House of Frazer

J.W. Burrow

  • J.G. Frazer: His Life and Work by Robert Ackerman
    Cambridge, 348 pp, £35.00, December 1987, ISBN 0 521 34093 4

‘Among the Bechuanas it is a rule ... The Borero Indians of Brazil think ... The Huichol Indians admire ... In some parts of Melanesia ...’ And in Bangkok at 12 o’clock? It needs an effort of imagination to think of Noel Coward reading The Golden Bough (popular abridged edition, 1922), but he catches perfectly the scatter-effect of Late Victorian and Edwardian anthopology practised according to the comparative method, above all by Frazer, from whose legendary notebooks the examples rattled in promiscuous handfuls onto the page: Melanesians and Eskimos, Breton peasants, Astarte and Cybele, corn dollies and Balder the Beautiful, the absurd beliefs of the Wawamba, the atrocious behaviour of the Mura-muras. With a sense of recognition we find that in Amboyna and Uliase, ‘two islands near the equator, where necessarily there is little or no shadow cast at noon, the people make it a rule not to go out of the house at mid-day, because they fancy that by doing so a man may lose the shadow of his soul.’ That at least we might have guessed, and how did the Master miss it? (Gassy? Chassis? Ecstacy? Or racy?)

Not, of course, that there was anything of the clipped staccato of the Entre Deux Guerres about Frazer’s cadences and diction, which have an Elgarian amplitude like, as Beecham said of the First Symphony, the great arch of Euston Station. The line of argument through the eventual 13 volumes of The Golden Bough, from the ghastly priest of Nemi, through fertility magic and sacrificed and resurrected gods, to the final Ave Maria from the churches of Rome, is, notoriously, often stretched to breaking-point; the authority is in the prose, consciously Augustan and often echoing Gibbon. Frazer’s subject, too, was the pathology of superstition. Like his model, he was tiny in stature and seems much the more dwarfed by the physical immensity of his oeuvre. Gibbon found a distinctive voice and imposed it on his material. Frazer, whose positivist methodological creed enjoined humility, seems buried beneath his: 13 volumes of The Golden Bough, four of Folklore in the Old Testament, four for the commentary on Pausanias, numerous other publications, and then the honours: the knighthood, the Order of Merit, the honorary degrees faithfully chronicled on the title-pages (Lady Frazer would surely have pounced on any omission). It all seems like a copious burial hoard among which – somewhere – Frazer himself unobtrusively lies. Mr Ackerman has set himself the task of excavation. The site is relatively untouched; the only book-length study of Frazer, by R. Angus Downie, was, as Ackerman says, hagiography, written under the eye of Lady Frazer – and no eye could be more watchful or intimidating. The rest is brief reminiscences and appreciations.

It is a strange situation for an author so prolific, so honoured, and in his time so diffusely influential, and Mr Ackerman was right to think it needed remedying. He has done so, as far as it could be done; for the lacunae and limitations we must blame the subject rather than the author. He has been meticulous in searching for evidence and judicious in weighing it; it seems unlikely that there is much more to be found out. Despite his profession of diffidence, Mr Ackerman seems well-equipped to explain the anthropological work; if he has a fault, it is that of being a little over-conscious of the weight of current professional anthropological opinion. If Frazer himself still seems elusive, it is because he created a carapace of unremitting, solitary industry, of modesty and retiring gentleness, that remains largely impenetrable, leaving one wondering whether there was in fact anything more than there appears to be inside. Mr Ackerman takes issue with the established picture of Frazer as ‘the consummate literary drudge, virtually helpless in everyday life and unable to take part in ordinary conversation’, making the point that until an apparent crisis in middle life Frazer was at least moderately sociable, having a valued circle of Cambridge friends linked by shared intellectual interests. It is a fair point, and illustration of it provides much of the interest of his book, but it is a fairly modest qualification for all that.

Few academics have been more retiring than Frazer, who lived virtually all his adult life as a research fellow of Trinity, Cambridge, who never taught and took little part in college affairs, much less university ones. His life is made up of scholarly toil for whose regularity and application ‘industry’ seems an inadequate word: one wants to write ‘industrial’. In its accumulation and discharge of facts and its measured if self-conscious uniformity of tone his oeuvre has almost the air of a collective production, as though a single polyp, immolating itself, had somehow created a whole reef. Of course, Frazer is far from the only positivistically-minded 19th-century savant to prompt such thoughts: there was, for example, the other giant of evolutionism, Herbert Spencer, piling up the successive volumes of the Synthetic Philosophy, topped off with the filing-cabinet of The Data of Ethics. But Spencer, though a recluse in later years, was a larger figure in himself, a quirky, querulous, assertively self-made intellectual whose writing, though ponderous, retained something of the flat, provincial dogmatism of the homespun Cobdenite England from which he sprang.

In Frazer, whose personal humility and unworldliness seem to have been quite genuine, there is more of a contrast between the person and the literary persona, whose idiom was a prose whose purple seems at once imperial and fin-de-siècle. In one sense, at least, the style was the man. Ackerman has traced Frazer’s travel notes, taken in Greece while he was working on Pausanias: the descriptions of landscape made on the spot have exactly the same mannered ‘literary’ quality as the published work; it seems as if for him there was only one way of responding, describing, or even seeing. When, occasionally, the carapace cracked, as in a (quite trivial) misunderstanding with his friend Edmund Gosse, what is uncovered seems small, shrinking, panic-stricken and essentially childlike.

No trauma seems available to explain this over-sensitivity and the obsessive industry and personal scrupulousness by which Frazer maintained control over his life. It seems that he just was over-sensitive: not so much wounded as constitutionally vulnerable and limited by his vulnerability. His childhood was comfortable and secure, perhaps overprotected and unstimulating. He was clearly a good boy who deserved to be well-treated and was. He was born in 1854 into a prosperous, conventionally but not ferociously pious Scottish family, where he was the eldest of four children. His father was a successful pharmacist in Glasgow and, unlike his son, an extrovert and something of a local public and political figure. He was emotionally reticent, but the family life seems to have been warm and kindly. One looks in vain here for what Ackerman sees, surely correctly, as the central intellectual drive of Frazer’s life (apart from the sheer love of collecting facts): his hostility to religion. Rigid sabbatarianism, the bane of so many, seems guiltless: Frazer actually liked it; he enjoyed the peace and quiet. If his rejection of Christianity was Frazer’s revolt, it was, in early years, so far as we know, covert and undramatic. There is a clue perhaps in the acknowledged influence on him, at Glasgow University, of the lectures of the future Lord Kelvin, with their insistence, as Frazer put it, on ‘a conception of the physical universe as regulated by exact and absolutely unvarying laws of nature’.

After Glasgow Frazer went on to Trinity, acquiring honours at each stage, and then read for the bar, chiefly, it seems, at the insistence of his father. His successful fellowship dissertation on Plato, however, determined the course of his life. Trinity was to be his home until his marriage in middle life; in a sense, it remained so always. The closest and most significant of his Cambridge friendships was with Robertson Smith, fellow Scot, outstanding Hebrew scholar and, in his earlier academic career in Scotland, victim of religious persecution, whose The Religion of the Semites, with its insistence on the priority of collective ritual over belief, has given him a place in the anthropologists’ pantheon higher than that of Frazer. The Golden Bough was dedicated to Robertson Smith and his premature death was a severe blow to Frazer, whose reclusiveness, Ackerman thinks, grew on him thereafter. Ackerman thus sees his marriage to Lilly Grove, a French widow with two adolescent children, in 1896, as a deliverance from a threatening mid-life crisis. This is plausible, though the sparsity of the evidence and his subject’s highly limited talent or inclination for self-examination make it less than conclusive. Ackerman’s treatment of Lilly Frazer is highly original: he thinks there was something to be said for her. Comments on her suspiciousness – amply borne out by letters – her domineering, her ill-temper, her general ‘impossibility’ are legion. But life in Cambridge – which she hated – as a woman and a foreigner, married to a scholar as devoted to his work and to his library in Trinity as Frazer was, cannot have been easy. The Frazers were quite often short of money too: the agricultural depression had cut the Trinity dividend by a third to around £200 a year, and Frazer was heavily dependent on the profits of authorship, which came intermittently. Above all, she was clearly devoted to him and he to her. Ackerman makes a good case, without ignoring her many unattractive features, even if he is influenced a little, as the reader is, by the fact that with Lilly Frazer’s letters, shrill and paranoid as they are, there enters his biography for the first time someone able to render vividly the immediacy of human feeling and experience.

The most striking outward event in Frazer’s life apart from his marriage was, appropriately, a non-event: his brief, abortive expedition to Liverpool in 1908 as Professor of Anthropology. His residence there lasted five months and seems to have been the worst thing that ever happened to him; the dramatic onset of incurable blindness which struck in later life seems to have been borne with exemplary stoicism and lack of bitterness. But Trinity had been Frazer’s cocoon: out of it and forced into a public role of sorts, he was acutely unhappy. The memorial of this episode was his inaugural and virtually valedictory lecture ‘The Scope of Social Anthropology’; it expressed a fear that was common in his generation, but in tones which are for him unusually deeply felt. In exile, he voiced his fears for ‘the gardens and palaces of ancient culture’ (almost echoing the phrases he elsewhere applied to Trinity) while ‘relics of savage ignorance survive at their doors.’ Abercromby Square is not as secluded as Trinity Great Court, but it seems a little hard on Liverpool; it is difficult to believe that for Frazer there was no unconscious reference to his present situation.

A life like his is inevitably largely a record of books and their successive editions, and their attendant correspondence, reviews and controversies. It seems that the largest collection of letters Mr Ackerman has been able to use is that with Frazer’s publisher, Macmillan. There is a certain comedy in the latter’s helplessly protesting acquiescence in Frazer’s implacable copiousness and, even with his industry, the consequent inevitable delays, but publishing details do not make the most exhilarating kind of reading and one sometimes has a sense that the correspondence is offered here faute de mieux. Ackerman has been very thorough in identifying changes of emphasis and inconsistencies in successive works and editions, and his account of Frazer’s intellectual relations with his supporters and critics will be invaluable to anyone plotting the state of anthropological theory in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and as a contribution to the wider study of the place of Frazer in the general culture of his time which still remains to be written.

Two reservations seem justified. The first is that Ackerman seems less at home with the intellectual context of the 1880s in which Frazer’s ideas first defined themselves than with the more strictly anthropological context later. In particular, an unpublished notebook he has uncovered, marked ‘Philosophy’, though interesting, seems not really to bear the weight he wishes to put on it. He sees it as presenting ‘an unimpeded view of the philosophical underpinnings of Frazer’s anthropological work’. In the quotations he gives there is, as he says, ‘a forthright assertion of subjective or epistemological idealism’, and he wants to build a bridge between this and the well-known (and much criticised) individualism and intellectualism which characterised Frazer’s anthropological explanations. This seems tenuous indeed: the notebook looks like Frazer’s attempt to clarify his mind on current philosophical issues rather than anything more. There were plenty of other, more obvious and readily available sources, Comte and Tylor in particular, for this feature of Frazer’s anthropological thinking. It is an argument of almost Frazerian tenuousness for Ackerman, taking the notebook’s formulation of a kind of solipsism (the sort of theory every philosophical tyro turns out), to suggest that it is ‘a small step then to say that all men’s minds are basically similar, and another, somewhat larger, step to say that the evolution of mind is the same everywhere because it is not fundamentally influenced by environment or culture but simply follows its own in-built psychological laws’. That could have been Frazer’s train of thought but there is no real evidence that it was, while against it are the other sources for an intellectualist version of the evolution of culture and the fact that subjective idealism has no role in his mature thought.

The second reservation is a matter of tone and discretion. It would be unjust to say that Mr Ackerman’s book is generally present-minded in its approach to past disputes and controversies: it is too scholarly for that. He does, however, seem rather excessively concerned that no flaw in Frazer’s arguments, by present standards, should go unidentified and unchastised, so that as Frazer produces each successive work, one begins to wince sympathetically at the pummelling he is about to receive from his biographer; at one point the crescendo of criticism (of Folklore in the Old Testament) is so vehement as to become almost incoherent and to draw one’s eyes in wonderment from subject to author. Though his book has many virtues, a biographer who begins with the words ‘Frazer is an embarrassment’ and concludes that his greatest achievement was his edition of Ovid’s Fasti is perhaps not altogether happily matched with his subject.

He draws, however, a charitable veil of generality over the Frazers’ dreadful final years, when he was blind and she almost totally deaf, so we miss some of the grotesque details recorded by his secretaries: her shout of ‘James, get back to your work’ and her jealousy of his contacts with the world she could no longer hear; the meals from Trinity under their green baize cloth, brought by a college servant cycling through the Cambridge streets, which she would fork into his mouth. It was recognised that her will kept them alive. He died in 1941 and she followed him within hours.