James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet, by Ciarán Brady

Influential intellectual’s dissection illuminates Victorian view of world

Sat, Oct 5, 2013, 01:00


Book Title:
James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet


Ciarán Brady

Oxford University Press

Guideline Price:

‘I believe the Reformation to have been the greatest incident in English history; the root and source of the expansive force which has spread the Anglo-Saxon race over the globe, and imprinted the English genius and character on the constitution of mankind.”

This stark credo appears in an 1891 late addendum to History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth (12 volumes, 1856-70), the huge work on Tudor England upon which was established the reputation of one of the most complex and controversial, and certainly among the most prolific, of the literary eminences of the Victorian era, James Anthony Froude.

Born in 1818, the last of eight children, into a grimly authoritarian West Country rectory, traumatised by a brutal early schooling, and bullied by an overbearing elder brother, Froude, from the outset, was intellectually precocious. In 1836 he went up to Oriel College, Oxford, where he was caught up in the powerful currents of religious doubt that gripped a cohort of young Anglican intellectuals in the early Victorian years, in the face of scientific enquiry, secular ideologies and the huge social dislocation of a rapidly industrialising society. Early friendship with John Henry Newman darkened to deep hostility when Newman turned to Rome for solace and certainty.

Froude, rejecting the fashionable secularist belief in progress, would soon turn for meaning to history. More immediately, his own crisis of faith prompted, among early writings, an experimental novel of 1849 which caused something of a minor scandal, cost him his college fellowship and forced him to leave Oxford.

The first of Froude’s two happy marriages followed within a year of his flight from Oxford, and he quickly applied himself to earning a living as a freelance reviewer and essayist, while embarking on research for his work on Tudor England. The first two volumes of the monumental work appeared in 1856, and six of the 12 had been published by 1860. The work had an immediate impact. It had its critics among the intelligentsia, but the serious reading public liked its vivid narrative, trenchant judgments and revisionist perspectives on key episodes and personalities. It gave Froude a reputation and financial independence, and in 1861 he settled in London, there to begin a 12-year period as editor of Fraser’s Magazine, living graciously as a prominent public man of letters.

Froude’s numerous contributions to Fraser’s and other journals included several essays on Ireland (of which he had first- hand experience, from extended visits in the late 1840s). His deep anxieties regarding the more general revival of “Romanism” from the final third of the 19th century had a particular Irish inflection, given the large Irish Catholic immigrant enclaves in urban Britain and the growing Irish-American Catholic influence in the US. Froude’s views on Ireland (suffused, as Ciarán Brady remarks, with “militant and unrepentant sectarianism”) were voiced, and boisterously contested, during a turbulent lecture tour in Boston, New York and Philadelphia in 1872, and were reflected in his three-volume history of the English in 18th-century Ireland, published in 1872-74.

Following the death of his second wife, in 1872, Froude travelled widely, showing increasing interest in the security and future of the British Empire. His major literary project in these years was his controversial biography of Thomas Carlyle, whom he acknowledged as an early mentor and to whom he had become something of an acolyte after settling in London. But he continued to publish relentlessly (collections of essays, reviews, shorter biographical and historical studies), until, in 1892, he accepted nomination to the Regius chair of history at Oxford, a post he held until his death, in 1894.

If conventional Christianity (in its contemporary institutional forms) could not provide him with the basis for personal redemption, Froude, under Carlyle’s prophetic prompting, found in history the assurance and the exemplars that the daily dedication to purposeful action, anchored in a sense of moral good, was fundamentally aligned with the ultimate purpose of Creation. As Brady explains it: “Human history, rather than the Bible, thus becomes the true source of the revelation of God’s plan, and the study of history becomes the means not only of discovering God’s will but of discerning the particular role – or duty – allotted to each of us in bringing it to fulfilment.”

This philosophical foundation to Froude’s position had to support, regularly throughout his life, a strongly polemical mode of address to his reading public. Protestantism, championing the cause of conscience, liberty and individual moral responsibility, in deadly conflict with Romanism, embodying obscurantism, treachery and personal thralldom: these were the Manichaean terms in which were framed most of Froude’s historical grand narratives.

No scientific historian
Though a genuine and, in English terms, pioneering Rankean in his commitment to archival research, Froude was no scientific historian. Human agency was all. Like the artist’s, the historian’s craft, he proclaimed, lay in the study “not of institutions, not of progress of the species, not of the development of ideas, or other loud sounding nonentities; but of personal character in conflict with the circumstances of life, and crushed by them or rising over them triumphant”. Froude’s sympathies were seldom with the crushed.

That his harsh commentary on the condition of Ireland (and the aversion to order innate in the native character), and on the failure of the English settler stock of the 18th century to exercise “good authority” and provide effective rule, might cause offence or provide Irish nationalists with a full armoury of propaganda was of little concern to Froude, any more than was the response of blacks in the West Indies or Africa to the vulgar racism that permeated his writings. These were not his primary audience.

His call to duty was to the English ruling class of his day, a call to strengthen their moral character and provide firm rule throughout the empire. But his criticism of the historic failures of the English in Ireland struck home, nonetheless, though perhaps with unintended consequences.

On March 11th, 1895, Lady Augusta Gregory confided to her diary: “I have been reading Froude’s English in Ireland which has opened my eyes to the failings of landlords, & I may say of all classes in Ireland in the past, & makes me very anxious to do my duty & to bring up Robert to do his . . .”

Doing one’s moral duty in a time of conflict required a strong stomach for battle. Indeed, doing one’s moral duty had historically involved rather a lot of tough love, on the part of the English as a special people, no less than for particular individuals. (Luther, Oliver Cromwell and, in Ireland, Lord Clare were among Froude’s admired “hard men”.) The bloody conquest of Ireland – of popery and primitive anarchy – was, so to speak, a necessary aspect of the redemptive episode that was the English Reformation. (Brady perceptively sees the shadow of Spenser at Froude’s shoulder in his Irish writings.)

Indeed, it was not altogether surprising that Froude, despite avoiding too obviously party political loyalties throughout his career, accepted nomination to the Regius chair at Oxford from Lord Salisbury, whose antidote to the Gladstonian madness of Home Rule was “20 years of firm government” for Ireland.

Man of letters
Even for the man of letters, duty could be a stern calling, as was evident in Froude’s controversial biography of Carlyle – his mentor, at least in prophetic moralising. Carlyle personally entrusted Froude with his private papers, letters and autobiographical drafts. Froude executed this literary estate with an unflinching dedication to truth: a severely intimate biography spared neither the frightful details of Carlyle’s unhappy marital life nor a litany of other grave shortcomings, personal as well as literary. For some readers, the excitement of the revelations was tempered by the unsettling sense of a kind of betrayal.

Paradox, complexity and contradiction are ever-present in Ciarán Brady’s close reading of the various phases, genres and “voices” of Froude’s enormous literary output. Brady is unusual among British and Irish historians in being at ease with the formal aspects of history-writing (its very “literariness”), as well as with more conventional historiographical and interpretative issues. He confidently elucidates the purpose and effect of the full range of Froude’s “narrational” strategies, which encompassed subtle philosophical exposition (on Spinoza, for example), dramatic narratives of treachery and violence in dark times (as in his Tudor history) and pacy, derring-do adventure prose (as in his late essays on English seamen of the 16th century).

Brady has mastered not only Froude’s own prodigious body of writing but also a vast, demanding literature on Victorian intellectual history. The result is an erudite and absorbing study, a masterclass of scholarly exegesis and lucid analysis. Brady’s study may not make Froude any more appealing, nor his many offensive views and prejudices any more palatable, than they have hitherto been considered. But the work triumphantly renders Froude, the public historian and sage, more intelligible and infinitely more interesting than we may have assumed and, in the process, illumines large swathes of the intellectual landscape of Victorian England.

Gearoid O Tuathaigh is a professor of history at NUI Galway and the author of Ireland Before the Famine, 1798-1848.