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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Frederick Johnson (1836–1931)

By James Anthony Froude (1818–1894)

JAMES ANTHONY FROUDE, English historian and essayist, was born April 23d, 1818, and died October 20th, 1894. His father was a clergyman, and the son was sent to Westminster School and to Oriel College, Oxford. In 1842 he became a fellow of Exeter, and two years later he was ordained a deacon; an office which he did not formally lay down until many years later, although his earliest publications, ‘Shadows of the Clouds’ and ‘Nemesis of Faith,’ showed that he had come to hold—and what perhaps is more to the point, dared to express,—views hardly compatible with the character of a docile and unreasoning neophyte.

These books were severely censured by the authorities, and cost him—to the great benefit of the world—an appointment he had received of teacher in Tasmania. He resigned his fellowship and took up the profession of letters, writing much for Fraser and the Westminster, and becoming for a short period the editor of the former. His magnum opus is his ‘History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada,’ in twelve volumes, from 1856 to 1870. His other principal publications are—‘The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century’ (1874); ‘Cæsar’ (1879); ‘Bunyan’ (1880); ‘Thomas Carlyle (first forty years of his life)’ (1882); ‘Life in London’ (1884); ‘Short Studies on Great Subjects’ (1882, four series); ‘The Two Chiefs of Dunboy’ (1889); ‘The English in the West Indies’ (1889); ‘The Divorce of Catharine of Aragon’ (1892); ‘The Life and Letters of Erasmus’ (1892); ‘English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century’ (1892); and ‘The Council of Trent.’ ‘Shadows of the Clouds,’ ‘The Nemesis of Faith,’ and ‘The Two Chiefs of Dunboy’ are in the form of fiction; and though they—especially the last—contain some charming descriptive passages, and evince some of Froude’s power of character sketching, they serve on the whole to prove that he was not a novelist. The fortunes of his group of people are of less absorbing interest to him than questions of social and racial ethics. There is nothing more annoying than to have an essayist stand behind a story-teller and interrupt him from time to time with acute philosophical comments on ultimate causes. The characters of Morty and Sylvester Sullivan are admirably contrasted Celtic types, but both they and the English Colonel Goring are a trifle stagy and stiff in their joints. The murders of the two chiefs, Morty Sullivan and Colonel Goring, are dramatically told; but Froude’s deficient sense of humor, at least of that quality of humor which gives a subtle sense of congruity, results in an attempt to combine the elements of the tale and the didactic society in impossible proportions. He is an essayist and historian, not a novel-writer.

Froude stands before the English-reading public prominent in three characteristics: First, as a technical prose artist, in which regard he is entitled to be classed with Ruskin, Newman, and Pater; less enthusiastic and elaborately ornamental than the first, less musically and delicately fallacious than the second, and less self-conscious and phrase-caressing than the third, but carrying a solider burden of thought than all three. Second, as a historian of the modern school, which aims by reading the original records to produce an independent view of historical periods. Third, as the most clear-sighted and broad-minded of those whose position near the center of the Oxford movement and intimacy with the principal actors gave them an insight into its inner nature.

There can be but one opinion of Froude as a master of English. In some of his early work there are traces of the manner of Macaulay in the succession of short assertive sentences, most of which an ordinary writer would group as limiting clauses about the main assertion. This method gives a false appearance of vigor and definiteness; it makes easy reading by relieving the mind from the necessity of weighing the modifying propositions: but it is entirely unadapted to nice modulations of thought. Froude very soon avoided the vices of Macaulayism, and attained a narrative style which must be regarded as the best in an age which has paid more attention than any other to the art of telling a story. In descriptive historical narrative he is unrivaled, because he is profoundly impressed not only with the dramatic qualities but with the real significance of a scene; unlike Macaulay, to whom the superficial theatrical elements appeal. A reading of Macaulay’s description of the trial of Warren Hastings, and Froude’s narrative of the killing of Thomas Becket or of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, will bring out at once Froude’s radical superiority in both conception and execution.

This is not the place to debate the question of Froude’s historical accuracy, further than to remark that he was an industrious reader of historical documents, and by nature a seeker after the truth. If a profound conviction of the harmfulness of ecclesiasticism colored the light with which he illuminated the records of the past, we must remember that history is at best largely the impressions of historians; and that if it be true that Froude does present one side, it is the side on which the warnings to posterity are most distinctly inscribed. A reading of the controversy between Froude and Freeman in the calmer light of the present leads to the conclusion that the suppressio veri with which Froude was charged is not a suggestio falsi, but an artistic selection of the characteristic. He felt a certain contempt for the minute and meaningless fidelity to the record, which is not writing history but editing documents. He possessed, too, among his other literary powers, the rare one of being able to individualize the man whose life he studies and of presenting the character so as to be consistent and human. This power fills his history and sketch with rare personalities. Thomas Becket, Henry III., Henry VIII., Queen Catharine, Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth, are more than historical portraits in the ordinary sense: they are conceptions of individuals, vivified by the artistic sense. Whether or not they are true to the originals as reflected in the contemporary documents, they are at least human possibilities, and therefore truer than the distorted automata that lie in state on the pages of some historians. A human character is so exceedingly complex and so delicately balanced with contradictory elements, that it is probable that no two persons ever estimate it exactly alike. Besides, prominent historical personages become in the popular imagination invested with exaggerated attributes, and it is not likely that men will ever agree even as to which of them was the hero and which the villain of the drama. It was to be expected that Froude should be violently assailed by those who accepted a traditional view of Henry VIII. and of Mary. It was inevitable that he should differ from them, because he had more than a view: he had a conception. His historical personages are certainly possibilities, because they are human, and the traditional figures are either monsters or saints; and humanity—at least Teutonic humanity—does not produce unadulterated saints nor unrelieved monsters.

While Froude’s historical work has been criticized for lack of minute accuracy in details, his books on Carlyle have been criticized for the opposite fault of quoting too fully and literally; from letters and journals, matter never intended for the public, and of a nature not only to wound living persons but to create an erroneous impression of the writer. The habit of expressing himself in pithy and pungent personalities seems to have been with Carlyle a sort of intellectual exercise, and should not necessarily be taken as an index of morose ill-temper. A very delicate literary tact was necessary to his literary executor, in selecting from the matter put in his hands that which would combine to make a true picture of a crude and powerful genius without making him appear to the ordinary reader a selfish, willful man. Froude’s idea of the duty of an editor of contemporary biography seems to have been that it was limited to careful publication of all the available material as mémoires pour servir. Such miscellaneous printing may in the end serve truth, but at the time it arouses resentment. It resulted, however, in the production of a book far preferable to the non-committal, evasive, destructively laudatory biography of a public man, of which every year brings a new specimen. It is at least honest, if not tactful.

Froude’s early connection with the Oxford movement and his work on the Lives of the Saints first called his attention to the study of historical documents, and to the large amount of fiction with which truth is diluted in them. His further researches among the authorities recently made accessible, for the history of the destruction of the monasteries, impressed on him the fact that an assumption of spiritual authority is as dangerous to those who assume it as to those over whom it is assumed, exactly as physical slavery is in the end as harmful to the masters as it is to the slaves. He saw that ecclesiasticism had been profoundly hostile to morals, and he judged the present by the past till he really believed that the precious fruits of the Reformation would be lost if the ritualists obtained control of the Church. He persuaded himself that under such influence—

  • “Civilization would ebb, the great moral lights be extinguished,
  • Over the world would creep an unintelligent darkness
  • Under which men would be portioned anew ’twixt the priest and the soldier.”
  • It is perhaps too much to expect of a man of the imaginative temperament of Froude, to whom the abominations of the Church from the twelfth to the sixteenth century were as real as if he had witnessed them, to retain judicial calmness under the vituperation with which he was assailed; but his profound distrust of the mediæval Church certainly does give an air of partisanship to his strictures on its modern ineffectual revival. He forgot that great principles of justice and toleration are now so embodied in law and fixed in the hearts of the English-speaking people that society is protected, and the evils of spiritual tyranny are restricted to the few who are willing to abase their intellects to it; that the corroding evil of conventual life is minimized by healthy outside influences; and that the most advanced modern ritualist would prove too good a Christian to light an auto da fé. It was but natural that he should forget this, for he was a strong man in the center of the conflict, and independence was the core of his being.

    This strength of independence is shown by the fact that though young, and profoundly sensitive to the attraction of a character like Newman’s, he was from the first able to resist the fascination which that remarkable man exerted over all with whom he came in contact. The pure spiritual nature possesses a mysterious power over young men, so great that they often yield to its counterfeit. Newman was the true priest, and Froude recognized his genius and that his soul was “an adumbration of the Divine.” But he felt instinctively the radical unsoundness of Newman’s thought, and “would not follow, though an angel led.” Others fell off for prudential reasons; but Froude was indifferent to these, and obedient to a conviction the strength of which must be estimated by the depth of his feeling for character.

    Froude was sometimes criticized for writing history under the influence of personal feeling. It is difficult to see how a readable history can be written except by one who at least takes an interest in the story; but whether capacity for feeling makes a man a less trustworthy historian, depends upon how far this emotional susceptibility is controlled by intellectual insight and just views of the laws under which society develops. That Froude was an absolutely perfect historian, no one would claim: he was too intensely human to be perfect. It is safe to say that the perfect historian will not exist until Shakespeare and Bacon reappear combined in one man. For the great historian must be both scholar and artist. As scholar he must possess, too, both the acquisitive and the organizing intellect. He must both gather facts and interpret them. He must have the artistic sense which selects from the vast mass of fact that which is significant. This power of artistic selection is of course influenced by his unconscious ideals, by his conception of the relative importance of the forces which move mankind, and of the ultimate goal of progress. His philosophy directs his art, and his art interprets in the light of his philosophy.

    It may be admitted that Froude possesses a larger share of the artistic than of the philosophic qualities necessary to the great historian. At times his hatred of ecclesiasticism becomes almost a prejudice. In his writings on Irish and colonial questions he evinces the Englishman’s love of the right, but sometimes, unfortunately, the Englishman’s inability to do justice to other races in points which distinguish them from his own. In some expressions he seems to distrust democracy in much the same unreasoning way in which Mr. Ruskin distrusts machinery. He had imbibed something of Mr. Carlyle’s belief in the “strong man”; though he, no more than Carlyle, can show how the strong, just ruler can be produced or selected. But a more serious deficiency in Froude’s philosophy arises from his imperfect conception of the method of evolution which governs all organizations, civil and religious, so that they continually throw off short-lived varieties and history becomes a continual giving way of the old order to the new. To fear, as Froude seems to, lest a survival may become a governing type, is as unreasonable as to fear that old men will live forever. Certainly he would have taken a juster, saner view of the English Reformation, had he been convinced that all the collisions between the moral laws and the rebellious wills of men, which are the burden of the years, are in the end obliterated in the slow onward movement of the race; but then perhaps his history would have lost in interest what it might have gained in philosophic breadth and balance. For it cannot be denied that feeling has given his narrative that most valuable quality—life.

    The general recognition of Froude’s power, and the growing conviction that he was far nearer right than the theological school he so cordially detested, was vindicated by his appointment as Professor of History at Oxford to succeed Freeman, one of the severest critics of his historical fairness. He lived to deliver but three courses of lectures, one of which has been published in that delightful volume ‘The Life and Letters of Erasmus.’ The others, ‘English Seamen of the XVIth Century,’ ‘Lectures on the Council of Trent,’ and the very able paper on Job in ‘Short Studies on Great Subjects,’ even if taken by themselves, would cause us to form a high opinion of the scope and range of Froude’s powers. Those to whom brilliancy is synonymous with unsoundness may perhaps continue to call him merely a “brilliant writer”; but the general verdict will be that his brilliancy is the structural adornment of a well-fitted framework of thought.