- R.H. Hutton: Critic and Theologian by Malcolm Woodfield
Oxford, 227 pp, £25.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 19 818564 2
Coleridge has always been our representative Romantic literary critic, and Matthew Arnold has long been thought of as the type of the Victorian critic. There is, perhaps, no need to topple Arnold from his eminence, but it is high time that a close competitor was brought out from the shadows where he now lurks, uncollected and unread. For Richard Holt Hutton was a prodigious and impressive critic. And unlike Arnold he made literary (and theological) criticism his profession. Hutton was the author of about seven thousand reviews and essays. He edited the Spectator from 1861 until his death in 1897. Like Jeffrey, first editor of the great Edinburgh Review in the early part of the century, he read for the Bar, but unlike Jeffrey he never practised law, choosing to devote all his time and attention to literary journalism. In more ways than this, too, he was typical of the progressive movement, during the 19th century, away from the uniformity of Oxford or Cambridge-educated professional men who undertook reviewing as a gentlemanly pastime. As a Unitarian in his youth, he was debarred from taking a degree at either of the universities, and became one of the first distinguished generation of Victorian intellectuals to be educated at University College London, which was founded on the German system guaranteeing freedom of opportunity and learning to dissenters from the established Church. He even spent some time studying at the University of Bonn, one of the institutions which served as a model for University College.
In keeping with this background, Hutton was abreast of scientific and historical developments, responding publicly, through his periodical writings, to such events as the appearance of Essays and Reviews (1860) by liberal and unorthodox theologians, and the public row between Kingsley and Newman in 1864. He was active, too, in political comment, taking the side of the Northern States in the American Civil War. As Malcolm Woodfield points out in this welcome study, Hutton wrote mainly about contemporary issues and writers, seldom dealing with any writer earlier than Scott, whom he greatly admired. This is perhaps one reason why he has been largely ignored since 1906, when the last selection of his Spectator articles was published. While Arnold wrote semi-theoretical essays like ‘The Study of Poetry’, in which he ranged over the whole history of English literature, and actually declined to discuss his contemporaries and immediate predecessors in poetry, Hutton responded to the works of Tennyson, Arnold and George Eliot as they came out. And his concern was unashamedly, even self-consciously to see everything in the context of the age.
Thus, though claims cannot be made for the universality of his interests, it is by no means ridiculous to urge that those who wish to become thoroughly inward with the best that was thought and said in the Victorian age should renew acquaintance with Hutton. This has, in fact, been admitted, severally, by the editors of many volumes in the ‘Critical Heritage’ series on major 19th-century authors. A quick search through these revealed that Hutton is represented – often by more than one article – in volumes on, among others, Scott, Carlyle, Dickens, Trollope, Clough, Hawthorne, Browning, George Eliot, Hardy, Arnold and Henry James. In many cases, the editors have singled out Hutton in their introductions as outstandingly shrewd and appreciative among contemporary critics. We clearly need to have a new selection of his best essays.
Hutton’s concern was always to see how far, and how healthily, the objects of his criticism could be seen to reflect the temper of the times. This made him a penetrating critic of the poetry of Tennyson and Arnold. Writing about the former in 1881, he says: ‘His is essentially a genius which requires a resisting medium to do it justice; and it is never nobler than when it gives the reader the impression that the poet is stemming the current of the age, and convinced that the age is all astray.’ Though Hutton himself never lost his faith in the face of geology, Darwin and the higher criticism – indeed, he moved from Unitarianism to orthodox Church-of-Englandism, progressing to the brink of conversion to Catholicism in 1871-2 – he was super-sensitive to the difficulties of maintaining faith under their multiple onslaught. He despised the ostrich attitude of some important churchmen in these matters, and had a subtle sympathy for those writers, like Arnold and Tennyson, who wished to believe more than they could and bravely claimed or suggested more poetically than they accepted intellectually, as well as for those, like George Eliot, who rejected spiritual props altogether. Thus he takes issue in no-nonsense fashion with those who find Tennyson consoling and confidence-inspiring: ‘The greatness of “In Memoriam” is in the greatness of its delineation of faith and aspiration struggling on under the chill shadow of profound doubt. Without its deep gloom, the gleams of light would lose all their special beauty, and any poem that could be less happily described as the reflection of confident optimism, I cannot even imagine.’
His most urgent and most frequently-uttered question is put with reference to Arnold’s poetry, in a long article published in 1872: ‘When I come to ask what Mr Arnold’s poetry has done for this generation, the answer must be that no one has expressed more powerfully and poetically its spiritual weaknesses, its craving for a passion that it cannot feel, its admiration for a self-mastery that it cannot achieve, its desire for a creed that it fails to accept, its sympathy with a faith that it will not share, its aspiration for a peace that it does not know ... Mr Arnold’s poetry towers above the warmth of the faith it analyses and rejects, and gains thereby its air of mingled pride and sadness.’ This is unerring in its feeling for the tone of Arnold’s poetry. It is also remarkable for its author’s uncanny power of imaginative sympathy with the predicament of the poet – ‘craving’, ‘cannot feel’, ‘cannot achieve’ – combined with due admiration for the execution – ‘powerfully and poetically’, ‘towers above’ – and at the same time for a judicious refusal to let sympathy and admiration blind him to the spiritual failure which Arnold shares with the age – ‘fails to accept’, ‘will not share’, ‘does not know’. The serious playfulness of the phrase ‘towers above the warmth of the faith it analyses and rejects’ is persuasive, despite the special pleading for religious faith which it embodies.
As Arnold was quick to observe, Hutton, though an intelligent and largely generous critic, was hardly a comfortable one. In 1865 Arnold grumbled to his mother about another of Hutton’s relentless appreciations of his work: ‘the article has Hutton’s fault of seeing so very far into a millstone.’ And Woodfield quotes an anonymous writer in the Academy in 1899, who found ‘something Titanesque in the way Mr Hutton set himself each week to appreciate, to explain, to flout, or to annex to his own service the ripe thought of his day. None escaped him. Maurice, Clifford, Kingsley, Newman, Dr Martineau, Mill, Matthew Arnold – he docketed them all.’
It may be thought that Hutton was somehow too solid, too Olympian in his criticism, too unfaultable, to be endearing or to engage our full attention. He measures his subjects against a standard which seems always just beyond reach of their best efforts. Even Goethe, who repelled, attracted and puzzled Victorians, rendering even Carlyle and Arnold relatively inarticulate in their admiration, emerges somehow contained, docketed, from Hutton’s scrutiny in a review of G.H. Lewes’s Life of Goethe which he wrote in 1856. Confessing himself to be ‘as a man mesmerised’ by the ‘magnetic force’ of Goethe’s works (and his life), he nevertheless avoids succumbing completely, retaining an amused independence of mind. He characterises Goethe’s humour, brilliantly, as ‘sedate’, where the response of 99 out of 100 of Goethe’s English readers would have been ‘Humour? What humour?’ And he dares to detect in Goethe’s work ‘a thin vein of genuine trash’, as in ‘the execrable sentimental device of giving an artificial appearance of life to Mignon’s corpse’, in Wilhelm Meister.
Yet Hutton’s mode is not confined to measured superiority and the all-round view. He put himself on the line week by week, responding immediately and honestly to new works and new controversies as they occurred. He was George Eliot’s best contemporary critic, and his achievement is all the more impressive for his having given his critical verdict piecemeal. For example, he reviewed Middlemarch one book at a time as it was published in parts in 1871-2. A certain amount of critical myopia is inevitably apparent in his reviews of the separate parts, as in his discussion of the characterisation of Rosamond Vincy, though even here it is worth noting that he anticipates many a modern critic in finding George Eliot guilty of injustice to one of her own creations. At the same time, he grasps the direction and importance of the novel from the first. Though he repeatedly expresses regret that George Eliot’s tendency is to melancholy and that she and her chief characters set their faces so resolutely against Christianity – even her clergyman, Mr Farebrother, seems to profess ‘spiritual wistfulness rather than faith’ – Hutton is in no doubt that Middlemarch is ‘one of the great books of the world’. Indeed, inasmuch as George Eliot deals imaginatively and in narrative form with the adaptation of the individual to society and with the moral growth of individuals without traditional spiritual aid and direction, she is for Hutton the greatest writer of and for her age. As Woodfield aptly puts it, ‘George Eliot was the novelist he was waiting for,’ though paradoxically she ‘seems to fulfil all Hutton’s worst fears’, in that she conforms to his sense of the age’s melancholy fate of having to learn to manage without religion. Thus in his reviews of her work he tempers his wonderment at her intelligence and artistry with sorrow, but understanding, at her rationalism.
There is a final paradox. Woodfield makes a strong case for the similarities of mental habits in George Eliot and Hutton. Both ‘tried to do justice to every side of an issue’, and both wrote ‘in a style which is full of second thoughts – not in the sense of being self-contradictory, but in the sense of anticipating the contradictory and trying to appropriate it’. Both observed, absorbed, dissected the thought of their day. Both aimed at a Solomon-like view of issues. And yet it emerges from Woodfield’s book that Hutton felt far from secure in his own ‘modern’ form of Christian faith. A reading of his articles might lead us to see him as a man struggling against atheism, albeit vicariously, through his imaginative grasp of the same struggle in Tennyson, Clough or Arnold, and holding on to a faith modernised by this struggle. In fact, his great temptation lay elsewhere. One should, it becomes apparent, read his letters to Newman, especially in 1870-2, when he was using Newman as a father-confessor and considering conversion. ‘I sometimes almost despair of gaining in this life the light I crave,’ he admitted in 1871, and a year later he described ‘a vague passionate yearning’ to turn to Catholicism. The real temptation, then, was to submit to a Church in which he saw all too clearly ‘an apparent utter disregard of evidence in fixing the Creed in the days when the Creed acquired its first hold on the mind’. This he could not finally do. Honesty required him to stop short of conversion and resist the attraction of Newman’s safe haven at least as vigorously as he was at the same time – on behalf of his generation, as it were – resisting the rationalism made so persuasive by George Eliot in her novels. His literary criticism thus represents an Olympian position arrived at by struggle. What he observed minutely in the works of his great contemporaries can in turn be observed in him. He is still, for that reason, one of our best introductions to the Victorian spirit.