Victorian Vocations

Frank Kermode

  • Frederic Harrison: The Vocations of a Positivist by Martha Vogeler
    Oxford, 493 pp, £27.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 19 824733 8
  • Leslie Stephen: The Godless Victorian by Noël Annan
    Weidenfeld, 432 pp, £16.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 297 78369 6

Frederic Harrison once climbed Mont Blanc and found Leslie Stephen on the top. Not an improbable location for the encounter of two eminent Victorians: and they might equally have met in George Eliot’s drawing-room. Whereas Stephen was much the more distinguished mountaineer, Harrison probably knew George Eliot better: he helped her work out the legal plot of Felix Holt, a service for which she may have owed him more gratitude than we need to feel. Perhaps she was showing it when she warned Harrison against employing her cook’s daughter, a girl whose underwear she described as ‘arrogantly good’ and whose manners with men she thought ‘too refined’. Obviously unsuitable, and Harrison did not take her on, though in the way of eminent Victorians he had a lively conscience, and once, after dismissing a housemaid who knelt before him and wept, mused a while on the ‘arbitrary power’ wielded by persons in his position.

His position, as these remarks are intended to suggest, was very like that of Leslie Stephen only more so, since he was rather better-off. They were upper-middle-class intellectuals, though they might not have called themselves so, and in their day that status ensured an unusual degree of both comfort and influence. From Ann Thwaite’s biography of Gosse one remembers the remarkable moment when Gosse passed a note to Haldane as he sat on the Woolsack presiding, on 5 August 1914, over a debate, and so helped to ensure Kitchener’s appointment to the War Office. That may have been the high point of literary influence on great matters of state, but it may also have been a freak; certainly neither Harrison nor Stephen was ever in a position to exert such influence, and Stephen would probably not have wanted to. But they were listened to, and in various ways honoured, as their modern descendants cannot hope to be. And although they were probably more industrious than their successors, they also had more privilege. Work was a duty, but it could not be done without means.

Harrison was of yeoman ancestry, but his father was a rich and generous stockbroker. As a young man, Frederic had the means to lead a very agreeable life, his hard reading interrupted at will by cricket at Lord’s, boating and climbing. When he married, his father increased his allowance, and did so again as each child was born, for he assumed that his son could not do his proper work in the world if he had to earn his own living. He gave Frederic the best available education; King’s College School in the Strand produced, during the 35 years of Major’s headship, almost a hundred boys who got into Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography; and if Oxford seemed a bit disappointing after that, Harrison could still claim that he read enough there to ensure his conversion from orthodoxy and Toryism to republicanism and free-thinking.

Oxford and Cambridge, virtually the sole nurseries of upper-class English intellect at the time, figure prominently in these biographies. Of Cambridge in particular we have in Noel Annan’s an account that is not only detailed but exceptionally animated. And I suppose we need help to imagine a Cambridge with little time for science and a suspicious attitude even to the newly-established Moral Science Tripos; a celibate institution which applied religious tests that sometimes drove men to hypocrisy and sometimes to agonies of conscience, as, though somewhat belatedly, they did Leslie Stephen. (He eventually resigned his fellowship at Trinity Hall, and we now learn that he may have been brought near to suicide.) Not that life was always so thrilling; Stephen, in fact, found Cambridge dull. ‘The only persons I thoroughly liked were Jebb the public orator and Mrs Jebb,’ he wrote later: ‘but Mrs Jebb is an American lady and so is naturally unlike Cambridge and indeed thoroughly charming.’ In the first version of his book, published in 1951, Lord Annan obviously thought it sensible of Stephen to get out: ‘most young dons who tear themselves away from the numbing embrace of that insatiable being, who is at once their mother and their bride, never regret the step they take.’ When he wrote that sentence Annan was a don himself, but twenty years or so after leaving Cambridge he has found no reason to change it. Like Stephen, he saw all the administrative absurdities; like Stephen, he proposed reforms. But Cambridge takes very little notice if it chooses not to, and in time the young émigrés may be reconciled, as Stephen was. In time, as Annan reminds us, he won the rather improbable sponsorship of Mrs Leavis as a progenitor of Scrutiny; and the Leslie Stephen Lecture is still a considerable occasion. For his part, Harrison became an honorary fellow of Wadham, and had his ashes, mingled with his wife’s (though of course she wasn’t at Oxford) laid to rest in the ante-chapel of the college.

Such were the bonds placed upon men of this sort by their almae matres, though they couldn’t help noticing the extraordinary ignorance of the undergraduates, the studious indifference of the dons, and the ridiculous examination system, attacked by both Harrison and Stephen. And it is clear from Annan’s book that the higher education provided by the university was not much of a preparation for the intellectual struggles to come. If Stephen had stayed in Cambridge, he might have done very little of the work he is known for; we see him being not wholly serious in his teaching of New Testament Greek, coaching the boat, being a don. His real work lay elsewhere.

So, indeed, did Harrison’s. Ms Vogeler’s biography is the first, and it is hard to imagine a reason for its not being the last. It is full of detail and documentation and it is very well written. Whereas Annan’s Stephen is at once censorious and intimate, very much at ease with a figure who feels rather like a venerated but not wholly adequate ancestor, Vogeler’s tone is both compassionate and rather tart; her man had a kind of success in the world, but really did very little that now seems right. He was unusually intelligent, unusually active, and unusually silly; he was immensely public-spirited yet prejudiced to the point of absurdity. Although he had some immutable convictions, it is quite hard, even with the help of Vogeler’s explanations, to decide why, on this or that occasion, Harrison acted as he did. When an answer is to be had, it usually has to do with his Positivism, which explains, for example, his altruistic attitude to public service, and also his indefatigable opposition to female suffrage, a cause in which he enlisted many intelligent women, including his wife and Mrs Leslie Stephen.

Positivism is a philosophy or religion that presents grave problems to the modern understanding. Comte was the Foucault and the Althusser of his day rolled into one and multiplied by ten, a prophet then quite unignorable but now almost entirely devoid of interest. Though Harrison had the usual religious struggle – he read Strauss and decided against Pusey and Newman – the main event of his whole thinking life was his encounter with Comte, and Vogeler is concerned to explain why this was so.

Comte divided history into three: there had been a Theological epoch, followed by a Metaphysical one, from which the world was now emerging into Positivism; Science would now come into its own, along with Sociology and Ethics. To all this prophetic history Comte added a quasi-religious ritual, for he was instituting the religion of Humanity. The tripartite scheme is essentially very old, but here it had a modern tone: the need for something to take over from religion was everywhere felt, and Evangelicalism had prepared the conscientious for altruism, a word Comte invented. There was an evolutionary element, too. Harrison was never altogther happy with the ritual, and was later to split the English movement on that issue: but everything else he apparently accepted. Something had to replace hell as the preservative of law and order; Fitzjames Stephen, Leslie’s brother, thought the answer was to beef up legal punishments, but neither Harrison nor Leslie Stephen agreed. After his fashion, Harrison remained faithful to Comte throughout his long life. When he died at 92 there were few Positivists left, though their influence survived in various transformations – for example, the work of Patrick Geddes.

Positivists were supposed to be active in public affairs, and Harrison had strong opinions on practically everything. Though a keen patriot, he thought India should be returned to the Indians, and Gibraltar to Spain. Still under thirty, he wrote for the Westminster a bold notice of Essays and Reviews, a collection of essays which in 1860 outraged fundamentalist laypersons much as the hair-raisingly novel obiter dicta of the Bishop of Durham have been doing more recently. Harrison called the book an instance of ‘Neo-Christianity’, meaning that it was an attempt to show you could still be a Christian without believing anything in the old way. Clearly Positivism was superior to this ignominy.

The review attracted much attention, as did Harrison’s forthright views on other matters. Like Mill, he wanted to bring Governor Eyre to trial for murdering five hundred blacks and flogging hundreds of others in Jamaica: it may seem surprising that such men as Dickens, Tennyson, Kingsley and Ruskin took the opposite view – Carlyle indeed called Harrison’s party ‘nigger-philanthropists’. He wanted Home Rule for Ireland, and later stood as a Parliamentary candidate on Gladstone’s side. He saw that the suspension of habeas corpus was not the way to handle the Fenians, and accurately forecast future troubles, though he rather spoilt this liberal record by suggesting in 1870 that five thousand Irish should be despatched to help the French against Bismarck. He favoured the extension of the suffrage in 1867 – in part, because he believed that it would leave political supremacy where it belonged, with the ‘richer classes’.

In an age which saw Ruskin calling John Stuart Mill a ‘loathsome cretin’ we needn’t be surprised that Harrison was also capable of strong language. When Joseph Chamberlain was said to have hurt his ankle in 1906, Harrison prayed ‘for the sake of our poor dear country’ that the trouble was really paralysis. The poetry of Whitman, which was enjoying a vogue in England, he dismissed as ‘spermatozoa and stink’. Fitzjames Stephen he described as a ‘pushing ass ... thrusting his carcase up the ladder of preferment, and turning round with pants to say: “I am for God, damn your eyes.” ’ Harrison thought Fitzjames should be ‘squelched’. He did not like climbers. Another thing he disliked was the mention of sex. As a good Positivist, ready at all times to rally to the support of freedom and progress, he might have been expected to do something about the imprisonment of the publisher Vizetelly for issuing translations of Zola. He did nothing. His inaction is possibly less surprising when one discovers that he deplored George Sand on account of her ‘unwomanly proneness to lust’. Comte had ruled that women were to be accorded great respect but not allowed to do much in the world; his own relation with Clotilde de Vaux was entirely a matter of mutual uplift. Comte also ordained that the widowed must not remarry, and Harrison condemned George Eliot’s marriage to Cross after the death of Lewes, deciding that the Lewes-Evans ‘union’ had to count as a marriage.

On the other hand, Harrison did a great many positive services to the community which happened also to be Positivist. He busied himself with the setting-up of the LCC and the London Library, and put forward a scheme for life peerages as a way of reforming the Lords. In his later years he had a mania for celebrating the anniversaries of great men, another Comtean trait, for there was a calendar of Positivist saints – all men, of course. However, Harrison’s greatest hero was King Alfred, whose millennial celebrations he organised in 1901. Another great passion was warning the nation against the German threat. When the war came he argued that no constitutional principle could be found to justify conscientious objection to conscription: anybody who thought otherwise was a ‘humbug and a sneak – in plain words, an ass and a traitor’. He devised brave punishments for the Kaiser, and thought very well of Lloyd George. He lost a son in the fighting.

In his old age Harrison wrote more than ever, including biographies of Chatham, William the Silent and Cromwell, whose bones and mummified head he wanted to re-bury in Westminster Abbey – a proposal that met with understandable resistance from Irish MPs. He wrote hundreds of letters to the Times, many of which were printed. He had by this time lost his early sympathy with the Trade Union movement (indeed he had always been suspicious of the TUC) and had come to regard Socialism as a curse; the miners’ strike of 1921 was a Communist-inspired folly, and the General Election of the following year, which made Labour the official Opposition, a disaster. Vogeler remarks that on many issues he was at this time ‘confused and desperate’; perhaps in a way he always had been confused. Some of the old optimism lingered on: he thought Einstein’s relativity theories confirmed the basic tenets of Positivism. He seems to have quite enjoyed being very old. Although he disapproved of honours in the gift of prime minister and Crown, he liked being made a freeman of Bath and an honorary fellow of Wadham. His last book, De Senectute, is set in Oxford, and so, as we have seen, are his ashes.

What, on this very full account, are we to make of Harrison? Vogeler rightly observes that for him as for others Positivism was not only a substitute for religion but a defence against revolution, for which it substituted orderly progress. He wanted no unseemly social upheaval, for that there should be a class of the kind to which he belonged was essential to his conception of his role as man of letters and public affairs. He approved of Beatrice Potter’s marriage to Webb despite his not having a ‘socially attractive family’: but clearly you needed to be as clever as Webb to extract such a concession. He was himself past fifty before he needed to accept payment for his multitudinous journalism, and he tried to use his privilege for the general good: but, as Vogeler remarks, he came to be seen as the prophet of ‘an irrelevant philosophy and a failed religion’. He outlived his reputation, except as an improbable survivor and an authority on great men who had, almost incredibly, been his friends. Almost alone of that distinguished company, he lived to read and admire Lytton Strachey, which was very resilient of him. He died correcting the proofs of his 30th book.

Martha Vogeler, with her usual moderation, concludes: ‘his story inspires pathos but does not deserve neglect.’ In following his tracks for almost a century, from his birth in Euston Square to his Oxford rest, she has done all that could be done to justify that conclusion.

From where we now stand, Harrison will surely seem a lesser presence than Leslie Stephen. This is in part because Stephen’s works are still in use: the DNB lives on though Harrison’s biographical dictionary is forgotten, and many of us got our first introduction to the history of ideas in the 18th century from Stephen, whereas Harrison’s historical work is likewise forgotten. But Stephen was also the father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, the original of Mr Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, and a figure in many memoirs that happen to interest us because Bloomsbury interests us. We have a strong preconception of Stephen’s rich melancholic character, and it has been reinforced not only by Virginia Woolf but by his own Mausoleum Book, an autobiographical work written for his children. A further preservative was the first version of Lord Annan’s study, published in 1951. He has taken it up in the spirit of an engraver excavating his own plates, adding information that has come to hand in the interim, and, without disturbing the general design of the original, has incorporated his own later experience of Cambridge and London.

Annan’s admiration of Stephen, even his sense of fellowship, is obvious, but he won’t overrate him: he is only ‘a peak set in the mountain range of a particular tradition of thought’. He had many shortcomings, including an indifference to art and music. As a philosopher, he was a failure. For all his reading and his industry he was trapped in the cage of mid-19th century assumptions as to what was important and how it should be dealt with. Thus his main concern was to show that as ‘belief in the dogmas of Christianity waned, there was still a morality as peremptory which men and women should accept if society was to improve’. ‘Peremptory’ in this context is George Eliot’s word. She had a little more time for Comte than Stephen had, though, as Annan shows, he drew some important un-Comtean conclusions from his study of the great systematiser.

No more than Harrison did Stephen want the general arrangement of society to be unduly disturbed. He had the conscience and the industry, but also required the privileges, proper to a high bourgeoisie that had assumed responsibility for the national intellect. The characterisation of this social class, made long ago by Annan, is now a familiar part of everybody’s idea of the ‘intellectual aristocracy’ beginning with the ‘Clapham Sect’ and issuing in Bloomsbury and the ethics of Moore. It is a complicated tale – involving not only genealogy but the transformation of Evangelicalism as well as of Cambridge – on which Annan loves to descant. It is his sympathetic grasp of such matters that gives both versions of his book their authority.

He is capable of Victorian candour – he calls Marcuse a ‘miserable coward’, which is almost what Stephen called Jowett – and he can be pretty hard on Leslie’s shortcomings. Yet there is also a tenderness, and a willingness to defend his man from unjust strictures. One sees this in his remarks about Stephen’s meanness, which is perhaps too notorious. Stephen, for example, once let it be thought that he was close to financial ruin, so that Gosse began lobbying to get him a Civil List pension: but it turned out that Stephen was talking only about his current account and not reckoning his securities or his income. His extraordinary tantrums over Vanessa’s household accounts are well-known. A rational explanation of such conduct might begin by stating that money was a prerequisite of the kind of life a bourgeois intellectual must lead, so that in looking after it, even rather frantically, one was doing one’s duty by oneself and everybody else. We hear Frederic Harrison at 80 lamenting that the £2000 a year which was all he then had was barely enough, and that although he approved in principle of the new national insurance and the employer’s contribution, he feared that in order to pay it he would have to cut down on his staff of eight servants. ‘The day of the middle-class and professional man of £1000 a year’ was, he lamented, gone for ever; such a man could no longer manage on only about ten times as much as an artisan.

It might be thought that there is something pathological about such fears of poverty. Arnold, of whom Stephen did not approve, made famous a certain Mr Smith, secretary to an insurance company, who ‘laboured under the apprehension that he would come to poverty, and that he was eternally lost.’ Smith, according to Arnold, was typical of the middle class, which had two main concerns, making money and saving one’s soul; and neither of these preoccupations seemed to Arnold conducive to culture. But Stephen, as we know, had other more admirable concerns, and was capable of generosity. Annan wisely remarks that the attitude of people to money is often at variance with their general character: but he goes further and discovers ‘something fine’ in Stephen’s financial caution. He didn’t want money for the usual upper-middle-class reason, to ape aristocracy, but merely to have enough to get on with his work. That, of course, is a difficult quantum. But Annan thinks he got it right, and praises both Stephen and his daughter Virginia for expecting to live as rentiers sheltered lives in which they could write as they pleased without turning out ‘shallow things’ to increase incomes ‘which by the standards of their times were modest’. Stephen indeed said he was prepared if necessary to support his establishment on £1000 or £1200 a year – ‘for millions of people do it’. But the last part of this statement is surely a delusion, and the first, one supposes, a desperate hypothesis; it sounds rather typical of Stephen’s melancholic hyperbole, like his melodramas over the kitchen accounts.

This little excursion about money is characteristic of Annan’s book: much of its charm comes from his having opinions and a willingness to give them ebullient expression. There is, for instance, a brief meditation on changing styles of mourning, and there are plenty of saws and instances: ‘Most people’s domestic life is an odd hotch-potch ... Men and women are to be pitied: as we ourselves, too.’ That third category, additional to men and women, is rather curious, but the effect is still agreeable.

Only about a third of the book deals directly with Stephen’s life. The remainder is an attempt to situate him in the context of 19th-century ideas, and to trace the later course of those ideas: hence the unexpected presence in these pages of such as Habermas, Foucault and Heidegger. The early version of the book did of course deal with the disturbing influx of Continental and especially German thought into England, but the new one is more expansive, and expresses a general admiration for ‘the German renaissance’, that ‘explosion of genius’ which is characterised in a few pages on German music, philosophy and economic development which must have required real nerve to write. Stephen himself is represented as caught in the cross tides of Millian logic, secularised Evangelicalism, Darwinism and German critical thought. Occasionally his head disappears in the surf, for he is never allowed to look like a giant, and is usually called an industrious amateur.

All the same, he emerges as a figure of some weight and much dignity. If his book on ethics is a mess, it remains true that he was wisely sceptical about historical periodisation – the Age of Reason or indeed the Age of Anything. He loved the 18th century best, and thought that Romanticism came when Methodist enthusiasm triumphed over bourgeois rationalism: hence he was keen that the conflict between science and theology in his own time should not have the same outcome as that between reason and dogma in the previous century. Admiring though he is of these and many other achievements, Annan is always judicial. Stephen, he points out, ignored all religions save Western Christianity; he succeeded no better than his brother or Harrison in solving the problem of providing secular to replace religious sanctions on conduct; he tried to work evolution into his solution, but alas, ‘there is no logical connection at all between moral standards and the evolutionary process.’ Such attempts only show how powerful was the effect of a remembered religion on the thought of these agnostics. Stephen could hardly have foreseen that in his daughters’ generation ethics would be associated not with science but with art.

We are told about Stephen’s more sporting achievements, especially on mountains and towpaths, and Lord Annan reveals an unexpectedly intimate acquaintance with these activities and the philosophy that lies behind them. But of course Stephen spent a lot more time at his desk than on mountains. After he left Cambridge, he wrote three or four articles a week, and sometimes six thousand words at a sitting. Much of what he wrote is naturally of small interest now; he had failings as a literary critic which Annan doesn’t fail to indicate; he was not a professional biographer in the way Ms Vogeler, for example, is; indeed he was as unmodern as you might expect.

Yet his problems were real, and they were seriously engaged, and the fact that argument has moved away from them doesn’t change that. Much that probably seemed advantageous at the time now strikes us as getting in his way. He was ‘too ecumenical’, too judicious, insufficiently déraciné; ‘an amateur scholar, a Victorian gentleman’ rather like Darwin or Acton (Annan’s comparison), using outdated critical apparatus and techniques. Perhaps Cambridge had something to do with this: when Stephen visited Heidelberg he found that the only other person sculling on the Neckar was another Englishman. But in spite of all the defects, the emotional self-indulgence, the melancholy (after all, he lost two wives whom he liked), the meanness to his daughters (Virginia reckoned he spent about £300 on her education), he still emerges as ‘an adorable man, and somehow tremendous’. It is Virginia Woolf’s phrase, but Annan, having that intimacy of which I spoke, endorses it and makes it credible. It is not surprising that he retains the original ending of his book, a quotation from Lowes Dickinson’s eulogy of Stephen:

It does not become a Cambridge man to claim too much for his university, nor am I much tempted to do so. But there is, I think, a certain type, rare, like all good things, which seems to be associated in some peculiar way with my alma mater. I am thinking of men like Leslie Stephen ... The world could never be driven by such men, for the springs of action lie deep in ignorance and madness. But it is they who are the beacon in the tempest....May their succession never fail!

This is the language of Forster’s, and Annan’s, King’s, of an ‘aristocracy’ for which Annan long since supplied a history. And it explains why these books, good as they both are, concerned as they are with apparently similar subjects, are so different. Ms Vogeler, we may be sure, was not, any more than Mrs Harrison, educated at Wadham.