J. ANTHONY FROUDE
The Last Undiscovered Great Victorian
By Julia Markus
Illustrated. 340 pp. Scribner. $30
Among the leading British historians, few have suffered as steep a decline in public estimation as J. Anthony Froude. With Gibbon and Hume, Froude played a key role in the advance of religious doubt; with Macaulay, he shaped Britain's view of itself as a nation whose greatness was intimately linked to the liberty of its political institutions. Even those who found him partisan and factually careless conceded his literary merit; in Lytton Strachey's words, he gave to historical events the "thrilling lineaments of a great story, upon whose issue the most blase reader is forced to hang entranced." One of his latter-day admirers, the historian A. L. Rowse, has called him "the last great Victorian awaiting revival."
Yet today Froude is nowhere, his once admired books gone from most library shelves. One reason, surely, is that Protestant-Catholic disputations have lost their central place in intellectual life. Froude argued the Reformation case with great skill, and his 12-volume history of Tudor England, completed in 1870, might have had as its subtitle: "How England pulled free from Rome, and a good thing too." As one who chronicled and celebrated the dispersal of Anglo-Saxon settlements and institutions to the four corners of the globe, Froude was later excoriated as a glorifier of imperialism; to top it all, he regarded Ireland as unready for home rule.
For these reasons and others, Froude can today seem a remote figure, a circumstance rather confirmed by this new biography. Julia Markus, a professor of English at Hofstra, makes high claims for her subject: Froude is "perhaps the greatest prose writer of the 19th century," and the life he wrote of his close friend Thomas Carlyle "is, arguably, the most significant pre-Freudian biography in the English language." (Am I the only one whose heart sank on seeing that "pre-Freudian"?) But Markus treads lightly over the great public themes in Froude's work, instead choosing to explore (in energetic and jargon-free, if not always profound, style) the psychological and inward aspects of his life.
It's not as if these elements are devoid of interest. There's the grim, motherless rural childhood, complete with spinster auntie who dipped the sickly Anthony every morning in a gravel pit of icy water to toughen him up; the hellish boarding school and early aptitude for books; the entry into Oxford, and expulsion from his fellowship there when he published a daring novel about a priest's loss of faith; the disinheritance, for a time, by his elderly, disapproving archdeacon father.
You could even make a case that fraternal rivalry helped fuel Anthony's later work. His older brother Richard Hurrell Froude, an insufferable bully at home, won fame at an early age with a combination of literary talent and High Church zeal that quickly brought him to prominence in the Oxford Movement led by the Romeward-bound John Henry Newman. (Another brother, William, became a celebrated naval architect.) Hurrell died at 33, and kid brother Anthony, whom he had swept briefly into Newman's orbit, would soon emerge among the future cardinal's most effective antagonists, often in league with the freewheeling Christian thinker Charles Kingsley, whose sister-in-law he married (Froude was widowed twice). After Kingsley used a review of a pair of Froude volumes as an occasion to bait Newman, the resulting exchange of letters and pamphlets became the basis of Newman's classic "Apologia Pro Vita Sua."
Anthony's own blend of charm and tactlessness, though it was eventually to spoil his later forays into politics and diplomacy, was perfect for a writer, and he was soon making friends aplenty in literary circles. His well-wishers on this side of the Atlantic included Thoreau, who sent him books, and Emerson, who helped dignify Froude's 1872 American visit by introducing him at a dinner at Delmonico's in New York. Early on, and fatefully, he fell in with cranky Thomas Carlyle, whose predominant mode of expression was as brackish as his own was clear, and Carlyle's wife, Jane.
Markus has explored Jane Welsh Carlyle's life in an earlier work, "Across an Untried Sea" (2000), and the troubled (and much-chewed-over) Carlyle marriage occupies a central place here as well. Indeed, with changes here and there, this book could have been titled "The Carlyles and Froude." As biographer and letter-compiler, Froude intended to do justice to the couple he knew so well; yet in doing so, he revealed their eccentricity and estrangement from each other. The resulting outcry over his claimed indecorum and disregard of the late Carlyles' privacy was to cost Froude many old friends and dog his reputation to the grave and beyond.
Froude continued to publish widely on many subjects and never lost his audience, but the acrimony over his handling of the Carlyle papers seems to have played a role in burning out his appetite for public controversy. Before Froude's death in 1894 the celebrated man of letters ordered his papers destroyed: "I have begged that when I die not a word may be written or said about me that my children can help. And if ever mortal wished for utter oblivion that mortal is I."
(Froude, incidentally, rhymes with "downbeat mood," and not with "shroud" or "cloudy.")
Those interested in Froude's role in intellectual history will still want to start with Herbert Paul's 1905 biography. Given that the historian's interest for many readers today will lie in his literary merit, it is surprising that Markus doesn't quote from his writing at greater length. Provokingly, she discusses -- but doesn't reprint -- a "charming, flirty little note" that the young Anthony sent to Mary Ann Evans, a k a George Eliot. Markus doesn't tell us whether the note survives, but if it does, wouldn't it be nice to see -- rather than merely imagine -- what it's like to flirt with George Eliot?