Victorians Immense



p o r t i c o

Victorians Immense

Spencer Compton Cavendish (1833-1908) needs a new biography. This very eminent Victorian was one of the last great Whigs, liberally-minded aristocrats of great wealth who devoted themselves to public service. He died Eighth Duke of Devonshire, but for most of his political career he was known by the courtesy title given to heirs presumptive in the Cavendish clan, the Marquess of Hartington. He served in the House of Commons from 1857 until his father's death in 1891; thereafter, he was active in the House of Lords. As a commoner, he served in the first two of Gladstone's four governments. In 1880, indeed, it looked as though he might be Prime Minister. Gladstone's having 'abdicated' as head of the Liberal Party after the defeat of 1874, Queen Victoria asked Lord Hartington to form a government, but when Gladstone, enormously popular after his 'Bulgarian Atrocities' campaign, and the architect of the landslide that put Disraeli out of office, made it clear that he would not serve except as PM, Hartington had no choice but to decline. Gladstone and Hartington later parted company on the question of Irish Home Rule, and Hartington became head of the Liberal Unionists, a group that eventually merged with the Tories. Not without a sense of humor, and quite serious about his horses, Hartington has come down to us as a fairly dour, or at least unsmiling, exemplar of nineteenth-century gravitas. The possessor of great estates in England and Ireland (not to mention the three acres of Devonshire House in Piccadilly), he wore his wealth lightly. He was in love with somebody else's wife for quite a long time, but by the time the Duke of Manchester died and his widow could become the 'double duchess,' it was too late to have children. Lord Hartington, as political readers will persist in calling him, was succeeded by a nephew, grandfather of the present, Eleventh Duke.

Lord Hartington's was one of the lives that Lytton Strachey considered for inclusion in Eminent Victorians, a book that changed the shape of biography forever. Indeed, Strachey has lots to say about Hartington in connection with the catastrophe of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1885. Before I get to that, though, let's have a look at biography before Strachey's wrecking ball. I happen to have the second of two volumes of what my old Chambers Biographical Dictionary (1984) identifies as the authorized Life of Lord Hartington, by Bernard Holland, published in 1911. It is one of the most unfathomably dull books that I've ever met with. Narrative thrust is completely submerged in a molasses of transcribed letters, telegrams, memoirs, and other documents, few of them composed with our ideas of concision in mind. Volume II, as it happens, begins in 1884, when Gladstone's cabinet was squabbling over what to do about their headstrong maverick in Sudan. Holland presumably chronicles these debates at the end of Volume I; there is at any rate little evidence of them in the book at hand. Because the fall of Khartoum spelled the end of Gladstone's second government, it is odd that the relevant material is divided between the volumes. According to Roy Jenkins, the author of a much more recent and much more readable biography of Gladstone, there were three parties in the Cabinet: Gladstone's (do nothing), most of the others' (send a light relieving force), and Hartington's  (send a whopping big force). Hartington's intransigence may be said to have jammed the deliberative process and so doomed Gordon, whose fallen redoubt was relieved two days too late. In Eminent Victorians, Strachey combines heavy irony with boy's-own-adventure writing to produce an account that can't be put down, no matter how wearying Iabinet debates might seem. In Holland's hands, conversely, history can't breathe.  In the forty-odd pages of a chapter devoted to 'The Nile War,' running from the fall of Khartoum to the fall of Gladstone's government, I count fewer than twenty-five paragraphs longer than three sentences of which Holland is the principal author. He seems not to think it his job to summarize and reflect upon the mass of papers before him. I don't accuse him of laziness; he clearly believes that we'll be grateful for the immediacy and authenticity of the historical actors' actual words. But the emphasis on words leaves everything else out. Of course Holland comes out against Gladstone, but his judgment seems a partisan inevitability, as if to ask who would think of writing the life of Lord Hartington who did not also regard Gladstone as a meretricious impediment to the success that Hartington deserved. As for Lord Hartington himself, Holland is so discrete, so non-invasive, that we might well imagine the Duke to be in the very room with us.  Holland's Life, in short, has been the Death of Hartington.

Because Strachey's principle objective in writing Eminent Victorians was clearly to demythologize pious legends, we might suppose that he decided against savaging Lord Hartington because the man was really what he appeared to be.  This indeed is the thrust of the ancillary portrait of Hartington that appears in the essay on General Gordon. Exaggerating, perhaps, Lord Hartington's popularity among his countrymen, Strachey writes,

It was not simply that he was honest: it was that his honesty was an English honesty - an honesty which naturally belonged to one who, so it seemed to them, was the living image of what an Englishmen should be. In Lord Hartington they saw, embodied and glorified, the very qualities which were nearest to their hearts - impartiality, solidity, common sense - the qualities by which they themselves longed to be distinguished, and by which, in their happier moments, they believed they were.  ...  Above all, they loved him for being dull. It was the greatest comfort - with Lord Hartington they could always be absolutely certain that he would never, in any circumstances, be either brilliant, or subtle, or surprising, or impassioned, or profound.

The humor here is at the expense of Victorian Englishmen generally, not that of the man they admired. It is only after the beautifully-timed parade of mock-heroics that Strachey stings Lord Hartington himself.

One other characteristic - the necessary consequence, or, indeed, it might almost be said, the essential expression, of all the res - completes the portrait: Lord Hartington was slow.

The favorable word for Lord Hartington's pace would be deliberate, but Strachey is not about to let the Victorians be judged on their own terms. If Hartington's being slow did not actually cause the disaster at Khartoum, it certainly failed to prevent it - by two days.

If [Hartington] had been even a very little quicker - if he had been quicker by two days ... but it could not be. The ponderous machinery took so long to set itself in motion; the great wheels and levers, once started, revolved with such a laborious, such a painful deliberation, that at last their work was accomplished - surely, firmly, completely, in the best English manner, and too late.

This is one of the true climaxes of Eminent Victorians. Strachey's grand passage, orotund but ironic, presents the era that he wishes to discredit as splendidly ineffectual. Lord Hartington incarnates both the splendor and the futility. But the real reason why he couldn't take a place among the four principal victims of Eminent Victorians. Unlike Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon, Spencer Compton Cavendish was no egomaniac. On the contrary, he appears to have been rather self-effacing, or at least far more interested in his thoroughbreds and prize pigs - and in public affairs - than he was in himself. Perhaps he was simply too genuinely grand to have an ego. He was in any case a model Victorian. Strachey's subjects were all, in their different ways, magnificent frauds.

Nearly half of Eminent Victorians goes to Henry Manning, the noted convert to Rome and eventual cardinal. We're much more familiar with John Henry Newman, another noted convert who became a cardinal - but only when he was too old to interfere with Manning's ambitions, which came to be set upon the Triple Crown itself. Both men began started out at Oxford, training to become Anglican divines. Newman's drift to the Mother Church was reluctant, but straightforward compared to Manning's, which was always clouded by worldly considerations. Eventually, Manning broke with the Church of England because of its position on Baptism - a position the intricacies of which Strachey sets forth with gleeful contempt - but unlike Newman, who was more interested in God than in Rome, Manning lost very little ground in the transition. Once he accepted Rome's view of his priesthood - that, Anglican divine or no, he would have to be ordained once again, this time by the True Church - he was put on the fast track for red hats. Why? Because Manning not only supported the grandiose embellishments - papal infallibility the most notorious among them - of Pius IX, but showed no timidity about making personal use of them.

The precise details of what followed are doubtful. It is only possible to discern with clearness, amid a vast cloud of official documents and unofficial correspondences in English, Italian, and Latin, of Papal decrees and voluminous scritture, of confidential reports of episcopal whispers and the secret agitations of Cardinals, the form of Manning, restless and indomitable, scouring like a stormy petrel the angry ocean of debate. [Cardinal] Wiseman, dilatory, unbusinesslike, and infirm, was ready enough to leave the conduct of affairs in his hands. Nor was it long before Manning saw where the key of the whole position lay. As in the old days, at Chichester, he had secured the goodwill of Bishop Shuttleworth by cultivating the friendship of Archdeacon Hare, so now, on this vaster scale of operations, his sagacity led him swiftly and unerringly up the little winding staircase in the Vatican and through the humble door which opened into the cabinet of Monsignor Talbot, the private secretary of the Pope.

This is great fun. (It was Cardinal Wiseman, reproached by a more austere co-religionist for his 'lobster salad side,' who was called 'Immense' by an Irish servant, not, as I read recently, Manning. Manning was a scarecrow.) For all the piety of his respect for doctrine, Manning is revealed as a power-mad plotter - what could be more sinister than that "little winding staircase"? It is perhaps not very reliable biography, because it is certainly not objective, but its insistence that lives be made to tell an interesting story would become the hallmark of first-rate biography ever after. In one blow, Strachey brought down both the hypocritical self-importance that still makes Victorian England seem an unventilated place and the stillborn efforts of hagiographers like Bernard Holland.

Here is Strachey's acid assessment of the motivation behind Manning's conversion.

When Manning joined the Church of Rome he acted under the combined impulse of the two dominating forces in his nature. His preoccupation with the supernatural might, alone, have been satisfied within the fold of the Anglican communion; and so might his preoccupation with himself: the one might have found vent in the elaborations of Church ritual, and the other in the activities of a bishopric. But the two together could not be quieted so easily. The Church of England is a commodious insitution; she is very anxious to please; but, somehow or other, she has never managed to supply a happy home to superstitious egoists.

This is magnificently damning, consigning all of Rome along with Manning to ridicule. Strachey takes an entirely different tack with his next target, Florence Nightingale. No less egotistical than Manning, Miss Nightingale may be said to have accomplished a great deal more in the betterment of man's earthly lot. Everybody knows that this well-born young lady (well, not so young) single-handedly obliged the Pooh-Bahs of the day into sending her off to the Crimean War, where she invented what she called "trained nursing" and reformed the operation of hospitals. This was largely a matter of open windows and regular laundry, but it was a great novelty at the time, and it certainly saved many lives. (It is interesting to note that Nightingale was a contemporary of Isaac von Semmelweis, the Viennese doctor who established the connection between unwashed hands and puerperal fever. Neither of them knew anything about microbes; Nightingale would doubt their existence down to her dying day.) Strachey makes no effort to deflate Nightingale's reputation for Doing Good. What he wants to puncture is the popular conception of a mildly ministering angel.

She was heroic; and these were the humble tributes paid by those of a grosser mould to that high quality. Certainly, she was heroic. Yet her heroism was not of that simple sort so dear to the readers of novels and the compilers of hagiologies - the romantic sentimental heroism with which mankind loves to invest its chosen darlings: it was made of sterner stuff. To the wounded soldier on his couch of agony she  might well appear in the guise of a gracious angel of mercy; but the military surgeons, and the orderlies, and her own nurses, and the 'Purveyor,' and Dr Hall, and even Lord Stratford himself could tell a different story. It was not by gentle sweetness and womanly self-abnegation that she had brought order out of chaos in the Scutari hospitals, that, from her own resources, she had clothed the British Army, that she had spread her dominion over the serried and reluctant powers of the official world; it was by strict method, by stern discipline, by rigid attention to detail, by ceaseless labour, by the fixed determination of an indomitable will. Beneath her cool and calm demeanor lurked fierce and passionate fires.

And what Strachey gives us, in the end, is the picture of a woman reduced to invalidism by these heroic exploits and disbarred by her sex from direct participation in public affairs who nonetheless, from a bedroom in Mayfair, continued, for fifty years, to serve the public. 

In Miss Nightingale's own eyes the adventure of the Crimea was but an incident - scarcely more than a useful stepping-stone in her career. It was the fulcrum with which she hoped to move the world, but it was only the fulcrum. For more than a generation she was to sit in secret, working her lever: and her real life began at the very moment when, in the popular imagination, it had ended.

This version of the story of Florence Nightingale, for readers in 1918, could not help but sound a plea for the emancipation of women - or at least for their uncorseting. The deformations of character that Strachey outlines would have been avoided if Nightingale could have had the liberty of a man's career. Well, perhaps. Perhaps only an obsessive personality could have cleaned the War Office's Augaean stables.

Strachey then moves on to skewer Dr Thomas Arnold, famous for reforming Rugby School and setting the patter for all English public (i.e., private) schools. This is the shortest of the four studies, but then Dr Arnold's was the shortest life. It comes as no surprise that the author has little sympathy for the headmaster. Neither a Catholic nor a soldier, Strachey did have some experience of Dr Arnold's improvements, and he does his best to show that they fell far short of their goals. "On the one hand, there was a desire for a more liberal curriculum; on the other, there was a demand for a higher moral tone." Arnold's achievement was mostly show.

In the actual sphere of teaching, Dr Arnold's reforms were tentative and few. He introduced modern history, modern languages, and mathematics into the school curriculum, but the results were not encouraging. He devoted to the teaching of history one hour a week, yet, though he took care to inculcate in these lessons a wholesome hatred of moral evil, and to point out from time to time the indications of the providential government of the world, his pupils never seemed to make much progress in the subject. could it have been that the time allotted to it was insufficient. Dr Arnold had some suspici0ns that this might be the case.

But he had no intention of dethroning the study of Greek and Latin, which had always been at the heart of English schooling. Nor was his work toward moral improvement much more effective; all it seemed to do was to cast a gloss of insincere religiosity over the life of the  school. This isn't reform, but reinforcement.

For this purpose, the system, prevalent in most of the public schools of the day, by which the elder boys were deputed to keep order in the class-rooms, lay ready to Dr Arnold's hand. He found the 'Praepostor' a mere disciplinary convenience, and he converted him into an organ of government. Every boy in the Sixth Form became ipso facto a Praepostor, with powers extending over every department of school life; and the Sixth Form as a body was erected into an authority responsible to the headmaster, and to the headmaster alone, for the internal management of the school.

What Dr Arnold might see as muscular Christianity was really so much bullying.

The younger children, scourged both by Dr Arnold and b the elder children, were given every opportunity of acquiring the simplicity, sobriety, and humbleness of mind which are the best ornaments of youth.

That's worthy of Jane Austen. Arnold's accomplishment seems to have amounted to little more than taking all the fun out of school.

About the final study, which, far from being a Life, is entitled 'The End of General Gordon,' I will say little. To the egotism and self-assurance of Strachey's other subjects, General Gordon adds a dash of madness, or at least of colossal recklessness. An overgrown boy scout ante lettera, he was a such a wonderful symbol of British imperialism because he died fighting against an adversary who, by the way, bears more than a passing resemblance to Osama bin Laden. He was like the Captain of the Titanic, going down with the ship he had so unthinkingly endangered. Talk about ineffectual splendor! 'The End of General Gordon' is the one study that ought to be read, if you're only going to read one. While Gordon clashes with the Mahdi, while the Cabinet clashes with itself, and while Victoria gnashes her teeth, Strachey fights the bombastic egoism of his parents' and his grandparents' generations, a blindness that led directly to the slaughter of his own. His weapons are the sharpest of wits and a ready eye for the self-incriminating. That he won the fight on behalf of  the War's survivors, is proved by the collapse of Victorian reputations generally that persisted for most of the Twentieth Century. We take a broader, rounder view of the Victorian world; we remind ourselves that the Queen herself was the lustiest of wives - so long as her husband lived. But that it was an era prone to crushing perfectionism - and crushing ponderousness - will never be forgotten so long as Eminent Victorians has the readers it deserves. (March 2004)

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