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The Agony Of The Victorian Age Post by :davetropeano Category :Essays Author :Edmund Gosse Date :November 2011 Read :1122

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The Agony Of The Victorian Age

For a considerable time past everybody must have noticed, especially in private conversation, a growing tendency to disparagement and even ridicule of all men and things, and aspects of things, which can be defined as "Victorian." Faded habits of mind are lightly dismissed as typical of the Victorian Age, and old favourite poets, painters, and musicians are treated with the same scorn as the glued chairs and glass bowls of wax flowers of sixty years ago. The new generation are hardly willing to distinguish what was good from what was bad in the time of their grandmothers. With increasing audacity they repudiate the Victorian Age as a sæclum insipiens et infacetum, and we meet everywhere with the exact opposite of Montaigne's "Je les approuve tous Tun après l'autre, quoi qu'ils disent." Our younger contemporaries are slipping into the habit of approving of nothing from the moment that they are told it is Victorian.

This may almost be described as an intellectual and moral revolution. Every such revolution means some liberation of the intellect from bondage, and shows itself first of all in a temper of irreverence; the formulas of the old faith are no longer treated with respect and presently they are even ridiculed. It is useless to close our eyes to the fact that a spirit of this kind is at work amongst us, undermining the dignity and authority of objects and opinions and men that seemed half a century ago to be more perennial than bronze. Successive orators and writers have put the public in possession of arguments, and especially have sparkled in pleasantries, which have sapped the very foundations of the faith of 1850. The infection has attacked us all, and there is probably no one who is not surprised, if he seriously reflects, to realise that he once implicitly took his ideas of art from Ruskin and of philosophy from Herbert Spencer. These great men are no longer regarded by anybody with the old credulity; their theories and their dogmas are mined, as were those of the early eighteenth century in France by the Encyclopædists, by a select class of destructive critics, in whose wake the whole public irregularly follows. The ordinary unthinking man accepts the change with exhilaration, since in this country the majority have always enjoyed seeing noses knocked off statues. But if we are to rejoice in liberation from the bondage of the Victorian Age we ought to know what those bonds were.

The phenomena of the decadence of an age are never similar to those of its rise. This is a fact which is commonly overlooked by the opponents of a particular section of social and intellectual history. In the initial stages of a "period" we look for audacity, fire, freshness, passion. We look for men of strong character who will hew a channel along which the torrent of new ideals and subversive sentiments can rush. But this violence cannot be expected to last, and it would lead to anarchy if it did. Slowly the impetus of the stream diminishes, the river widens, and its waters reach a point where there seems to be no further movement in their expanse. No age contains in itself the elements of endless progress; it starts in fury, and little by little the force of it declines. Its decline is patent--but not until long afterwards--in a deadening of effort, in a hardening of style. Dryden leads on to Pope, Pope points down to Erasmus Darwin, after whom the world can but reject the whole classical system. The hungry sheep of a new generation look up and are not fed, and this is the vision which seems to face us in the last adventures of the schools of yesterday.

But what is, or was, the Victorian Age? The world speaks glibly of it as though it were a province of history no less exactly defined than the career of a human being from birth to death; but in practice no one seems in a hurry to mark out its frontiers. Indeed, to do so is an intrepid act. If the attempt is to be made at all, then 1840, the year of Queen Victoria's marriage with Prince Albert, may be suggested as the starting-point, and 1890 (between the death-dates of Browning, Newman, and Tennyson) as the year in which the Victorian Age is seen sinking into the sands. Nothing could be vaguer, or more open to contention in detail, than this delineation, but at all events it gives our deliberations a frame. It excludes Pickwick, which is the typical picture of English life under William IV., and Sartor Resartus, which was the tossing of the bound giant in his sleep; but it includes the two-volume Tennyson, "chiefly lyrical," the stir of the Corn Law agitation, the Tractarian Crisis of 1841, and the History of the French Revolution and Past and Present, when the giant opened his eyes and fought with his chains. Darwin was slowly putting together the notes he had made on the Beagle, and Hugh Miller was disturbing convention by his explorations of the Old Red Sandstone. Most of all, the discussion of permanent and transient elements in Christianity was taking a foremost place in all strata of society, not merely in the form of the contest around Tract 90, but in the divergent directions of Colenso, the Simeon Evangelicals, and Maurice.

The Victorian Age began in rancour and turmoil. This is an element which we must not overlook, although it was in a measure superficial. A series of storms, rattling and recurrent tempests of thunder and lightning, swept over public opinion, which had been so calm under George IV. and so dull under William IV. Nothing could exceed the discord of vituperation, the Hebraism of Carlyle denouncing the Vaticanism of Wiseman, "Free Kirk and other rubbish" pitted against "Comtism, ghastliest of algebraic spectralities." This theological tension marks the first twenty years and then slowly dies down, after the passion expended over Essays and Reviews. It was in 1840 that we find Macaulay, anxious to start a scheme of Whig reform and to cut a respectable figure as Secretary of State for War, unable to get to business because of the stumbling-block of religious controversy. Everything in heaven and earth was turned into "a theological treatise," and all that people cared about was "the nature of the sacraments, the operation of holy orders, the visibility of the Church and baptismal regeneration." The sitting member goes down to Edinburgh to talk to his constituents about Corn Laws and Sugar Duties and the Eastern Question; he is met by "a din" of such objections as "Yes, Mr. Macaulay, that is all very well for a statesman, but what becomes of the headship of our Lord Jesus Christ?"

If the Victorian Age opened in a tempest of theology, it was only natural that it should cultivate a withering disdain for those who had attempted to reform society on a non-theological basis. In sharp contradistinction to the indulgence of the Georgian period for philosophic speculation, England's interest in which not even her long continental wars had been able to quench, we find with the accession of Victoria the credit of the French thinkers almost abruptly falling. Voltaire, never very popular in England, becomes "as mischievous a monkey as any of them"; the enthusiasm for Rousseau, which had reached extravagant proportions, completely disappears, and he is merely the slanderous sceptic, who, after soaking other people's waistcoats with his tears, sent his own babies to the Foundling Hospital. The influence of the French eighteenth-century literature on the mind of England was first combated and then baldly denied. The premier journalist of the age declared, with the satisfaction of a turkey-cock strutting round his yard, that no trace of the lowest level of what could be called popularity remained in England to the writers of France, and he felt himself "entitled to treat as an imbecile conceit the pretence" that a French school of thought survived in Great Britain. Such was the Podsnappery of the hour in its vigilance against moral and religious taint.

Notwithstanding, or perhaps we ought to say inevitably conducted by these elements of passion and disdain, the infant Victorian Age passed rapidly into the great political whirlpool of 1846, with its violent concentration of enthusiasm on the social questions which affected the welfare of the masses, with, in short, its tremendous upheaval of a practical radicalism. From that time forth its development baffles analysis. Whatever its present enemies may allege to its discredit, they cannot pretend that it was languid or monotonous. No Age hitherto lived out upon the world's surface has been so multiform or so busy; none defies the art of the historian to such a bewildering degree. Its latest critic does not exaggerate when he says that our fathers and our grandfathers have poured forth and accumulated so vast a quantity of information concerning it "that the industry of a Ranke would be submerged by it and the perspicacity of a Gibbon would quail before it." This is manifestly true, and it is evident that an encyclopædia would be required to discuss all the divisions of so tremendous a subject. If we look over too wide a horizon we lose our bearings altogether. We get a hopelessly confused notion of the course of progress; we see experiments, criticisms, failures, but who is to assure us what was the tendency of evolution?

Mr. Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" has arrived at the very moment when all readers are prepared to discuss the age he deals with, and when public opinion is aware of the impatience which has been "rising in the bosom of a man like smoke" under the pressure of the insistent praise of famous men. The book has attracted a very remarkable degree of notice; it has been talked about wherever people have met together; and has received the compliment of being seriously displayed before the University of Oxford by one of the most eminent of the Victorian statesmen whom Oxford has produced. If we look into the causes of this success, enjoyed by the earliest extended book of a writer almost unknown, a book, too, which pretends to no novelty of matter or mystery of investigation, we find them partly in the preparedness of the public mind for something in the way of this exposure, but partly also in the skill of the writer. Whatever else may be said of Mr. Lytton Strachey, no one can deny that he is very adroit, or that he possesses the art of arresting attention.

It is part of this adroitness that he contrives to modify, and for a long time even to conceal the fact that his purpose is to damage and discredit the Victorian Age. He is so ceremonious in his approach, so careful to avoid all brusqueness and coarseness, that his real aim may be for awhile unobserved. He even professes to speak "dispassionately, impartially, and without ulterior intentions." We may admit the want of passion and perhaps the want of partiality, but we cannot avoid seeing the ulterior intention, which is to undermine and belittle the reputation of the great figures of the Victorian Age. When the prodigious Signor Marinetti proposes to hurl the "leprous palaces" of his native city into her "fetid canals," and to build in their place warehouses and railway stations, he does not differ in essential attitude from Mr. Lytton Strachey, delicately "laying bare the facts of some cases." The only real difference consists in the finer tact, the greater knowledge of history--in short, the superior equipment of the English iconoclast. Each of them--and all the troop of opponents who grumble and mutter between their extremes--each of them is roused by an intense desire to throw off the shackles of a dying age, in which they have taught themselves chiefly to see affectation, pomposity, a virtuosity more technical than emotional, and an exasperating monotony of effect.

Mr. Strachey has conducted his attack from the point of view of biography. He realises the hopelessness of writing a history of the Victorian Age; it can only be dealt with in detail; it must be nibbled into here and there; discredited piecemeal; subjected to the ravages of the white ant. He has seen that the lives of the great Victorians lend themselves to this insidious kind of examination, because what was worst in the pretentiousness of their age is to be found enshrined in the Standard Biographies (in two volumes, post octavo) under which most of them are buried. Mr. Strachey has some criticism of these monsters which could hardly be bettered:

"Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead--who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker, and bear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism."

It is impossible not to agree with this pungent criticism. Every candid reader could point to a dozen Victorian biographies which deserve Mr. Strachey's condemnation. For instance, instead of taking up any of the specimens which he has chosen for illustration, we need only refer the reader's memory to the appendix of "Impressions," by a series of elderly friends, which closes the official Life of Tennyson, published in 1897. He will find there an expression of the purest Victorian optimism. The great object being to foist on the public a false and superhuman picture of the deceased, a set of illustrious contemporaries--who themselves expected to be, when they died, transfigured in like manner--form a bodyguard around the corpse of the poet and emit their "tedious panegyric." In this case, more even than in any of the instances which Mr. Strachey has taken, the contrast between the real man and the funereal image is positively grotesque.

Without question this contrast is not a little responsible for the discredit into which the name of Tennyson has fallen. Lord Selborne found nothing in Tennyson "inconsistent with the finest courtesy and the gentlest heart." Dr. Jowett had preserved through forty years "an ever-increasing wonder at the depth of his thought," and emphatically stated that he "was above such feelings as a desire of praise, or fear of blame." (Tennyson, who was thirsty for ceaseless laudation, and to whom a hint of censure was like the bite of a mosquito!) Frederick Myers ejaculated, "How august, how limitless a thing was Tennyson's own spirit's upward flight!" The Duke of Argyll, again, during the space of forty years, had found him "always reverent, hating all levity or flippancy," and was struck by his possessing "the noblest humility I have ever known." Lord Macaulay, who "had stood absolutely aloof," once having been permitted to glance at the proof-sheets of Guenevere, was "absolutely subdued" to "unfeigned and reverent admiration." The duke was the glad emissary who was "the medium of introduction," and he recognised in Macaulay's subjugation "a premonition" of Tennyson's complete "conquest over the living world and over the generations that are to come."

Thus the priesthood circled round their idol, waving their censers and shouting their hymns of praise, while their ample draperies effectively hid from the public eye the object which was really in the centre of their throng, namely, a gaunt, black, touzled man, rough in speech, brooding like an old gipsy over his inch of clay pipe stuffed with shag, and sucking in port wine with gusto--"so long as it is black and sweet and strong, I care not!" Their fault lay, not in their praise, which was much of it deserved, but in their deliberate attempt in the interests of what was Nice and Proper--gods of the Victorian Age--to conceal what any conventional person might think not quite becoming. There were to be no shadows in the picture, no stains or rugosities on the smooth bust of rosy wax.

On the pretext, therefore, of supplying a brief and above all a complimentary set of portraits, Mr. Strachey takes the biography of an ecclesiastic, an educational authority, a woman of action, and a man of adventure, and tells them over again in his own way. The four figures he chooses are all contemporary, and yet, so implacably does time hurry us along, all would be very old if they still survived. Three of them could hardly survive, for Cardinal Manning and Dr. Arnold would be far over a hundred, and Florence Nightingale in her ninety-ninth year; the fourth, General Gordon, would be eighty-five. The motto of Mr. Strachey is "Put not your trust in the intellectual princes of the Victorian Age," or, at least, in what their biographers have reported of them; they were not demi-gods in any sense, but eccentric and forceful figures working dimly towards aims which they only understood in measure, and which very often were not worth the energy which they expended on them. This attitude alone would be enough to distinguish Mr. Strachey from the purveyors of indiscriminate praise, and in adopting it he emphasises his deliberate break with the age of which they were the envy and the ornament. Given his 1918 frame of mind, no blame can attach to him for adopting this gesture. At moments when the tradition of a people has been violently challenged there have always ensued these abrupt acts of what to the old school seems injustice. If Mr. Lytton Strachey is reproached with lack of respect, he might reply: In the midst of a revolution, who is called on to be respectful to the fallen monarch? Extreme admiration for this or that particular leader, the principle of Victorian hero-worship, is the very heresy, he might say, which I have set out to refute.

When St. John the Divine addressed his Apocalypse to the Angels of the Seven Churches, he invented a system of criticism which is worthy of all acceptation. He dwelt first upon the merits of each individual church; not till he had exhausted them did he present the reverse of the coin. In the same spirit, critics who, in the apostle's phrase, have "something against" Mr. Lytton Strachey, will do well to begin by acknowledging what is in his favour. In the first place, he writes sensibly, rapidly, and lucidly--without false ornament of any kind. Some of his pages might, with advantage, be pinned up opposite the writing-tables of our current authors of detestable pseudo-Meredithian and decayed Paterese. His narrative style is concise and brisk. His book may undoubtedly best be compared among English classics with Whiggism in its Relations to Literature, although it is less discursive and does not possess the personal element of that vivacious piece of polemic. In this recurrence of Mr. Strachey to a pellucid stream of prose we see an argument against his own theory of revolt. The procedure of the arts, the mechanical tricks of the trade, do they really improve or decline from age to age? Are they not, in fact, much more the result of individual taste than of fashion? There seems to be no radical change in the methods of style. The extravagant romanticism of rebellion against the leaders of the Victorian Age finds at length an exponent, and behold he writes as soberly as Lord Morley, or as Newman himself!

The longest of these biographies is that of Cardinal Manning, and it is the one with which Mr. Lytton Strachey has taken most pains. Briefer than the briefest of the English Men of Letters series of biographies, it is yet conducted with so artful an economy as to give the impression, to an uninstructed reader, that nothing essential about the career of Manning has been omitted. To produce this impression gifts of a very unusual order were required, since the writer, pressed on all sides by a plethora of information, instead of being incommoded by it, had to seem to be moving smoothly in an atmosphere of his own choosing, and to be completely unembarrassed by his material. He must have the air of saying, in Froude's famous impertinence, "This is all we know, and more than all, yet nothing to what the angels know." In the face of a whole literature of controversy and correspondence, after a storm of Purcell and Hutton, Ward and Mozley and Liddon tearing at one another's throats, Mr. Lytton Strachey steps delicately on to the stage and says, in a low voice, "Come here and I will tell you all about a funny ecclesiastic who had a Hat, and whose name was Henry Edward Manning. It will not take us long, and ever afterwards, if you hear that name mentioned, you will know everything about him which you need to remember." It is audacious, and to many people will seem shocking, but it is very cleverly done.

The study of Florence Nightingale is an even better example of Mr. Strachey's method, since she is the one of his four subjects for whom he betrays some partiality. "The Miss Nightingale of fact was not as facile fancy painted her," and it has greatly entertained Mr. Strachey to chip the Victorian varnish off and reveal the iron will beneath. His first chapter puts it in one of his effective endings:--

"Her mother was still not quite resigned; surely Florence might at least spend the summer in the country. At this, indeed, among her intimates, Mrs. Nightingale almost wept. 'We are ducks,' she said with tears in her eyes, 'who have hatched a wild swan.' But the poor lady was wrong; it was not a swan that they had hatched, it was an eagle."

It is therefore as an eagle, black, rapacious, with hooked bill and crooked talons, that he paints Miss Nightingale; and the Swan of Scutari, the delicate Lady with the Lamp, fades into a fable. Mr. Strachey glorifies the demon that possessed this pitiless, rushing spirit of philanthropy. He gloats over its ravages; its irresistible violence of purpose. It is an evident pleasure to him to be able to detach so wild a figure from the tameness of the circumambient scene, and all his enmity to the period comes out in the closing pages, in which he describes how the fierce philanthropist lived so long that the Victorian Age had its revenge upon her, and reduced her, a smiling, fat old woman, to "compliance and complacency." It is a picture which will give much offence, but it is certainly extremely striking, and Mr. Strachey can hardly be accused of having done more than deepen the shadows which previous biographers had almost entirely omitted.

In this study, if the author is unusually indulgent to his subject, he is relatively severer than usual to the surrounding figures. To some of them, notably to Arthur Hugh Clough, he seems to be intolerably unjust. On the other hand, to most of those public men who resisted the work of Florence Nightingale it is difficult to show mercy. Mr. Strachey is so contemptuous, almost so vindictive, in his attitude to Lord Panmure, that the reader is tempted to take up the cudgels in defence of an official so rudely flouted. But, on reflection, what is there that can be said in palliation of Lord Panmure? He was the son of a man of whom his own biographer has admitted that "he preserved late into the (nineteenth) century the habits and passions--scandalous and unconcealed--which had, except in his case, passed away. He was devoted to his friends so long as they remained complaisant, and violent and implacable to all who thwarted him.--His uncontrollable temper alienated him from nearly all his family in his latter years. In private life he was an immovable despot."

This was the father of Fox Maule, second Baron Panmure, of whom Mr. Strachey has so much to say. Evidently he was a Regency type, as the son was a Victorian. Determined not to resemble his father, Fox Maule early became a settled and industrious M.P., and in 1846 Lord John Russell made him Secretary of War. He held the same post under Lord Palmerston from 1855 to 1858. Nothing could dislodge him from office; not even the famous despatch "Take care of Dawb" could stir him. In 1860 he became eleventh Earl of Dalhousie. He died two years later, having enjoyed every distinction, even that of President of the Royal Military Asylum. He was "unco guid," as pious as his father had been profane, but he had no social or political or intellectual merit of any kind which can at this distance of time be discerned. Florence Nightingale called him the Bison, and his life's energy seems to have been expended in trying, often with success, to frustrate every single practical reform which she suggested. To the objection that Mr. Strachey has depicted the heroine as "an ill-tempered, importunate spinster, who drove a statesman to his death," he might conceivably reply that if history, grown calm with the passage of years, does so reveal her, it is rather absurd to go on idealising her. Why not study the real Eagle in place of the fabulous Swan? It is difficult to condemn Mr. Strachey along this line of argument.

The early Victorians liked what was definable and tangible; they were "ponderous mechanists of style." Even in their suggestions of change they preserved an impenetrable decorum of demeanour, a studied progress, a deep consciousness of the guiding restraint of tradition upon character. Their preoccupation with moral ideas tinged the whole of their surroundings, their literature, their art, their outlook upon life. That the works of Mr. Charles Dickens, so excruciatingly funny, should have been produced and appreciated in the midst of this intense epoch of exhortation seems a paradox, till we recollect how careful Dickens is, when his laughter is loudest, never to tamper with "the deep sense of moral evil." This apprehension of the rising immorality of the world, against which the only rampart was the education of "a thorough English gentleman, Christian, manly and enlightened" was dominant in no spirit more than in that of Mr. Thomas Arnold, of whom Mr. Strachey gives a somewhat deterrent portrait. It is deterrent, because we have passed, in three-quarters of a century, completely out of the atmosphere in which Dr. Arnold moved and breathed. We are not sure that Mr. Strachey acted very wisely in selecting Dr. Arnold for one of his four subjects, since the great schoolmaster was hardly a Victorian at all. When he entered the Church George III. was on the throne; his accomplishment at Rugby was started under George IV.; he died when the Victorian Age was just beginning. He was a forerunner, but hardly a contemporary.

Although in his attitude to the great Rugby schoolmaster Mr. Strachey shows more approbation than usual, this portrait has not given universal satisfaction. It has rather surprisingly called forth an indignant protest from Dr. Arnold's granddaughter. Yet such is the perversity of the human mind that the mode in which Mrs. Humphry Ward "perstringes" the biographer brings us round to that biographer's side. For Mrs. Ward has positively the indiscretion, astounding in a writer of her learning and experience, to demand the exclusion of irony from the legitimate weapons of the literary combatant. This is to stoop to sharing one of the meanest prejudices of the English commonplace mind, which has always resented the use of that delicate and pointed weapon. Moreover, Mrs. Ward does not merely adopt the plebeian attitude, but she delivers herself bound hand and foot to the enemy by declaring the use of irony to be "unintelligent." In support of this amazing statement she quotes some wandering phrase of Sainte-Beuve. By the light of recent revelations, whether Sainte-Beuve was ironical or not, he was certainly perfidious. But, to waive that matter, does Mrs. Humphry Ward consider that Swift and Lucian and Machiavelli were, as she puts it, "doomed to failure" because they used irony as a weapon? Was Heine and is Anatole France conspicuous for want of intelligence? And, after all, ought not Mrs. Ward to remember that if she had a very serious grandfather, she had a still more celebrated uncle, who wrote Friendship's Garland?

While no one else will seriously blame Mr. Strachey for employing irony in his investigation of character, the subject leads on to what may be regarded as a definite fault in his method. A biographer should be sympathetic; not blind, not indulgent, but sympathetic. He should be able to enter into the feelings of his subjects, and be anxious to do so. It is in sympathy, in imaginative insight, that Mr. Strachey fails. His personages are like puppets observed from a great height by an amiable but entirely superior intelligence. The peculiar aim of Mr. Strachey, his desire to lower our general conception of the Victorian Age, tempts him to exaggerate this tendency, and he succumbs to the temptation. His description of Lord Acton at Rome in 1870--"he despised Lord Acton almost as much as he disliked him"--is not ironic, it is contemptuous. Arthur Hugh Clough presents no aspect to Mr. Strachey but that of a timid and blundering packer-up of parcels; one might conceive that the biographer had never contemplated the poet in any other capacity than, with sealing-wax in his hand and string between his lips, shuddering under the eye of Miss Nightingale. The occasional references to Lord Wolseley suggest an unaccountable hurrying figure of pygmy size, which Mr. Strachey can only just discern. This attitude of hovering superiority is annoying.

But it reaches a more dangerous importance when it affects spiritual matters. The author interests himself, from his great height, in the movements of his Victorian dwarfs, and notices that they are particularly active, and prone to unusual oddity of movement, when they are inspired by religious and moral passion. Their motions attract his attention, and he describes them with gusto and often with wit. His sketch of Rome before the Œcumenical Council is an admirably studied page. Miss Nightingale's ferocity when the War Office phalanx closed its ranks is depicted in the highest of spirits; it is impossible not to be riveted by the scene round Cardinal Manning's death-bed; but what did those manifestations mean? To Mr. Strachey it is evident that the fun of the whole thing is that they meant nothing at all; they were only part of the Victorian absurdity. It is obvious that religious enthusiasm, as a personal matter, means nothing to him. He investigates the feelings of Newman or Keble as a naturalist might the contortions of an insect. The ceremonies and rites of the Church are objects of subdued hilarity to him, and in their presence, if he suppresses his laughter, it is solely to prevent his missing any detail precious to his curiosity. When the subject of Baptismal Regeneration agitates the whole pious world of England Mr. Strachey seems to say, looking down with exhilaration on the anthill beneath him, "The questions at issue are being taken very seriously by a large number of persons. How Early Victorian of them!" Mr. Strachey has yet to learn that questions of this kind are "taken seriously" by serious people, and that their emotion is both genuine and deep. He sees nothing but alcoholic eccentricity in the mysticism of Gordon. His cynicism sometimes carries him beyond the confines of good taste, as in the passage where he refers to the large and dirty ears of the Roman cardinals. Still worse is the query as to what became of the soul of Pope Pius IX. after his death.

These are errors in discretion. A fault in art is the want of care which the author takes in delineating his minor or subordinate figures. He gives remarkable pains, for example, to his study of General Gordon, but he is indifferent to accuracy in his sketches of the persons who came into contact, and often into collision, with Gordon. In this he resembles those French painters, such as Bastien Lepage, who focus their eye on one portion of their canvas, and work that up to a high perfection, while leaving the rest of the picture misty and vague. Even in that case the subordinate figures, if subdued in fogginess, should not be falsely drawn, but Mr. Strachey, intent upon the violent portrait of Gordon, is willing to leave his Baring and Hartington and Wolseley inexact as well as shadowy. The essay on General Gordon, indeed, is the least successful of the four monographs. Dexterous as he is, Mr. Strachey has not had the material to work upon which now exists to elucidate his other and earlier subjects. But it is difficult to account for his apparently not having read Mr. Bernard Holland's life of the Duke of Devonshire, which throws much light, evidently unknown to Mr. Strachey, on the Gordon relief expedition. He ought to know that Sir Evelyn Baring urged the expedition, while Chamberlain was one of its opponents. Mr. Strachey does not seem to have noticed how much the issue was confused by conflicting opinions as to whether the route to be taken should be by Suakin or up the Nile.

No part of his book is more vigorous or picturesque than the chapter dealing with the proclamation of Papal Infallibility. But here again one is annoyed by the glibness with which Mr. Strachey smoothly asserts what are only his conjectures.

In his account of Manning's reception in Rome--and this is of central importance in his picture of Manning's whole career--he exaggerates the personal policy of Pio Nono, whom he represents as more independent of the staff of the Curia than was possible. Rome has never acknowledged the right of the individual, even though that individual be the Pope, to an independent authority. Mr. Odo Russell was resident secretary in Rome from 1858 to 1870, and his period of office was drawing to a close when Manning arrived; he was shortly afterwards removed to become Assistant Under Secretary of State at our Foreign Office. The author of Eminent Victorians is pleased to describe "poor Mr. Russell" as little better than a fly buzzing in Manning's "spider's web of delicate and clinging diplomacy." It is not in the memory of those who were behind the scenes that Odo Russell was such a cipher. Though suave in address, he was by no means deficient in decision or force of character, as was evidenced when, some months later, he explained to Mr. Gladstone his reasons for stating to Bismarck, without instructions from the government, that the Black Sea question was one on which Great Britain might be compelled to go to war with or without allies. Lord Morley's Life of Gladstone (vol. ii., p. 354) is explicit on this interesting point. The information which, by special permission of the Pope, Cardinal Manning was able to give to him on all that was going on in the Council was, of course, of great value to Odo Russell, but his views on other aspects of the question were derived from quite different sources.

In this respect he had the advantage of the Cardinal, both on account of his diplomatic position and of his long and intimate knowledge both of Vatican policy and of the forces which the Curia has at its command. On the strength of those forces, and on the small amount of effective support which British opposition to the Decree of Infallibility was likely to receive from the Catholic Powers, he no doubt held strong opinions. Some years later he did not conceal his conviction that Prince Bismarck would be worsted in his conflict with Rome on the Education Laws, and the event proved his forecast to be perfectly correct. This is an example of the dangers which beset a too glib and superficial treatment of political events which were conducted in secret, and with every circumstance of mystery.

Several of the characteristics which diversify Mr. Strachey's remarkable volume are exemplified in the following quotation. It deals with the funeral of Cardinal Manning:--

"The route of the procession was lined by vast crowds of working people, whose imaginations, in some instinctive manner, had been touched. Many who had hardly seen him declared that in Cardinal Manning they had lost their best friend. Was it the magnetic vigour of the dead man's spirit that moved them? Or was it his valiant disregard of common custom and those conventional reserves and poor punctilios, which are wont to hem about the great? Or was it something untameable in his glances and in his gestures? Or was it, perhaps, the mysterious glamour lingering about him of the antique organisation of Rome? For whatever cause, the mind of the people had been impressed; and yet, after all, the impression was more acute than lasting. The Cardinal's memory is a dim thing to-day. And he who descends into the crypt of that Cathedral which Manning never lived to see, will observe, in the quiet niche with the sepulchral monument, that the dust lies thick on the strange, the incongruous, the almost impossible object which, with its elaborations of dependent tassels, hangs down from the dim vault like some forlorn and forgotten trophy, the Hat."

Longinus tells us that "a just judgment of style is the final fruit of long experience." In the measured utterances of Mr. Asquith we recognise the speech of a man to whom all that is old and good is familiar, and in whom the art of finished expression has become a habit. No more elegantly balanced, no more delicately perceptive mind than his has appeared of recent times in our midst, and there is something in the equipoise of his own genius which points Mr. Asquith out as a judge peculiarly well fitted to sit in judgment upon rival ages. In his Romanes lecture there was but one thing to be regretted: the restricted space which it offered for the full expansion of the theme. Mr. Asquith excels in swift and rapid flights, but even for him the Victorian Age is too broad a province to be explored within one hour. He endeavoured to lighten his task by excluding theology and politics, and indeed but for such self-denial he could scarcely have moved at all in so dense an air. He was able, however, having thrown out so much formidable ballast, to rise above his subject, and gazing at the Victorian Age, as it recedes, he declared it to have been very good. The young men who despise and attack that Age receive no support in any particular from Mr. Asquith.

He dwells on the fecundity of the literature of the Victorian Age in its middle period, and especially on the publications which adorned the decade from 1850 to 1859. He calls those years, very justly, "marvellous and almost unexampled" in their rich profusion. I may suggest that the only rival to them in our history is the period from 1590 to 1600, which saw the early plays of Shakespeare, the Faerie Queene, the Arcadia, the Ecclesiastical Polity, Tamburlaine, The Discovery of Guiana, and Bacon's Essays. If the works catalogued by Mr. Asquith do not equal these in intensity, they excel them by the breadth of the ground they cover, extending from Browning to Darwin and from Thackeray to Ruskin. Moreover, the Oxford list might have included Lavengro and Newman's Lectures, and Herbert Spencer's Social Statics. The only third decade worthy to be named with those of 1590 and 1850 is that which opens in 1705, and is illuminated by the names of Pope, Shaftesbury, Swift, Arbuthnot, Defoe, Steele, Addison, and Berkeley. It is pleasant to compare these three magnificently flowering epochs, but not profitable if we attempt to weigh one against the other. They are comparable only in the splendour of their accomplishment.

It is more difficult to fit science into our scheme of the Victorian Age than to find places there for Art and Literature. Perhaps the reason of this is that the latter were national in their character, whereas scientific inquiry, throughout the nineteenth century, was carried on upon international lines, or, at least, in a spirit unprecedentedly non-provincial. The vast achievements of science, practical and theoretical, were produced for the world, not for a race. Mr. Asquith speaks with justice and eloquence of the appearance of Darwin's Origin of Species which he distinguishes as being "if not actually the most important, certainly the most interesting event of the Age," and his remarks on the fortune of that book are excellent. No one can over-estimate the value of what we owe to Darwin. But perhaps a Frenchman might speak in almost the same terms of Claude Bernard, whose life and work ran parallel with Darwin's. If the Origin of Species made an epoch in 1859, the Introduction à la médicine expérimental made another in 1865. Both these books, as channels by which the experimental labours of each investigator reached the prepared and instructed public, exercised at once, and have continued ever since to exercise, an enormous effect on thought as well as on knowledge. They transformed the methods by which man approaches scientific investigation, and while they instructed they stimulated a new ardour for instruction. In each case the value of the discovery lay in the value of the idea which led to the discovery, and, as some one has said in the case of Claude Bernard, they combined for the first time the operations of science and philosophy. The parallel between these two contemporaries extends, in a measure, to their disciples and successors, and seems to suggest that Mr. Asquith in his generous and difficult estimate may have exaggerated the purely Victorian element in the science of the age of Darwin. This only accentuates the difficulty, and he may perhaps retort that there is an extreme danger in suggesting what does and what does not form a part of so huge a system.

Justifiably Mr. Asquith takes it for granted that the performance of the central years of the Victorian Age was splendid. With those who deny merit to the writers and artists of the last half century it is difficult to reach a common ground for argument. What is to be the criterion of taste if all the multiform exhibitions of it which passed muster from 1840 to 1890 are now to be swept away with contumely? Perhaps indeed it is only among those extravagant romanticists who are trying to raise entirely new ideals, unrelated to any existing forms of art and literature, that we find a denial of all merit to the Victorian masters. Against this caricature of criticism, this Bolshevism, it would be hopeless to contend. But there is a large and growing class of more moderate thinkers who hold, in the first place, that the merit of the leading Victorian writers has been persistently over-estimated, and that since its culmination the Victorian spirit has not ceased to decay, arriving at length at the state of timidity and repetition which encourages what is ugly, narrow, and vulgar, and demands nothing better than a swift dismissal to the dust-bin.

Every stratum of society, particularly if it is at all sophisticated, contains a body of barbarians who are usually silent from lack of occasion to express themselves, but who are always ready to seize an opportunity to suppress a movement of idealism. We accustom ourselves to the idea that certain broad principles of taste are universally accepted, and our respectable newspapers foster this benevolent delusion by talking habitually "over the heads," as we say, of the majority of their readers. They make "great music for a little clan," and nothing can be more praiseworthy than their effort, but, as a matter of fact, with or without the aid of the newspapers, the people who really care for literature or art, or for strenuous mental exercise of any kind, are relatively few. If we could procure a completely confidential statement of the number of persons to whom the names of Charles Lamb and Gainsborough have a distinct meaning, and still more of those who can summon up an impression of the essays of the one and of the pictures of the other, we should in all probability be painfully startled. Yet since these names enjoy what we call a universal celebrity, what must be the popular relation to figures much less prominent?

The result of this tyranny of fame, for so it must appear to all those who are inconvenienced by the expression of it, is to rouse a sullen tendency to attack the figures of art and literature whenever there arrives a chance of doing that successfully. Popular audiences can always be depended upon to cheer the statement of "a plain man" that he is not "clever" enough to understand Browning or Meredith. An assurance that life is too short to be troubled with Henry James wakes the lower middle class to ecstasy. An opportunity for such protests is provided by our English lack of critical tradition, by our accepted habit of saying, "I do hate" or "I must say I rather like" this or that without reference to any species of authority. This seems to have grown with dangerous rapidity of late years. It was not tolerated among the Victorians, who carried admiration to the highest pitch. They marshalled it, they defined it, they turned it from a virtue into a religion, and called it Hero Worship. Even their abuse was a kind of admiration turned inside out, as in Swinburne's diatribes against Carlyle, who himself fought against the theory of Darwin, not philosophically, but as though it were a personal insult to himself. Such violence of taste is now gone out of fashion; every scribbler and dauber likes to believe himself on a level with the best, and the positive criterion of value which sincere admiration gave is lost to us. Hence the success of Mr. Lytton Strachey.

But the decline of ardour does not explain the whole position, which we have to face with firmness. Epochs come to an end, and before they have their place finally awarded to them in history they are bound to endure much vicissitude of fortune. No amount of sarcasm or of indignant protest will avail to conceal the fact that we stand to-day at the porch, that much more probably we have already penetrated far into the vestibule, of a new age. What its character will be, or what its principal products, it is absolutely impossible for us as yet to conjecture. Meanwhile the Victorian Age recedes, and it loses size and lustre as we get further and further away from it. When what was called "Symbolism" began to act in urgent and direct reaction to the aims of those still in authority, the old order received its notice to quit, but that was at least five and twenty years ago, and the change is not complete. Ages so multiform and redundant and full of blood as the Victorian take a long time to die; they have their surprising recoveries and their uncovenanted convalescences. But even they give up the ghost at length, and are buried hastily with scant reverence. The time has doubtless come when aged mourners must prepare themselves to attend the obsequies of the Victorian Age with as much decency as they can muster.

1918.


(The end)
Edmund Gosse's essay: Agony Of The Victorian Age

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