The Voice from the Hearth-Rug

Alan Ryan

  • The Cambridge Apostles 1820-1914: Liberalism, Imagination and Friendship in British Intellectual and Professional Life by W.C. Lubenow
    Cambridge, 458 pp, £35.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 521 57213 4

The Apostles – the semi-secret society that George Tomlinson (a future Bishop of Gibraltar) and II of his friends at St John’s College, Cambridge founded in 1820 – occupies a distinctive niche in British social mythology. Or, rather, it occupies several niches, according to the taste of the mythologiser. In the eyes of many of its members, looking back in later years on the friendships of their youth, it represented human relationships at their most perfect. To other members, including both G.M. Trevelyan and Noel Annan, it was one of the recruiting grounds of the intellectual aristocracy that they looked to as the proper replacement for the landed variety. To cynical outsiders, after the revelation of Anthony Blunt’s long service as a Soviet agent, it was one of the recruiting grounds for the homintern.

Why should one care about the Apostles at all? For several rather different reasons. For one thing, the Society recruited an extraordinary group of highly talented young men, perhaps peaking between 1890 and 1914, and it is impossible not to be interested in what Russell, Keynes, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore made of each other. For another thing, some of them had an extraordinary impact on the intellectual and political life of Britain for much of the 20th century; philosophers still work in the shadow of Russell, Moore and Wittgenstein; Keynes’s economics is unfinished business; G.M. Trevelyan’s popularisation of the subject of social history has recently come back into favour; and earlier, Henry Sumner Maine and F.W. Maitland made historical jurisprudence reputable subjects.

More elusive is the question that lurks behind the immediate human interest of the lives of the Apostles. Given that most societies recruit élites for a variety of purposes and in a variety of ways – intellectual, literary, military and political élites, via formal academies and informal family networks, for a start – the ways in which a small society like the Apostles acted as a recruiting mechanism for different kinds of élite have an interest of their own. And they must raise questions, most of them unanswerable with any degree of precision, about the qualities of the élites so created. Did it make a difference to the way the Treasury worked to have so many Apostles in its higher reaches? Or did the Treasury simply mould them to its own image rather than the other way about? To the outsider, the curious fact is how far the Apostles resembled their non-Apostolic colleagues in whatever occupation they took up. The headmasters of the great Victorian public schools – some of whom were former Apostles – had to conform to the views of their governors and their pupils’ parents. It was obviously easier to do so if those were their views, too. Yet, we know now that Anthony Blunt was for many years a Soviet agent; all of us are capable of putting on a plausible front no matter what we might think in our hearts. Were Angels – the label that Apostles affixed to themselves after they had left Cambridge – more divided in their allegiances than most of us? It seems impossible even to guess intelligently but there is little evidence that they were.

It is the twenty-odd years before the First World War that most catch the eye. This was when the Apostles were something like a recruiting agency for what we loosely call Bloomsbury, but what we ought perhaps to acknowledge as a cultural-cum-political formation of an entirely novel sort. Setting the intellectual eminence of Whitehead, Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, Keynes and Trevelyan to one side, there are Forster, Lytton Strachey and Rupert Brooke; those who put their faith in something other than words will recall that Roger Fry, too, was an Apostle. But the tentacular reach of the Apostles was epitomised by others. Eddie Marsh was, narrowly considered, a superior civil servant; less narrowly, he was not only an assistant private secretary to Joseph Chamberlain and Alfred Lyttelton, but an essential support to Winston Churchill. Nor ought we to overlook such figures as Sir John Sheppard, whose hard to characterise labours at King’s made that previously rather obscure Cambridge college the political and social force it has been for the past seventy-five years.

How did it happen? On that question, Lubenow is wisely silent. He quotes Sir Donald MacAlister’s claim that ‘the voice that issues from the hearth-rug on Saturday night has gone through all the earth, its sound to the world’s end. It speaks in Senates though men know it not, it controls principalities and powers, it moulds philosophies, it inspires literatures,’ but he does not venture a view on whether that influence was so extensive, or whether it really did depend on an Apostolic training. On the other hand, he gratifies one’s ordinary human curiosity about how recruits to the Society – ‘eggs’ to the existing members – were identified and ‘hatched’. As the intellectual distinction of the Society grew, so the number of active Apostles shrank. By the end of the 19th century, only one or two new members a year were elected, and Cambridge dinners might have only five or six members present. But the delicate process whereby bright and open-minded undergraduates were identified and sounded out, while the existing Apostles made up their minds whether they were apt for embryo-hood, remained the same.

Once elected, Apostles were obliged to attend the dinners every Saturday evening in term. The obligation to stand in front of the fireplace and discuss what had been said, let alone to read three essays to the group, was felt by many recruits to be distinctly daunting; indeed, Tennyson resigned in 1830 rather than produce the required paper on ghosts. Disputes over the election of new members could be so fierce that they left everyone prostrated and sleepless. The urbane Keynes recalled a ‘dreadful discussion which almost killed us’, when they were divided over Gerald Shove. Not everyone was happy to join. From James Strachey’s letters, Lubenow takes a wonderful account of the nearly botched election of Gordon Luce in 1912; asked to meet the Apostles at breakfast, ‘Luce looked wild, with bloodshot eyes and dishevelled hair. He seemed frightened, angry, and according to Keynes, surly.’ All went well in the end, though Luce spent much of a very long life as a professor of English at the University of Rangoon.

The oddity of the Apostles at foundation and perhaps always is that the Society was exactly what it said it was – a conversation society. Although its longevity is astonishing, it is not unparalleled; what is unparalleled is its commitment to intellectual activity. Its rivals in the longevity stakes have all been dining clubs, which is to say, drinking clubs. Informal groups devoted to eating and drinking abound in the ancient universities; informal intellectual activity has always been very much more fitful. Hence a certain amount of not unjustified self-congratulation in the Apostolic ranks, and hence the divergent reactions of observers.

Lubenow and his subject seem at first glance an unlikely match. Lubenow is a political historian from New Jersey, and the author of two solid books on the Liberal Party and the Home Rule crisis of the 1880s. He is also a cliometrician – or at any rate, the sort of historian who is happiest when he can check his conjectures about who did what and why against some decent statistical evidence. One might think that he and the Apostles were hardly made for one another. Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is at the furthest extreme of historiographical ambition from a cliometric analysis of élite career patterns in Victorian England, but it epitomises one version of the Apostolic style. Nor do the nuances of Forster’s novels seem promising material for the statistically minded.

In fact, The Cambridge Apostles is rather a success. It will not gratify readers whose idea of a group biography is that it should contain a great deal of gossip told very fast. But it will appeal to anyone who is curious about a lot of other questions: whether the ‘rank and file’ Apostles were strikingly less interesting than the glamorous figures we know about already, whether the Apostles were on average socially more up-market than their contemporaries; whether they went into particular sorts of career after their glittering youths were done; and whether they had much collective impact on the wider world.

Lubenow’s taste for data collection on the large scale shows to good effect in answering such questions. It means, among other things, that he has settled down to trace as far as he can the careers of all the Apostles elected between the foundation of the Cambridge Conversazione Society in 1820 and his half arbitrary, half very much not arbitrary, stopping date of 1914. As he says, the best anyone had previously done for the whole of a Cambridge generation was to locate some 60 per cent of their later careers; he has 98 per cent of the Apostles and 80 per cent of their fathers pinned down.

The outcome is interesting in a slightly deflationary way. The glittering peaks of Apostolic achievement glitter as they did: Russell, Keynes, Forster and their peers are not easily knocked off their pedestals. The Apostles as a group turn out, however, to be remarkably sober, public-spirited, more than willing to undertake a lot of the world’s drudgery in a good cause. Lubenow takes as his extended subtitle ‘Liberalism, Imagination and Friendship in British Intellectual and Professional Life’, and that gives some sense of the note he strikes; elsewhere, he writes of the Apostles bringing duty and imagination to bear on the task of creating a new aristocracy, and it is the combination of duty and imagination that he successfully keeps in front of the reader throughout his book.

It is, one might say, too easy to think of the Apostles in the context of Bloomsbury. Thought of like that, they glitter, or fall into poses; they affect a languid disdain for the quotidian; their landscape is essentially and always inner, and the observer wonders how they managed to get out of bed in the morning. Placed more firmly in Cambridge, they look very different. The Cambridge of Cromwell and Newton – plain duty and unvarnished thinking – provides much more of the background, and much more of the emotional style than one would have expected. Poets certainly occur, but schoolmasters and headmasters abound: not just raffish Etonian schoolmasters such as William Cory Johnson and Oscar Browning, but solid, sober headmasters in the High Victorian style, such as Montagu Butler and J.E.C. Welldon at Harrow, afforced by Kennedy at Shrewsbury, Farrar at Marlborough, and Young at Sherborne.

Lubenow is interested in a whole raft of different topics, and the only complaint one can decently level at The Cambridge Apostles is that it doesn’t wholly hang together. We get some excellent chapters on, say, the professions into which Apostles went after graduation, or on their connections with organised religion, or with the new Civil Service; and we get some excellent chapters on the cult of friendship among the Apostles; but we end without a summing up. Unanswered questions dangle: would the members of the Apostles have led very different lives after Cambridge if the Conversazione Society had never existed; given the different academic and professional lives led by Apostles at opposite ends of the century, in what sense were they attached to the same values and ideas?

It would be carping to press very hard on these questions. The truth surely is that any group of a dozen highly talented and extremely self-conscious young men is likely to be interesting, first because of the characters, talents and temperaments of those particular young men, secondly because of the simple human interest of their fate, and then rather more remotely because of their representative quality. Or in the case of the Apostles, one might say their unrepresentative quality.

The Apostles devoted themselves to two things above all else, and did so with a pure intensity which to an unkind eye might look absurd, but to a kindly eye absolutely admirable. These were friendship, on the one hand, and intellectual honesty, on the other. Intellectual honesty was, perhaps oddly, detached from a passion for argument as such. It was not the skills of the controversialist that the Apostles admired, but the ability to lay one’s convictions bare. William Cory Johnson described a day spent with Maine when, as he put it, they ‘went through several hard subjects in the old Cambridge way, in that method of minute comparison of opinions, without argument, which I believe to be peculiar to the small intellectual aristocracy of Cambridge’.

Sixty years after that encounter, Henry Sidgwick dictated on his deathbed a memoir of his early years. Describing the spirit in which the Apostles met to discuss whatever topic they had set for their Saturday evening conversazione, he wrote:

Absolute candour was the only duty that the tradition of the society enforced. No consistency was demanded with opinions previously held – truth as we saw it then and there was what we had to embrace and maintain and there were no propositions so well established that an Apostle had not a right to deny or question, if he did so seriously, and not out of mere love of paradox.

The comic aspect of that concern for transparency and honesty was epitomised in Russell’s asking G.E. Moore whether he had ever told a lie; ‘Oh, yes, lots,’ said Moore. ‘I think that was the only one he ever told,’ said Russell long afterwards, remembering Moore just after his death. The Apostles’ meetings were intended to encourage rather than to enforce such openness. The mixture of formality and informality that demanded a set-piece talk delivered from the hearth-rug, and a vote on a (usually wildly irrelevant) proposition at the end of discussion meant that very clever people could decide how much damage to their self-esteem they wished to risk on a given evening, while knowing that excessive caution was a greater error than excessive boldness. I was startled twenty years ago to discover that the single best and clearest essay that Russell ever wrote on ethics was delivered to the Apostles – by a 50-year-old Russell who appeared to take the Apostles seriously enough to write five minutes’ worth of dazzlingly clever moral philosophy for them, but perhaps not seriously enough to think that he ought to publish it afterwards.

The 19th-century Apostles divided, not sharply, but quite definitely by epochs. The Cambridge of the Society’s foundation was tiny. In the early part of the century, only about 125 students a year matriculated; both Oxford and Cambridge were smaller than they had been at the time of the Civil War. At the end of the century, Cambridge was admitting close to a thousand students a year. The change in the age at which students turned up occurred at the very beginning of the century; in the mid-18th century, one in eight of the students arrived before their 16th birthday, but by the 1830s, the proportion had dropped to less than one in fifty.

Academic standards had also taken a turn for the more stringent early in the 19th century. The Apostles were always several cuts above the ‘poll men’, who were reading for pass degrees at most; in their first thirty years of existence, 40 per cent of them collected first-class degrees. But after that, in the 55 years before the First World War, the proportion rose to 77 per cent. The centre of gravity of the society moved from St John’s to Trinity and then to Trinity-and-King’s, which made for an interesting social, emotional and intellectual tension, since even a century ago the contrast between Trinity’s somewhat glacial intellectuality and the more sensual worldliness of King’s was quite marked.

The Apostles acknowledged that their time in Cambridge was a time out of the demands of the utilitarian and businesslike world in which they would, for the most part, have to earn their living. They dealt with the fact ironically, referring to the world of the Apostles as Reality and the adult world as merely Phenomenal. Their grasp of the phenomenal world was, however, generally firm enough. One of Lubenow’s successes is separating out what one might term practical-mindedness from a utilitarian frame of mind. The Apostles nurtured the most distinguished utilitarian philosopher of them all: Henry Sidgwick, a systematic, professional moral philosopher of a kind that John Stuart Mill never was. Nonetheless, the Apostolic conception of duty was born in a different world, and its emotional force was more Christian than utilitarian.

This applied even to the many Apostles who went into the Home or Indian Civil Service. The world of Phenomena might be inferior to the Reality of the hearth-rug and Saturday evening discussions, but it made demands that were accepted ungrudgingly; it is with only a little surprise that we discover that R.H. Tawney’s father, principal of Presidency College, Calcutta was an Apostle. Some of the Stracheys made the journey in reverse: Sir Arthur followed his father to the Sub-Continent and ended his days as Chief Justice at Allahabad, but one of his cousins wrote Eminent Victorians while another translated the complete works of Freud.

The pressure for academic reform, and for the reform of the English public schools, was driven by the thought that a career must be a vocation; teachers like anyone else must feel that in doing their work they were fulfilling a serious duty to society and to whatever gods they lived by. The fact that headmasters were expected to be in holy orders was not surprising in view of the tight fit between the clerical and educational conceptions of a vocation.

On the other hand, the two best-known schoolmasters among the Apostles were William Cory Johnson and Oscar Browning. What they had in common was being sacked from Eton under suspicion of sexual impropriety. ‘OB’ was a legendary figure; virtually spherical in shape, and oleaginous in manner, he was nonetheless a teacher of something close to genius. Moreover, when he was dismissed from Eton, he showed an astonishing imperviousness, fighting back with everything at his disposal. It didn’t work, of course, since no governing body will lightly ditch an embattled headmaster, and OB was obnoxious enough to unnerve his friends as much as his opponents.

Johnson was another matter. He found dismissal from Eton quite unbearable. Lubenow thinks it probable that neither Browning nor Johnson had improper relations with their pupils, and sets their dismissals down to their being ‘anti-authoritarian reformers in a highly authoritarian institution’. But Johnson – who changed his name to Cory, and settled on a family estate in Devon – had a more vivid private life than that suggests, and even Lubenow seems unsure whether the ‘squalid interpretation’ to which some of his letters are open is entirely wrong. Not the least of the benefits that the Apostles helped to confer on the Phenomenal world was the sort of frankness about our sexual allegiances that Johnson himself could have benefited from.