Anthony Froude: New Biography of the Victorian Sage

Historians in the News

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 blasé 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.

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