Unsaying

Philip Davis

  • A Victorian Wanderer: The Life of Thomas Arnold the Younger by Bernard Bergonzi
    Oxford, 274 pp, £25.00, July 2003, ISBN 0 19 925741 8

Roughly every ten years there was a crisis and an upheaval. In 1847, in his early twenties, he lost his faith, but in 1856 he converted to Catholicism. In 1865 he returned to Anglicanism, only to convert back to Catholicism in 1876. Each time this led to a change of scene: in 1847 from Oxford and London to New Zealand; in 1856 from New Zealand to Dublin and then Birmingham; in 1865 back to Oxford; in 1876 to London again and then Dublin. And, worse, with each shift came the risk of family betrayal: at first of the inheritance of the broad-church Anglicanism of his famous father, Thomas Arnold; and then – not once, but twice – in the danger to his marriage to Julia, the anti-Catholic he had married in New Zealand.

Bernard Bergonzi’s description of Thomas Arnold the Younger as a ‘Victorian Wanderer’ is borrowed from Arnold’s own autobiography, Passages in a Wandering Life, but there is far more feverish guilt and self-contradiction in his life than the term ‘wandering’ suggests. The narrative of this life is in no sense straightforward. It has lost that classic linear imperative that characterised the religious quest of Pilgrim’s Progress.

What Matthew Arnold detected in their friend the poet Clough, he also found in his younger brother Thomas: a want of ‘rest’. It had all started so well: Tom gained the first at Oxford that eluded both Matthew and Clough; he was Clough’s model for Philip, the radical poet, in his poem The Bothie. But a mixture of religious doubt and social concern led Tom, like Philip, to seek a new world elsewhere: in 1848 he first attempted to start a small farm in New Zealand, then opened a school instead. When that failed too, he was offered the post of inspector of schools in Tasmania on the strength of the Arnold name. But his conversion to Roman Catholicism led to fears that he would use his position to propagate Catholic views, and he returned to England in 1856, where he was asked by John Henry Newman to go to Dublin, with the prospect of becoming professor of English literature at Newman’s new Catholic university. It was a disaster for Julia, Arnold’s wife, but ” to Newman it felt like a providential coup: the son of the leading Protestant educationalist, his old antagonist Arnold of Rugby, now about to educate a new generation of Catholics. Though the university proved a long and messy failure, Arnold struggled on for six years, writing a basic Manual of English Literature before following Newman to the Birmingham Oratory School in 1862, where he had to be content to be first classics master. When he lost his faith in Catholicism he once again lost his job, returning to Oxford in 1865, where, without any official position, he built a large house, took in pupils, and struggled unsuccessfully to hack out a living as a tutor. What he really wanted to do was pursue his research as a textual scholar. He published his edition of Beowulf in 1876 but at the same time ruined such chance as he had of securing the professorship of Anglo-Saxon by rejoining the Church of Rome. He left Oxford, where Julia remained, went to London as an examiner for the Civil Service Commission, and finally returned to Dublin in 1882 as a fellow of the Royal University of Ireland, and died there in 1900. A stutterer, he was always ‘an anomaly, a walking category mistake’, as Bergonzi calls him. And the saddest thing is all that didn’t happen: the ill-fated schemes and dreams, posts mentioned or applied for, openings that never came to anything.

To Tom Arnold himself it was a restlessness that seemed intrinsic to modern living and modern thinking. This was, he felt, increasingly a world in which having a thought was a disturbing rather than a contemplative experience. As he put it in a review of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in 1859, when we are unsure of the truth of received ideas, what follows is not ‘constant meditation upon them’, as if we could dwell and rest in them, but, more critically, a ‘constant discussion of their grounds’.

Those grounds continually shifted. Even when he did please Julia and their daughter, Mary, by retreating from Rome in 1865, Arnold had to turn and face his Catholic friends, as here in the awkwardly long sentences of a letter to Josephine Benison. ‘I know how it will grieve you, and how it will alter and lower your opinion of me,’ he says.

Nevertheless I am conscious to myself of having all my life through followed after and embraced what seemed to me the highest truth attainable, and though there must of course be some great defect in my nature somewhere, otherwise I could not have presented such an example of mutability, to the grief of the few and the scorn of the many, yet I do not in my conscience believe that these movements, whether we suppose them to be backward or forward, render me less deserving of what little esteem my friends have at any time been pleased to honour me with, I could laugh at and satirise myself with as much gusto as he who condemns me most, and as for endeavouring to argue the question and make myself out right, I am too well aware of how ridiculous is the position of him who unsays one year half of what he has said the year previous, to think of attempting it.

In 1890, less than two years after the death of Julia, he married Benison, in happy Catholic wedlock at last.

Is all this movement indeed ‘ridiculous’? As ridiculous as Lytton Strachey would have believed it when he published Eminent Victorians in 1918, offering a new generation the comic spectacle of confused earnestness deceiving itself and others? Here is the son of the greater Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby, a man of energetic certainty of faith and duty: witness the actual, disordered effect of that burdensome inheritance. But the son thought guiltily of that heritage too: ‘If thou, my father, from thy place of rest, couldst still behold the scenes of my pilgrimage and look into thy son’s inmost heart . . . is not thy spirit with me?’ It didn’t need Strachey to make Tom Arnold aware of embarrassment: what is already impressive in 1865 is that Arnold not only knows the painful difference between how things felt and how they looked, but also realised the plausibility of that view from outside, and didn’t wholly dismiss its ridicule.

In 1865 Newman was another of those Catholic supporters whom Arnold felt he had let down, and Newman predicted that eventually Arnold would have to turn back to the faith he was leaving. Over twenty years earlier, Newman had had to face the same serious embarrassment – in converting to Catholicism rather than converting from it:

My difficulty was this: I had been deceived greatly once; how could I be sure that I was not deceived a second time? I thought myself right then; how was I to be certain that I was right now? How many years had I thought myself sure of what I now rejected? how could I ever again have confidence in myself?

In some sense it doesn’t matter whether the change is from or to Catholicism, away from or back to religion itself, however much, for the person concerned, the shift from one to the other felt like the greatest possible difference in the world. What was taking place in different ways almost everywhere in the Victorian world was the experience of shift itself, the struggle of would-be absolutists in what seemed increasingly a relativistic world.

This search for a permanence in which belief might rest is evident as much in the narrative of love in Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? as in the narrative of religion in Newman’s Apologia, both of which appeared in 1864. Both deal with one of the great spiritual problems: the experience of sequence, of narrative without either a certain direction or a necessary goal – namely, the problem of the felt living of a life in time. When Trollope’s Alice Vavasor leaves her second love to go back to the first, her father says: ‘But you may change your mind again.’

Alice found that this was hard to bear and hard to answer; but there was a certain amount of truth in the grievous reproach conveyed in her father’s words, which made her bow her neck to it. ‘I have no right to say that it is impossible,’ she replied, in words that were barely audible.

And this is Tom Arnold’s predicament, not least when his religious changes also affected his marriage. For here are people who are afraid that there may be no truth but only their own stories and their implication in them. That is why the novel is the quintessential Victorian form, offering itself as an agnostic holding-ground for the implicit question: is there anything more to all these lives than the passage of multiple narratives?

It was this fear, that the human need to give meaning to time was gratuitous, which drove Tom Arnold to his first crisis, making him ask himself: ‘What art thou more than a material arrangement, the elements of which might at any moment, by any accident, be dispersed?’ The recurrence of such thoughts, he said, removed a fundamental confidence, ‘took away the charm from the human face – the glory from the sky; the beauty from the flowers – all these seemed to be the garlands round the victim’s neck; designed to cheat it for a time into a little ease and forgetfulness.’ The phrasing may be Victorian, after the model of Carlyle; but modern readers will be divided between those who feel that stage of human history has to be faced again and again, because it can’t simply be ignored, and those who feel that they begin precisely by living after it. It is not that the existential and artistic concerns of the Victorians are radically different from those of the Modernists or postmodernists: the difference, as Isobel Armstrong puts it, ‘is that the Victorians see them as problems, the Modernists do not’.

At any rate, one of the best ways of getting inside those essentially religious problems, in historical if not personal terms, is to look at some of the great family stories of the mid-19th century – stories that are like novels. There are, for example, the Newman brothers and the Froude brothers; in each case the younger brother acted and reacted against the more strenuously orthodox position of his elder sibling. But above all there is the Arnold family, where what is important is not only their numerous individual differences, but all that is lodged in the space between them: a microcosm of the tensions at work within the Victorian age. The broad-church certainty of the headmaster father; the eldest son, Matthew, trying to replace religion with poetry, even at the cost of his own ability to write it; the younger sons, Tom and William, struggling, in New Zealand and India respectively, both to avoid the world and yet somehow also politically to change it. As William Arnold’s fine novel Oakfield shows, the terrible question of duty that the father had bequeathed them all was: what could an Arnold do? The older Thomas Arnold put it like this, looking from infant stream to its final destination:

Between this upland Vale

And yon far Ocean, canst thou nothing see?

A wide Space parts the two – and there is set

God’s Task for thee

‘The upland vale, the far ocean, and – dividing them – the noisome realm of duty,’ Ian Hamilton notes in his account of Matthew Arnold in A Gift Imprisoned (1998): ‘Here was a map of life that centred on the middle ground, the in-between.’

There would have been no modern biography of Thomas Arnold the younger, had it not been for ‘the name’, the family. ‘Shakespeare says: "What’s in a name?"; but our father’s name has been to us, not only a source of proud and gentle memories, but actually and literally better and more profitable than houses and land.’ Eventually, after all the turns and counter-turns and failures, an exasperated Matthew said to his younger brother: ‘You have used up your advantages as Papa’s son.’ Tom Arnold never fitted very well, and a biography of him cannot fully succeed, partly because he seems to have half evaded his own feelings, partly because potentially crucial evidence of his inner life is either missing or went unwritten. It is curious that key letters (quoted, for example, by Hamilton) go largely unquoted by Bergonzi. But only a novelistic sense of context – for instance, Tom Arnold was at different times close to both the unbeliever Clough and the devout Newman – can register something of his internal struggle. As it is, Bergonzi’s book doesn’t tell us what it was like to be Tom Arnold. This remains a lost life. There is no George Eliot, no Middlemarch, to reclaim it.

In the end, Tom Arnold’s lasting contribution lies in what his daughter Mary, Mrs Humphry Ward, made of his marriage in her novels. She placed herself in the rich unclassified ‘middle ground’ between father and mother, and wrote about what was at stake in a mixed marriage. There was a lack of fit not merely between the partners themselves, but between the humanist and the religious in the later 19th century. There are sides taken here, however reluctantly, and no simple harmony or reconciliation, because the liberal assumption of easy tolerance or all-conquering love is itself one of the points in dispute. So it is in the marriage in Robert Elsmere (1888) between a wife who is an old-fashioned Protestant believer and her modern husband who loses his orthodox faith; or in Helbeck of Bannisdale (1898) where the daughter of a secular sceptic falls into bewildered love with a devout Catholic:

‘What do you mean by "soul"? Have I a "soul"? – and what do you suppose is going to happen to it?’

The words were flung out with a concentrated passion – almost an anguish – that for the moment struck him dumb. They both grew pale . . .

As her parents lived increasingly apart, Tom Arnold, Bergonzi explains, ‘was caught within conflicting ideas about marriage. An older model presented it in terms of duties and responsibilities, where roles are formal, traditional, authoritative. The later understanding of marriage, now dominant in Western culture, regards it as involving equal persons who negotiate about their various needs and responsibilities.’

But it is more complicated than just a shift from ancient to modern which we can congratulate ourselves on now having got over. The forces that were breaking up the traditional models of love and marriage in Victorian England were themselves in part ancient forces which had resurfaced, to do with one’s first duty being to save one’s ‘soul’, and with the individual need for belief, purpose and learning. So in Chapter 39, Elsmere’s wife cries to her husband: ‘You are going to devote your life to attacking the few remnants of faith that still remain in the world?’ She confesses herself ‘unable to understand’. ‘And rather than try,’ Robert retorts, ‘you will go on believing that I am a man without faith, seeking only to destroy.’ ‘I know you think you have faith,’ she replies, ‘but how can it seem faith to me?’ The language here – the subtle meanings in ‘devote’, ‘unable’, ‘believing’, ‘know’ and ‘think’, and the repetitions of ‘faith’ – is a wonderful and complex notation of thought.

It is a shame that neither John Sutherland, in his biography of Mrs Humphry Ward, nor Bergonzi in this biography has much to say in favour of Robert Elsmere as ‘a novel of ideas’. Often without secure belief in much else, the Victorians at their most serious believed in ideas – or, more particularly, in what goes on, in dialogue, in the space between ideas. They believed, that is to say, in the power of thoughts, arising emotionally or felt as missing, in the dense and troubled middle ground of personal situations. And they remained committed to holding onto those half-glimpsed thoughts, even when they could not yet be turned into steady frameworks of philosophy or belief, and even though they might not save them. ‘I often think we should be the better for some chair of "The Inner Life” at an English University,’ a character in Helbeck of Bannisdale says, with a smile.