Wall of Ice

Peter Thonemann

  • Intellect and Character in Victorian England: Mark Pattison and the Invention of the Don by H.S. Jones
    Cambridge, 285 pp, £50.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 87605 6

‘It was very unfair to those young men.’ John Henry Newman’s conversion to the Roman Catholic Church in 1845 shattered the intellectual credit of the Oxford Movement. The long struggle – first from the pulpit of the University Church of St Mary, later through the radical pages of Tracts for the Times – to state the case for the Apostolic authority of the Anglican church had ended, as the Movement’s critics had always predicted, in total surrender to Catholic dogma. As Benjamin Jowett remarked, among the most profoundly affected were the clever and devout young men in Newman’s circle who chose not to follow him to Rome. Many took Newman’s apostasy as a personal betrayal of their intellectual investment in the cause of church reform. The experience left no one with deeper scars than Mark Pattison, then a young fellow at Lincoln College.

Pattison is an awkward and fascinating character. In the late 1830s, like many high-minded young Oxford men of his generation, he had fallen under the Tractarian spell. During a year-long residence in Newman’s monastic community on St Aldate’s, Pattison had transcribed Aquinas’s commentaries on the Gospels, displaying such ardent asceticism that Newman feared he was in danger of succumbing to Romanism. But Pattison, unlike his mentor, stepped back from the brink. Indeed, his retreat from Rome took him far into the camp of theological liberalism. In 1860 he contributed a long essay on the ‘Tendencies of Religious Thought in England’ to Essays and Reviews, a controversial book that proposed a more critical and historical approach to English theology. Towards the end of his life, Pattison seems to have resigned himself to something approaching atheism: ‘To the philosopher God means the highest conceivable value, it is the thing per se, it is intellect. Whether it belongs to an individual or is a diffused essence, we don’t know . . . All the philosopher can do in life is to bear in mind that its moral value as a possession is transcendent.’

Pattison cuts a lonely figure in 19th-century Oxford: a proponent of radical university reform on the German model; a vocal supporter of broadening access to higher education; a champion of research over teaching; arguably the first serious British historian of ideas; and the author of an autobiography so uncompromisingly egotistic and self-critical as to horrify most of its readers. He was also a writer of extraordinary gifts: angular, lapidary and sombre.

From the 1850s, Pattison’s efforts were largely devoted to the history of classical scholarship in Europe since the Renaissance. Only fragments of this enterprise were ever realised. There is a series of dazzling biographical sketches, collected in the first volume of his posthumous Essays, and a single full-length portrait, the magisterial Isaac Casaubon, which remains the best study of the material circumstances and intellectual milieu of an early 17th-century humanist. The importance and originality of Pattison’s work on the French Renaissance, in particular, can hardly be overstated, and his two long essays on Joseph Scaliger held the field in English until the 1980s. Few scholars of Victorian Oxford can boast equal longevity.

Shortly after becoming rector of Lincoln College in 1861, Pattison married Emily Francis Strong, 27 years his junior. In her late teenage years, Strong ‘used to horrify her ordinary church friends . . . by her habit of doing penance for the smallest fault, imaginary or real, by lying for hours on the bare floor or on the stones, with her arms in the attitude of the cross’. Pattison was having none of this. Late in life, after her second marriage to the Liberal politician Charles Dilke, Francis described the mental ‘anarchy’ to which her High Church views had been subjected by Pattison’s austere scepticism. Her faith was profoundly shaken and ‘after some years of doubt and moral suffering, revolt became inevitable.’

Dilke reported that one of the tales in Francis’s morbid collection of short stories, The Shrine of Death (1886), was written in the early years of her first marriage, and its ‘secret meaning is the emptiness of life at Oxford’. This can only be ‘The Physician’s Wife’, the bleak story of a famous French doctor, engaged in the study of ‘certain problems concerning the origins of life’, who late in life married the young daughter of a friend; the girl was at first delighted to help him, but disillusionment soon followed. She, ‘believing the melancholy which arose in her to be sinful, fought with herself, striving to put the passion of her balked desires into the daily services demanded of her. Her nature was, however, too strong for her will, and her life became very bitter to her.’ In his sympathetic study of Pattison, H.S. Jones argues that the ‘wall of ice’ which eventually divided the Pattisons did not form until the breakdown of sexual relations in 1875-76, documented in agonising detail in the couple’s correspondence. But it is all too clear from Francis’s own writings that she was desperately unhappy almost from the outset.

Early in 1869 Francis Pattison was introduced to George Eliot. Their friendship blossomed and by late summer they were on intimate terms. In November 1870, five months after a memorable visit to the Pattisons in Oxford, Eliot began work on the story of Dorothea Brooke. Since the publication of Middlemarch, readers and critics have speculated about the extent to which Dorothea’s arid union with Casaubon was modelled on the failed marriage of Mark and Francis Pattison. The relative ages of the partners, the husband’s prematurely withered appearance (‘his deep eye-sockets . . . those two white moles with hairs on them . . . a bitterness in the mouth and a venom in the glance’), and of course the name Casaubon itself, all suggest a deliberate likeness. In public, Francis Pattison, who remained on good terms with Eliot, always denied having read the book, but Dilke stated plainly, on his wife’s authority, that ‘the religious side of Dorothea Brooke was taken by George Eliot from the letters of Mrs Pattison,’ and that Casaubon’s letter proposing marriage to Dorothea ‘at the beginning of the fifth chapter in Middlemarch, from what George Eliot herself told me in 1875, must have been very near the letter that Pattison actually wrote, and the reply very much the same’.

The main stumbling-block for most critics has been the gulf between the two men’s scholarly achievements. The problem was stated in stark terms by John Sparrow in Mark Pattison and the Idea of a University: ‘While Pattison was “a truly learned man” and a “master mind”, his counterpart in Middlemarch was a commonplace pedant whose life-work was a sham.’ A.D. Nuttall, in his wonderful Dead from the Waist Down: Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination, took the same view: ‘Pattison’s book on the Renaissance Casaubon is a work of careful, scrupulous – limited – scope: a scholar writing about another scholar. “The Key to All Mythologies” by contrast was, in design, a work of comprehensive explanatory power. Pattison was never fool enough to think that he could explain the mind of Europe.’ Both Sparrow and Nuttall conclude that this intellectual contrast is sufficient to rule out the idea of any straightforward ‘portrait’ of Pattison in Middlemarch.

I am not so sure. One of the most interesting judgments on Pattison’s scholarship was passed by A.E. Housman, in a letter responding to Lord Asquith’s address on Scaliger to the Scottish Classical Association in March 1926. Housman points out that Asquith’s statement in that lecture, ‘in reliance upon Mark Pattison, that Scaliger in the Manilius of 1579 passed from textual criticism to chronology, is not true. There is hardly a word about chronology in the book, which is in fact his greatest work in textual criticism.’ Housman concludes that ‘Pattison had never read the book; he was a spectator of all time and all existence, and the contemplation of that repulsive scene is fatal to accurate learning.’ The criticism is devastating. Pattison, after all, dedicated much of his life to a monumental, unfinished biography of Scaliger. Was he simply a fraud? Certainly not: Housman’s assessment is subtler than that. The problem was rather that Pattison’s historical scholarship was not quite what it professed to be.

His study of Isaac Casaubon is a great and moving book. Casaubon’s academic and private life, his books and working methods, the dreary struggles with patrons and publishers, punctuated by intermittent outbreaks of vicious ecclesiastical controversy, are traced in brilliant and meticulous detail. The final pages evoke the pleasures and agonies of ‘the life of the mind’. Yet the book says almost nothing about his scholarly work. No sense is given of why, or whether, he deserves his honoured place in the history of textual and historical criticism. Indeed, one rapidly starts to wonder whether Pattison has actually read any of Casaubon’s published work. A single example will make the point.

In the course of his epic assault on the Ecclesiastical Annals of the papal apologist Cesare Baronio, Casaubon had attacked Baronio’s unquestioning acceptance of the pagan prophets who had predicted the Incarnation. Among these pseudo-prophets was a curious character by the name of Hermes Trismegistus. The Hermetic corpus purports to be a Greek translation of an antediluvian Egyptian prophet, who had succeeded in predicting numerous aspects of Christian doctrine with greater accuracy than Moses. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Hermes had enjoyed the attentions of a regiment of pious and enthusiastic editors and translators. Casaubon exposed Hermes as a shameless impostor. Language and doctrine showed that the Hermetic corpus could not have been compiled earlier than the second or third century AD. Nor could it conceivably have been a translation from Egyptian. A star exhibit was Hermes’ etymology for the Greek word kosmos, so named because it orders (kosmei) all things. ‘Are kosmos and kosmei,’ Casaubon asks drily, ‘words in the ancient Egyptian language?’

Casaubon’s demolition of the Egyptian Hermes was celebrated from the beginning as one of the great critical and conceptual breakthroughs in the history of classical scholarship. Remarkably, however, Pattison’s sole reference to it is not merely dismissive but factually incorrect: if Casaubon ‘expresses a doubt of Hydaspes, Hermes and the Sibylline oracles, it is not on critical grounds, but only on the a priori improbability that God would have allowed the Gentiles to have a fuller prevision of the gospel revelation than was granted to the Jews’. Casaubon’s scholarship did not interest Pattison. How Casaubon pulverised Baronio’s intellectual credentials was of no interest to him; all that mattered was that Casaubon had done so. To him, the battle is important as an episode in religious history, a memorable victory in the war between Huguenot scholarship and Catholic dogma. And here is the crux of the matter.

It was Pattison’s firm belief that the progress of classical learning could and should be explained purely in terms of religious history. The most extreme statement of this view comes towards the end of his book on Casaubon:

The first period in the history of classical learning may be styled the Italian. The second period coincides with the French school. If we ask why Italy did not continue to be the centre of the humanist movement, the answer is that the intelligence was crushed by the reviviscence of ecclesiastical ideas. Learning is research; research must be free, and cannot coexist with the claim of the Catholic clergy to be superior to inquiry. The French school, it will be observed, is wholly in fact, or in intention, Protestant. As soon as it was decided, as it was before 1600, that France was to be a Catholic country, and the university of Paris a Catholic university, learning was extinguished in France.

By Pattison’s own account, the seeds of this notion were sown in 1856, in the course of a conversation with the former Prussian ambassador Chevalier Bunsen, whose crass proposal to create an Anglo-German Protestant bishopric of Jerusalem had helped to deepen Newman’s alienation from the Anglican Church. The conversation turned on a recent biography of Scaliger by the Jewish scholar Jacob Bernays (a correspondent and friend of Pattison). Bunsen suggested to Pattison that he write about Scaliger’s life ‘in relation to the religious history of his time’, since, in his view, ‘Bernays’s creed had interfered with his seeing in Scaliger the Protestant hero.’ This judgment sheds light on Pattison’s historical aims. The humanists of the French Renaissance were worthy of study first and foremost as Protestant heroes; their scholarly work was of interest only insofar as it contrasted with the intellectual bankruptcy of their Jesuit rivals.

This deep vein of anti-Catholic polemic finally bursts through the surface in Pattison’s posthumous Memoirs. Here, for the first time, he explicitly acknowledges that the genesis of his conception of the history of scholarship derives from his own cataclysmic encounter with Tractarianism in the 1830s and 1840s:

It has often occurred to me to compare what took place at this period, in the fortunes of a small college, with the course of things in the great movement of the 16th century. About 1500 it seemed as if Europe was about to cast off at one effort the slough of feudal barbarism, and to step at once into the fair inheritance of the wisdom and culture of the ancient world . . . About the third decennium of the century . . . the Catholic reaction set in, and nascent humanism was submerged beneath the rising tide of theological passion and the fatal and fruitless controversies of Lutheran, Calvinist and Catholic, to the rival cries of the Bible and the Church . . . It was soon after 1830 that the ‘Tracts’ desolated Oxford life, and suspended, for an indefinite period, all science, humane letters, and the first strivings of intellectual freedom which had moved in the bosom of Oriel.

The ahistorical quality of Pattison’s scholarship was all too clear to his contemporaries. Jowett, then regius professor of Greek, thought that the book on Casaubon possessed ‘an undercurrent of allusion to his own contemporaries which impairs its value as a biography’. Jones takes Jowett to be objecting to veiled criticisms of his own published work. This is unfair: the odd barbed comment about the ignorance and asininity of regius professors could hardly be said to impair the scholarly value of such a monumental study. The problems are deeper and more disturbing. The explicit purpose of the book was to show up the contrast between genuine Huguenot scholarship and the intellectual bankruptcy of the Roman Catholic Church. The implicit aim was to justify Pattison’s apostasy from the Tractarian cause in 1845, by crushing the intellectual credentials of Newman and the Anglo-Catholics. ‘Pattison,’ Nuttall writes, ‘was never fool enough to think that he could explain the mind of Europe.’ On the contrary: explaining the mind of Europe, and thereby justifying his own choice not to follow Newman to Rome, was precisely what Pattison was trying to do.

It seems to me that George Eliot recognised all this. The fictional Casaubon’s ‘Key to All Mythologies’ was an attempt to show ‘that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed. Having once mastered the true position and taken a firm footing there, the vast field of mythical constructions became intelligible, nay, luminous with the reflected light of correspondences.’ Pattison similarly aimed to prove that the course of intellectual history was intelligible only in the light of the true relation between scholarship and religion. Both men, heroically learned within a limited field, are compromised as historians by a monomaniac urge to explain the entire progress of history in terms of a single idea.

Eliot’s Casaubon is, in fact, a highly subtle and profound criticism of Pattison, not only as a husband but as a scholar. Since Francis Pattison’s letters to Eliot have not survived, it is impossible to say how far this conception of Pattison came directly from her and how much was taken from Eliot’s own reading of his published work. It is true that Middlemarch was completed before the publication of Pattison’s book on Casaubon. But his interest in Casaubon was already widely known, and his views on the development of European thought had been laid out in detail in his 1860 review of Bernays’s biography of Scaliger. We are plausibly told that while Francis recognised the story of Dorothea as a portrait of her own marriage, Pattison failed to see anything of himself in Casaubon.

Pattison kept a photograph of Newman on his mantelpiece all his life. In January 1884, during Pattison’s last illness, the two men met for the last time. The interview was awkward. Unable to explain how far his religious convictions had travelled since 1845, yet unwilling to give the impression that he was still in doubt as to where the true church was to be found, Pattison found himself ‘dreadfully agitated, distressed even’, and ‘in great embarrassment as to how to express myself’. Pattison, 70 years old, the rector of Lincoln College, the most learned man in Oxford, was back in the monastery at Littlemore, unable to make the final break with the man whose creed he had spent his entire career trying to crush. Newman showed no such embarrassment. ‘He dwelt upon his own personal experience since he had been reconciled to the Church, the secret comfort and support which had been given him in the way of supernatural grace under many great trials, that he had never been deserted by such help for a moment; that his soul had found sweet peace and rest in the bosom of the Church.’

Six months later, in excruciating pain, with screams which rang through the house, Pattison died of cancer of the stomach. Francis tended him through his final illness. A friendly correspondent, urging her to pay greater attention to her own precarious health, committed, as Dilke puts it, ‘the unpardonable offence of alluding to Middlemarch’. Francis replied: ‘I am all he has to look to.’ As for Middlemarch, ‘I purposely never read it, but to judge by what you tell me, and what I have heard from all, Mr Casaubon was much more to be pitied than Dorothea.’