The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 26. History of England

The earliest sample of the spirit and style in which Froude addressed himself to his task had been a recapitulation, published in The Westminster Review (1852) under the title England’s Forgotten Worthies, of certain original narratives of a daring and adventurous sort. That the seed thus sown did not fall on barren ground is shown by the fact that the paper inspired in Kingsley the idea of Westward Ho! and supplied Tennyson with the theme of The Revenge. That this stirring article breathed the antipathies as well as the sympathies that were to mark the forthcoming History, suggests itself from the terse description of King James I as “the base son of a bad mother.” But, though Froude’s reputation already stood high in a chosen circle of friends, and, though Carlyle watched the progress of the History with genuine interest—he may, indeed, be said to have been largely responsible for its central idea, the insufficiency of any but extraordinary men (such as Henry VIII, in the first instance) for the management and direction of extraordinary times—the success of the book must have taken its author by surprise. He was too intent upon his own aims and, also, in the right sense, too much of a man of the world, to pay much attention to either praise or blame; but, that a historical work of such amplitude should command the interest of a wide public, while Macaulay’s History was still in progress, and that a book which could not but offend many, and startle more, should sustain this interest throughout its voluminous course, was, certainly, a very uncommon literary experience. Beyond a doubt, the primary cause accounting for this result must be sought in the style and method of the writer. Froude’s style combined fullness of matter with charm of manner; for his study of original documents both at home and abroad (notably at Simancas) was most assiduous. His form of narrative was Herodotean rather than Thucydidean; but the British reading public, especially since its literary appetite has been fed largely on fiction, likes breadth of exposition, and Froude’s long paraphrases of original documents commended themselves to readers in search of the real. His method was, intentionally, the reverse of scientific; “there seems, indeed,” he wrote, “something incongruous in the very connection of such words as Science and History.” His own style, beyond a doubt, is all but irresistible to those who enjoy the union of facility of form with wealth of colouring; and in variety of invective he is unsurpassed, at least among writers whose good taste is only exceptionally overpowered by sentiment.

This is not the place in which to revive the memory of the attacks which, during its progress, were made upon Froude’s History, certainly one of the best-abused books of any age of literature. Besides long and severe charges of partisan misstatement, brought by representative historical writers against his treatment of the monasteries question and of other important topics, he was, from the first, exposed to a running fire of hostile criticism on the part of The Saturday Review; and, from 1864 onwards, these censures grew into a systematic assault, which even the friends of E. A. Freeman, who was mainly responsible for it, would have gladly seen brought to a speedier end. These attacks, which, excessive and, occasionally, even erroneous though they were, proved fatal to Froude’s reputation as a historian, had their origin, partly in differences of ecclesiastical opinion, but, mainly, in faults that were, or had become, engrained in his historical writing—looseness of statement, incorrectness of quotation and constant bias of opinion and sentiment. The true charge to be brought against him lies, not in his neglect of authorities, but in the perversity, conscious or unconscious, of his use of them. And this, again, was due, not so much to a preconceived partisanship, as to a conviction that the truth lay, away from popular notions, in the conclusions at which he had independently, and, sometimes, paradoxically, arrived. The uprightness of Henry VIII and the wickedness of those who stood in his way, or in that of that movement which Henry fitted into his policy, had to be proved coûte que coûte; and proved, in this sense, it was, to Froude’s own—and to Kingsley’s—satisfaction. Of Queen Elizabeth, in his later volumes, he declined to make a heroine; and, if they have a central figure, it is Burghley’s, unless it be Burghley’s archfoe, “far away” beyond the seas and mountains.

Froude’s later works on historical subjects did not add to his reputation as a historian; but nothing that he wrote could fail to attract attention, and little to provoke controversy. The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (1872–4) grew out of lectures delivered in America concerning a people whom, in a way, Froude liked, but on whose national life he looked with scornful bitterness. No other of his books met with more convincing rejoinders, among which Lecky’s is the most notable. His later Spanish studies on the topics of one of the earliest, and of one of the latest, episodes in his History, uphold the conclusions there reached. To the brief period of his Oxford professorship (in which, in 1892, he succeeded Freeman) belong The Life and Letters of Erasmus, English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century and The Council of Trent-(1894–6). The first-named of these, although good reading, both where it is Erasmus and where it is Froude, did not escape the usual fate of his writings.

Froude, whose productivity had never ceased either during or after his editorship of Fraser’s Magazine (1860–74)—most of his best occasional contributions to which are included in his delightful Short Studies (1867)—was, for many years, one of the most conspicuous figures in the English world of letters. In 1874, he definitely entered into that of politics. After his return to England, he continued to take an active interest in affairs, both Irish and colonial, and visited, in turn, the Australian colonies and the West Indies, describing both expeditions in books which caused almost as much ferment as anything previously written by him. But the chief literary productions of his later years were those bearing on his great friend and master, Carlyle. The second of these, his History of the first Forty Years of Carlyle’s Life, together with its predecessor, the History of Carlyle’s Life in London, remains, for better and for worse, one of the most interesting of English biographies.