the education office he came under less obliging heads. Ralph Lingen, who remembered him from Balliol as indolent and egocentric, and the famous albino, Robert Lowe, disliked his ideas and delayed his promotions. That was sometimes understandable. Arnold spoke out publicly against Lowe’s notorious and successful scheme for payment by results. They could not block all his appointments – for example, the celebrated one to the Taunton Commission of the 1860s, which took him to Europe and produced such masterpieces as ‘A French Eton’ – but they blocked enough of them. Lesser men were advanced over him, and only late in life did he become a senior inspector with commensurate pay.

Throughout his life he was vile to poor Arthur Hugh Clough, from whom he had absorbed fresh ideas about the writing of poetry – dismal Clough, as famous for being a Victorian failure and misfit as for being a minor poet. He was quite impossible to his petite, lovely, intelligent, acute-minded and sensible wife, the darling of Eaton Place and the sparkling favourite of a distinguished, titled Tory judge. She was vertiginous, and uncommonly sensitive to cold. On their honeymoon he unthinkingly dragged her across the bitterest, most precipitous parts of the Alps, and the houses in which they lived were always on the damp side. He could be, he often was, especially in his twenties, facetious and condescending, and since there is no wit that does not bite, he drew blood on many literary occasions. He was extraordinary and not outsize, not an untouchable, tormented Victorian paragon, or some other bland category of Victorian intellectual (which is not to deny the element of role definition in his life and writings), but a refreshingly and remarkably vulnerable man who saw wide and perhaps even deep as he said poets could not. He was a delightful, complex, explosive, heroic character. He and Flu lost three sons and bore these tragedies with nobility. Shortly after the death of the third, and in the midst of grief, he slipped down to Howell and James to buy his wife a sealskin coat. He lived a round life, spoke his mind, was spared no difficulty and took his losses. Why shouldn’t he sometimes complain?

Indifferent, vain and unreliable as a boy, perpetually late to class at Rugby, Arnold worked excessively hard as an adult, dropping down from fatigue after long days, or sitting up to write or mark examinations after the family had gone to bed. He travelled the ringing grooves of change from city to city and school to school, following the slow, frustrating stages in the development of a national system of elementary education. He was not the architect of that system, nor essential to its history, but he gave some of his best prose to its importance and explored its meaning for culture. He experienced the poverty, dirt and ugliness of great industrial towns. Through it all he grew. Honan relates how much of his personal growth was attributable to Fanny Lucy, how much she taught him about women and how to respect the feelings of others, to assimilate disappointment and tragedy into his life, even to appreciate music and painting. Only with the worthy Clough were the lessons not absorbed.

Arnold’s poetry conveys his disappointment, melancholy and protest against the estranging forces of modern life. Yet, says Honan, if his verse expresses Arnold’s deeply buried emotional and psychic life, it does not reproduce his wholeness and display all the elements mixed within him. True, sadness was warranted. He was not an immediate success. Even the reception for his Oxford poetry lectures was awkward. His American audiences certainly did not hang on every word. How could they, as his voice did not carry in large lecture halls (he took a crash course in elocution from an Andover professor). He never had a career or income to give him sufficient leisure and satisfaction. Yet despite this, and the horror of three children taken from him, he remained ebullient, bouncing back courageously, showing humour and good temper – tall, charming, monocled (an affectation from the age of 14), given to sudden embraces, and (it seems to have been noticed, and not only by Henry James) rather loud at parties.

The functions of biography are many. Lionel Trilling, in a masterpiece of the 1930s, wrote of Arnold’s intellectual journeys and about only so much of his actual life as was necessary to understand them. There are good reasons for this, apart from the fact of nationality. Arnold’s thinking, rather than his life, was simply more relevant to the immigrant experience that changed so much of the character of American politics and culture in the decades after 1870 or 1880. Trilling knew some of that experience at first hand and was attracted to the voice that spoke of the need for the outsider to become an insider. From the start, America was a far more fragmented country than Victorian Britain, exhibiting greater ranges of disagreement, and the Arnoldian themes of education, élite leadership, the importance of tradition and Establishments in the maintenance of a high standard of national life, were exactly what a young New York intellectual needed in order to explore his role and his country’s future. Honan, while he integrates readings of poems and essays into the narrative, is not writing a biography of a mind but of a person. This is not a ‘life and times’ book, although it is certainly not written in an historical vacuum. Still, for an understanding of Victorian society, or the place of the Arnolds in its social structure, or the nature of 19th-century politics and government, or the leading characteristics of its intellectual and urban life, one must go elsewhere. Honan states that because Arnold’s ideas have been so much written about it is the life that now requires attention. Three-quarters of the biographical data in the book ‘has not appeared in a previous study of Arnold. My aim, always, has been to come as close to Matthew Arnold as the evidence will permit.’ He has certainly done this and (with some help, he says) has even tracked down the famous ‘Marguerite’ of the 1840s poems. She turns out not to have been a fiction but Mary Claude of Huguenot origin from a family resident in the Lakes. Arnold was deeply in love with her for a time. Honan’s biography is completely convincing, and his Arnold is more attractive than the one we usually find. Who could not fail to like him – so affectionate, so impulsive, so natural and artificial at the same time, so unsaintly and flawed, with his unacknowledged borrowings from other authors and his bungling of Italian history in Schools and Universities on the Continent.

However, the truth is that many have disliked Arnold, or have disliked the Arnold of Culture and Anarchy, and the essays that anticipate or follow its concerns and warnings. Victorians such as the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick called Arnold to account for his aristocratic affectation and snobbery. The wicked stereotyping of Northern and Midlands life is irritating, even maddening, and Arnold, if he did not invent the word, is still more responsible for fixing ‘Philistine’ to middle-class, Dissenting Englishmen than any other writer. This is rather snooty from an Anglican ritualist who has substituted culture for religion! His three-class model of sociography, while a commonplace of the time, sticks all the more despite its glaring simplifications because of his extraordinary pen (and receptive audiences). But assuredly Arnold should not be blamed for the sluggish scholarship which since Victoria’s reign has passed for sociological and historical analysis of 19th-century social structure. The ‘best which has been thought and said’ is top Arnoldian phrase-making, but it does aid and give comfort to the high priests of culture. There is more with which to quarrel and cavil: the appeal to timeless standards of judging – an 18th-century echo – in an age of pluralism, with a hierarchy of critics to do the judging; a conception of élite leadership which carries frightening platonic implications; a taste for prophecy which finds fundamental disorder in minute passing events (but this is, admittedly, also a strength, for it anticipates the modern anthropological model of the integrity of a culture) – the list is familiar.

All of these are manifestations of the influence of Burke, Coleridge and Carlyle, Arnold’s beloved Goethe, French writers such as Girardin, and his father’s opponent, John Henry Newman. They indeed make, as commentators of all political persuasions have observed, a powerful and stimulating tradition of response to a culture moving into and through urbanism and industrialism. Arnold held his own with these great names and let his intellect play easily about the inheritance, despite his special dislike of ‘the free swing of this or that’, the consumerist, faddist, shallow sensations of a culture committed to the march of mind in an age – the phrase was not his – of ‘Steam and Cant’. He knew – surely he had to know, and his divided responses to democracy, his appreciation of modern science and literature, show that he knew – that it was not better in the past when the Barbarians jobbed nipoti into power, influence and money.

Arnold’s newest biographer will not fence with critics and commentators, at least not here. His implicit Olympian detachment dampens controversy, as does the attractive technique of writing in the historical present. There is passing praise for Trilling’s ‘often brilliant book’, but the praise is in a footnote. In the text, we find quick jabs at Trilling’s ignorance of manuscript material, his factual errors, certain misreadings, and ‘his remorseless politicising of Arnold’s thought’. This deserved engagement and elaboration. Has Trilling or the academic fads of the 1950s and 60s really over-politicised Arnold’s ideas? It is wise, to be sure, to raise the issue. The mixtures of Marx and Freud first concocted by the Frankfurt School are very seductive. Much has been made of Arnold’s estrangement from society. Because he talked the language of schizophrenia, as did his illustrious predecessors in the culture-and-society mode of evaluating, it has been tempting to portray him as a characteristic European intellectual of the 19th century, even to pair him with Marx or put him on the road to Sorel, or in camp with Carlyle at his most dangerous. He consequently becomes so disaffected and deracinated that his words must be taken cautiously and his analysis of the modern disease shorn of any authority as observation. That Arnold was so much more than this as a person and as a Victorian is abundantly clear from Honan’s life. And yet, after all, Arnold was a deeply political animal, as his father had been and as Burke and Coleridge and Carlyle were. Culture and Anarchy and Arnold’s other essays and some of his poetic insights are concerned with political power and authority, with their exercise and consequences, with the moral and legal forms by which order and stability are maintained and transferred, with the role that religion plays in supporting constitutions. All else follows from that. Culture, by an elaborate set of equations, both logical and psychological, unmistakable if one can manage to be lashed to Odysseus’s mast, is order, perfection and ultimately the State, and the power of the State. Of course Arnold was angry with Gladstone’s elusive Irish policy, although not ignorant of England’s history in Ireland, and of course he favoured a coercive hand there. Of course he marched with the Westminster Rifle Volunteers during a breakdown in relations with Louis-Napoleon’s France. These attitudes are completely consistent with the Arnold whom Honan plays down, even excuses, when he writes that in the Irish Question Arnold forgot ‘his own principles’. But Arnold did not like the weak role accorded government in Victorian liberal thought. He was dirigiste, and he also followed Joseph Addison and Dr Johnson and Coleridge in elevating the role of the critic to where it could be used to teach the discipline of awe and respect. Honan several times calls Arnold the least dogmatic of men – this poet and writer who was continually learning and changing, who grew from a lazy self-centred young man into ‘the Victorian who matters the most’. It is wonderful to watch this development unfold, but Arnold’s dogmatism was never completely leached out. His mind inclined towards order and authority, towards universal, absolute values. It is not enough to intimate that in the absence of danger exaggeration is permitted. Might Arnold have been a Laud or Strafford pursuing a policy of Thorough? We will never know. And so we may happily be left with pictures of him capering naked on a riverbank, or, tall and fat, loving soirées and deploring silence, embracing hosts and guests in his warm and generous arms.