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.’

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