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.

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