History of Literature

English literature



The Old English period

The early Middle English period

The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods

The Renaissance period: 1550–1660

Elizabethan and early Stuart drama

Effect of religion and science on early Stuart prose

The Restoration

The 18th century

The 18th century. The novel

The Romantic period

The later Romantics

The Post-Romantic and Victorian eras

Late Victorian literature

The 20th century. The Modernist revolution

The literature of World War I and the interwar period

Literature after 1945. Fiction. Poetry

Literature after 1945. Drama. The 21st century



English literature


The Post-Romantic and Victorian eras


Thomas Carlyle
Algernon Charles Swinburne

Charles Dickens
"Great Expectations"
William Makepeace Thackeray
Elizabeth Gaskell
Frances Trollope
Benjamin Disraeli
Charles Kingsley

Anne Brontë
Charlotte Bronte 
"Jane Eyre"    CHAPTER I-XXIV, CHAPTER XXV-XXXVIII Illustrations by F. H. Townsend
Emily Brontë

Alfred Tennyson "Idylls of the King"  PART I, PART II   Illustrations by G. Dore
"Lady of Shalott", "Sir Galahad"
Pre-Raphaelite illustrations for Moxon's Tennyson

Arthur Hallam
Robert Browning  "Dramatic Romances"
Elizabeth Barrett Browning 
"Sonnets from the Portuguese"
Matthew Arnold
Arthur Hugh Clough
John Ruskin  "The King of the Golden River" 
Illustrations by Maria L. Kirk
John Henry Newman
Bernard Bosanquet

F. H. Bradley
T. H. Green
Herbert Spencer
Alfred North Whitehead



Self-consciousness was the quality that John Stuart Mill identified, in 1838, as “the daemon of the men of genius of our time.” Introspection was inevitable in the literature of an immediately Post-Romantic period, and the age itself was as prone to self-analysis as were its individual authors. Hazlitt’s essays in The Spirit of the Age (1825) were echoed by Mill’s articles of the same title in 1831, by Thomas Carlyle’s essays Signs of the Times (1829) and Characteristics (1831), and by Richard Henry Horne’s New Spirit of the Age in 1844.

This persistent scrutiny was the product of an acute sense of change. Britain had emerged from the long war with France (1793–1815) as a great power and as the world’s predominant economy. Visiting England in 1847, the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson observed of the English that “the modern world is theirs. They have made and make it day by day.”

This new status as the world’s first urban and industrialized society was responsible for the extraordinary wealth, vitality, and self-confidence of the period. Abroad these energies expressed themselves in the growth of the British Empire. At home they were accompanied by rapid social change and fierce intellectual controversy.

The juxtaposition of this new industrial wealth with a new kind of urban poverty is only one of the paradoxes that characterize this long and diverse period. In religion the climax of the Evangelical revival coincided with an unprecedentedly severe set of challenges to faith. The idealism and transcendentalism of Romantic thought were challenged by the growing prestige of empirical science and utilitarian moral philosophy, a process that encouraged more-objective modes in literature. Realism would be one of the great artistic movements of the era. In politics a widespread commitment to economic and personal freedom was, nonetheless, accompanied by a steady growth in the power of the state. The prudery for which the Victorian Age is notorious in fact went hand in hand with an equally violent immoralism, seen, for example, in Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poetry or the writings of the Decadents. Most fundamentally of all, the rapid change that many writers interpreted as progress inspired in others a fierce nostalgia. Enthusiastic rediscoveries of ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and, especially, the Middle Ages by writers, artists, architects, and designers made this age of change simultaneously an age of active and determined historicism.

John Stuart Mill caught this contradictory quality, with characteristic acuteness, in his essays on Jeremy Bentham (1838) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840). Every contemporary thinker, he argued, was indebted to these two “seminal minds.” Yet Bentham, as the enduring voice of the Enlightenment, and Coleridge, as the chief English example of the Romantic reaction against it, held diametrically opposed views.

A similar sense of sharp controversy is given by Carlyle in Sartor Resartus (1833–34). An eccentric philosophical fiction in the tradition of Swift and Sterne, the book argues for a new mode of spirituality in an age that Carlyle himself suggests to be one of mechanism. Carlyle’s choice of the novel form and the book’s humour, generic flexibility, and political engagement point forward to distinctive characteristics of Victorian literature.


Thomas Carlyle

born Dec. 4, 1795, Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, Scot.
died Feb. 5, 1881, London, Eng.

British historian and essayist, whose major works include The French Revolution, 3 vol. (1837), On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), and The History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great, 6 vol. (1858–65).

Early life.
Carlyle was the second son of James Carlyle, the eldest child of his second marriage. James Carlyle was a mason by trade and, later, a small farmer, a man of profound Calvinist convictions whose character and way of life had a profound and lasting influence on his son. Carlyle was equally devoted to his mother as well as to his eight brothers and sisters, and his strong affection for his family never diminished.

After attending the village school at Ecclefechan, Thomas was sent in 1805 to Annan Academy, where he apparently suffered from bullying, and later to the University of Edinburgh (1809), where he read widely but followed no precise line of study. His father had intended him to enter the ministry, but Thomas became increasingly doubtful of his vocation. He had an aptitude for mathematics, and in 1814 he obtained a mathematical teaching post at Annan. In 1816 he went to another school, at Kirkcaldy, where the Scottish preacher and mystic Edward Irving was teaching. He became one of the few men to whom Carlyle gave complete admiration and affection. “But for Irving,” Carlyle commented sometime later, “I had never known what communion of man with man means.” Their friendship continued even after Irving moved in 1822 to London, where he became famous as a preacher.

The next years were hard for Carlyle. Teaching did not suit him and he abandoned it. In December 1819 he returned to Edinburgh University to study law, and there he spent three miserable years, lonely, unable to feel certain of any meaning in life, and eventually abandoning the idea of entering the ministry. He did a little coaching (tutoring) and journalism, was poor and isolated, and was conscious of intense spiritual struggles. About 1821 he experienced a kind of conversion, which he described some years later in fictionalized account in Sartor Resartus, whose salient feature was that it was negative—hatred of the devil, not love of God, being the dominating idea. Though it may be doubted whether everything was really experienced as he described it, this violence is certainly characteristic of Carlyle’s tortured and defiant spirit. In those lean years he began his serious study of German, which always remained the literature he most admired and enjoyed. For Goethe, especially, he had the greatest reverence, and he published a translation, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, in 1824. Meanwhile, he led a nomadic life, holding several brief tutorships at Edinburgh, Dunkeld, and elsewhere.

On Oct. 17, 1826, Carlyle married Jane Welsh, an intelligent, attractive, and somewhat temperamental daughter of a well-to-do doctor in Haddington. Welsh had been one of Irving’s pupils, and she and Carlyle had known one another for five years. The hesitations and financial worries that beset them are recorded in their letters. It is interesting that Carlyle, usually so imperious, often adopted a weak, pleading tone to his future wife during the time of courtship, though this did not prevent him from being a masterful, difficult, and irritable husband; and, in spite of their strong mutual affection, their marriage was full of quarrels and misunderstandings. Those who knew him best believed Carlyle to be impotent.

In the early years of their marriage the Carlyles lived mostly at Craigenputtock, Dumfriesshire, and Carlyle contributed to the Edinburgh Review and worked on Sartor Resartus. Though this book eventually achieved great popular success, he had at first much difficulty in finding a publisher for it. Written with mingled bitterness and humour, it is a fantastic hodgepodge of autobiography and German philosophy. Its main theme is that the intellectual forms in which men’s deepest convictions have been cast are dead and that new ones must be found to fit the time but that the intellectual content of this new religious system is elusive. Its author speaks of “embodying the Divine Spirit of religion in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture,” but he never says very clearly what the new vesture is to be.

In 1834, after failing to obtain several posts he had desired, Carlyle moved to London with his wife and settled in Cheyne Row. Though he had not earned anything by his writings for more than a year and was fearful of the day when his savings would be exhausted, he refused to compromise but began an ambitious historical work, The French Revolution. The story of how the partially completed manuscript was lent to J.S. Mill and accidentally burned is well known. After the accident Carlyle wrote to Mill in a generous, almost gay, tone, which is truly remarkable when Carlyle’s ambition, his complete dependence upon a successful literary career, his poverty, the months of wasted work, and his habitual melancholy and irritability are considered. The truth seems to be that he could bear grand and terrible trials more easily than petty annoyances. His habitual, frustrated melancholy arose, in part, from the fact that his misfortunes were not serious enough to match his tragic view of life; and he sought relief in intensive historical research, choosing subjects in which divine drama, lacking in his own life, seemed most evident. His book on the French Revolution is perhaps his greatest achievement. After the loss of the manuscript he worked furiously at rewriting it. It was finished early in 1837 and soon won both serious acclaim and popular success, besides bringing him many invitations to lecture, thus solving his financial difficulties.

True to his idea of history as a “Divine Scripture,” Carlyle saw the French Revolution as an inevitable judgment upon the folly and selfishness of the monarchy and nobility. This simple idea was backed with an immense mass of well-documented detail and, at times, a memorable skill in sketching character. The following extract is characteristic of the contorted, fiery, and doom-laden prose, which is alternately colloquial, humorous, and grim:

. . . an august Assembly spread its pavilion; curtained by the dark infinite of discords; founded on the wavering bottomless of the Abyss; and keeps continual hubbub. Time is around it, and Eternity, and the Inane; and it does what it can, what is given it to do (part 2, book 3, ch. 3).

Though many readers were thrilled by the drama of the narrative, it is not surprising that they were puzzled by Carlyle’s prophetic harangues and their relevance to the contemporary situation.

In Chartism (1840) he appeared as a bitter opponent of conventional economic theory, but the radical-progressive and the reactionary elements were curiously blurred and mingled. With the publication of On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) his reverence for strength, particularly when combined with the conviction of a God-given mission, began to emerge. He discussed the hero as divinity (pagan myths), as prophet (Muḥammad), as poet (Dante and Shakespeare), as priest (Luther and Knox), as man of letters (Johnson and Burns), and as king (Cromwell and Napoleon). It is perhaps in his treatment of poets that Carlyle shows to the best advantage. Perverse though he could be, he was never at the mercy of fashion; and he saw much more, particularly in Dante, than others did. Two years later this idea of the hero was elaborated in Past and Present, which strove “to penetrate . . . into a somewhat remote century . . . in hope of perhaps illustrating our own poor century thereby.” He contrasts the wise and strong rule of a medieval abbot with the muddled softness and chaos of the 19th century, pronouncing in favour of the former, in spite of the fact that he had rejected dogmatic Christianity and had a special aversion to the Roman Catholic Church.

It was natural that Carlyle should turn to Cromwell as the greatest English example of his ideal man and should produce the bulky Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches. With Elucidations in 1845. His next important work was Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), in which the savage side of his nature was particularly prominent. In the essay on model prisons, for instance, he tried to persuade the public that the most brutal and useless sections of the population were being coddled in the new prisons of the 19th century. Though incapable of lying, Carlyle was completely unreliable as an observer, since he invariably saw what he had decided in advance that he ought to see.

In 1857 he embarked on a massive study of another of his heroes, Frederick the Great, and The History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great appeared between 1858 and 1865. Something of his political attitude at this time can be gathered from a letter written in April 1855 to the exiled Russian revolutionary A.I. Herzen, in which he says “I never had, and have now (if it were possible) less than ever, the least hope in ‘Universal Suffrage’ under any of its modifications” and refers to “the sheer Anarchy (as I reckon it sadly to be) which is got by ‘Parliamentary eloquence,’ Free Press, and counting of heads” (quoted from E.H. Carr, The Romantic Exiles).

Unfortunately, Carlyle was never able to respect ordinary men. Here, perhaps, rather than in any historical doubts about the veracity of the gospels, was the core of his quarrel with Christianity—it set too much value on the weak and sinful. His fierceness of spirit was composed of two elements, a serious Calvinistic desire to denounce evil and a habitual nervous ill temper, for which he often reproached himself but which he never managed to defeat.

Last years.
In 1865 he was offered the rectorship of Edinburgh University. The speech that he delivered at his installation in April 1866 was not very remarkable in itself but its tone of high moral exhortation made it an immediate success. It was published in 1866 under the title On the Choice of Books. Soon after his triumph in Edinburgh, Jane Carlyle died suddenly in London. She was buried in Haddington, and an epitaph by her husband was placed in the church. Carlyle never completely recovered from her death. He lived another 15 years, weary, bored, and a partial recluse. A few public causes gained his support: he was active in the defense of Gov. E.J. Eyre of Jamaica, who was dismissed for his severity in putting down a black uprising in 1865. Carlyle commended him for “saving the West Indies and hanging one incendiary mulatto, well worth gallows, if I can judge.” He was excited by the Franco-German War (1870–71), saying “Germany ought to be President of Europe,” but such enthusiastic moments soon faded. In these last years he wrote little. His history The Early Kings of Norway: Also an Essay on the Portraits of John Knox came out in 1875, and Reminiscences was published in 1881. Later he edited his wife’s letters, which appeared in 1883 under the title Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle, Prepared for Publication by Thomas Carlyle. Although Westminster Abbey was offered for his burial, he was buried, according to his wish, beside his parents at Ecclefechan.

A.O.J. Cockshut



Algernon Charles Swinburne

born April 5, 1837, London
died April 10, 1909, Putney, London

English poet and critic, outstanding for prosodic innovations and noteworthy as the symbol of mid-Victorian poetic revolt. The characteristic qualities of his verse are insistent alliteration, unflagging rhythmic energy, sheer melodiousness, great variation of pace and stress, effortless expansion of a given theme, and evocative if rather imprecise use of imagery. His poetic style is highly individual and his command of word-colour and word-music striking. Swinburne’s technical gifts and capacity for prosodic invention were extraordinary, but too often his poems’ remorseless rhythms have a narcotic effect, and he has been accused of paying more attention to the melody of words than to their meaning. Swinburne was pagan in his sympathies and passionately antitheist. Swinburne’s biography of John Keats appeared in the ninth edition of the Encyclopędia Britannica (see the Britannica Classic: John Keats).

Swinburne’s father was an admiral, and his mother was a daughter of the 3rd Earl of Ashburnham. He attended Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, which he left in 1860 without taking a degree. There he met William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti and was attracted to their Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. An allowance from his father enabled him to follow a literary career.

In 1861 he met Richard Monckton Milnes (later Lord Houghton), who encouraged his writing and fostered his reputation. In the early 1860s Swinburne apparently suffered from an unhappy love affair about which little is known. Literary success came with the verse drama Atalanta in Calydon (1865), in which he attempted to re-create in English the spirit and form of Greek tragedy; his lyric powers are at their finest in this work. Atalanta was followed by the first series of Poems and Ballads in 1866, which clearly display Swinburne’s preoccupation with masochism, flagellation, and paganism. This volume contains some of his finest poems, among them “Dolores” and “The Garden of Proserpine.” The book was vigorously attacked for its “feverish carnality”—Punch referred to the poet as “Mr. Swineborn”—though it was enthusiastically welcomed by the younger generation. In 1867 Swinburne met his idol, Giuseppe Mazzini, and the poetry collection Songs Before Sunrise (1871), which is principally concerned with the theme of political liberty, shows the influence of that Italian patriot. The second series of Poems and Ballads, less hectic and sensual than the first, appeared in 1878.

During this time Swinburne’s health was being undermined by alcoholism and by the excesses resulting from his abnormal temperament and masochistic tendencies; he experienced periodic fits of intense nervous excitement, from which, however, his remarkable powers of recuperation long enabled him to recover quickly. In 1879 he collapsed completely and was rescued and restored to health by his friend Theodore Watts-Dunton. The last 30 years of his life were spent at The Pines, Putney, under the guardianship of Watts-Dunton, who maintained a strict regimen and encouraged Swinburne to devote himself to writing. Swinburne eventually became a figure of respectability and adopted reactionary views. He published 23 volumes of poetry, prose, and drama during these years, but, apart from the long poem Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) and the verse tragedy Marino Faliero (1885), his most important poetry belongs to the first half of his life.

Swinburne was also an important and prolific English literary critic of the later 19th century. Among his best critical writings are Essays and Studies (1875) and his monographs on William Shakespeare (1880), Victor Hugo (1886), and Ben Jonson (1889). His devotion to Shakespeare and his unrivaled knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama are reflected in his early play Chastelard (1865). The latter work was the first of a trilogy on Mary, queen of Scots, who held a peculiar fascination for him; Bothwell (1874) and Mary Stuart (1881) followed. He also wrote on William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Charles Baudelaire, and his elegy on the latter, Ave Atque Vale (1867–68), is among his finest works.

Early Victorian literature: the age of the novel

Several major figures of English Romanticism lived on into this period.
Coleridge died in 1834, De Quincey in 1859. Wordsworth succeeded Southey as poet laureate in 1843 and held the post until his own death seven years later. Posthumous publication caused some striking chronological anomalies. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry was not published until 1840. Keats’s letters appeared in 1848 and Wordsworth’s Prelude in 1850.

Despite this persistence, critics of the 1830s felt that there had been a break in the English literary tradition, which they identified with the death of Byron in 1824. The deaths of Austen in 1817 and Scott in 1832 should perhaps have been seen as even more significant, for the new literary era has, with justification, been seen as the age of the novel. More than 60,000 works of prose fiction were published in Victorian Britain by as many as 7,000 novelists. The three-volume format (or “three-decker”) was the standard mode of first publication; it was a form created for sale to and circulation by lending libraries. It was challenged in the 1830s by the advent of serialization in magazines and by the publication of novels in 32-page monthly parts. But only in the 1890s did the three-decker finally yield to the modern single-volume format.


Charles Dickens first attracted attention with the descriptive essays and tales originally written for newspapers, beginning in 1833, and collected as Sketches by “Boz” (1836). On the strength of this volume, Dickens contracted to write a historical novel in the tradition of
Scott (eventually published as Barnaby Rudge in 1841). By chance his gifts were turned into a more distinctive channel. In February 1836 he agreed to write the text for a series of comic engravings. The unexpected result was The Pickwick Papers (1836–37), one of the funniest novels in English literature. By July 1837, sales of the monthly installments exceeded 40,000 copies. Dickens’s extraordinary popular appeal and the enormous imaginative potential of the Victorian novel were simultaneously established.

The chief technical features of Dickens’s fiction were also formed by this success. Serial publication encouraged the use of multiple plot and required that each episode be individually shaped. At the same time it produced an unprecedentedly close relationship between author and reader. Part dramatist, part journalist, part mythmaker, and part wit, Dickens took the picaresque tradition of Smollett and Fielding and gave it a Shakespearean vigour and variety.

His early novels have been attacked at times for sentimentality, melodrama, or shapelessness. They are now increasingly appreciated for their comic or macabre zest and their poetic fertility. Dombey and Son (1846–48) marks the beginning of Dickens’s later period. He thenceforth combined his gift for vivid caricature with a stronger sense of personality, designed his plots more carefully, and used symbolism to give his books greater thematic coherence. Of the masterpieces of the next decade, David Copperfield (1849–50) uses the form of a fictional autobiography to explore the great Romantic theme of the growth and comprehension of the self. Bleak House (1852–53) addresses itself to law and litigiousness; Hard Times (1854) is a Carlylean defense of art in an age of mechanism; and Little Dorrit (1855–57) dramatizes the idea of imprisonment, both literal and spiritual. Two great novels, both involved with issues of social class and human worth, appeared in the 1860s: Great Expectations (1860–61) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–65). His final book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (published posthumously, 1870), was left tantalizingly uncompleted at the time of his death.

"Dickens' Dream" by R.W. Buss


Charles Dickens

"Great Expectations"


Illustrations by John McLenan

British novelist
in full Charles John Huffam Dickens
born Feb. 7, 1812, Portsmouth, Hampshire, Eng.
died June 9, 1870, Gad’s Hill, near Chatham, Kent

British novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian period.

The defining moment of Dickens’s life occurred when he was 12 years old. With his father in debtors’ prison, he was withdrawn from school and forced to work in a factory. This deeply affected the sensitive boy. Though he returned to school at 13, his formal education ended at 15. As a young man, he worked as a reporter. His fiction career began with short pieces reprinted as Sketches by “Boz” (1836). He exhibited a great ability to spin a story in an entertaining manner and this quality, combined with the serialization of his comic novel The Pickwick Papers (1837), made him the most popular English author of his time. The serialization of such works as Oliver Twist (1838) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) followed. After a trip to America, he wrote A Christmas Carol (1843) in a few weeks. With Dombey and Son (1848), his novels began to express a heightened uneasiness about the evils of Victorian industrial society, which intensified in the semiautobiographical David Copperfield (1850), as well as in Bleak House (1853), Little Dorrit (1857), Great Expectations (1861), and others. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) appeared in the period when he achieved great popularity for his public readings. Dickens’s works are characterized by an encyclopaedic knowledge of London, pathos, a vein of the macabre, a pervasive spirit of benevolence and geniality, inexhaustible powers of character creation, an acute ear for characteristic speech, and a highly individual and inventive prose style.

English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian era. His many volumes include such works as A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend.

Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity than had any previous author during his lifetime. Much in his work could appeal to simple and sophisticated, to the poor and to the Queen, and technological developments as well as the qualities of his work enabled his fame to spread worldwide very quickly. His long career saw fluctuations in the reception and sales of individual novels, but none of them was negligible or uncharacteristic or disregarded, and, though he is now admired for aspects and phases of his work that were given less weight by his contemporaries, his popularity has never ceased and his present critical standing is higher than ever before. The most abundantly comic of English authors, he was much more than a great entertainer. The range, compassion, and intelligence of his apprehension of his society and its shortcomings enriched his novels and made him both one of the great forces in 19th-century literature and an influential spokesman of the conscience of his age.

Early years
Dickens left Portsmouth in infancy. His happiest childhood years were spent in Chatham (1817–22), an area to which he often reverts in his fiction. From 1822 he lived in London, until, in 1860, he moved permanently to a country house, Gad’s Hill, near Chatham. His origins were middle class, if of a newfound and precarious respectability; one grandfather had been a domestic servant, and the other an embezzler. His father, a clerk in the navy pay office, was well paid, but his extravagance and ineptitude often brought the family to financial embarrassment or disaster. (Some of his failings and his ebullience are dramatized in Mr. Micawber in the partly autobiographical David Copperfield.) In 1824 the family reached bottom. Charles, the eldest son, had been withdrawn from school and was now set to manual work in a factory, and his father went to prison for debt. These shocks deeply affected Charles. Though abhorring this brief descent into the working class, he began to gain that sympathetic knowledge of their life and privations that informed his writings. Also, the images of the prison and of the lost, oppressed, or bewildered child recur in many novels. Much else in his character and art stems from this period, including, as the 20th-century novelist Angus Wilson has argued, his later difficulty, as man and author, in understanding women: this may be traced to his bitter resentment against his mother, who had, he felt, failed disastrously at this time to appreciate his sufferings. She had wanted him to stay at work when his father’s release from prison and an improvement in the family’s fortunes made the boy’s return to school possible. Happily the father’s view prevailed.

His schooling, interrupted and unimpressive, ended at 15. He became a clerk in a solicitor’s office, then a shorthand reporter in the lawcourts (thus gaining a knowledge of the legal world often used in the novels), and finally, like other members of his family, a parliamentary and newspaper reporter. These years left him with a lasting affection for journalism and contempt both for the law and for Parliament. His coming to manhood in the reformist 1830s, and particularly his working on the Liberal Benthamite Morning Chronicle (1834–36), greatly affected his political outlook. Another influential event now was his rejection as suitor to Maria Beadnell because his family and prospects were unsatisfactory; his hopes of gaining and chagrin at losing her sharpened his determination to succeed. His feelings about Maria then and at her later brief and disillusioning reentry into his life are reflected in David Copperfield’s adoration of Dora Spenlow and in the middle-aged Arthur Clennam’s discovery (in Little Dorrit) that Flora Finching, who had seemed enchanting years ago, was “diffuse and silly,” that Flora “whom he had left a lily, had become a peony.”

Early years » Beginning of literary career
Much drawn to the theatre, Dickens nearly became a professional actor in 1832. In 1833 he began contributing stories and descriptive essays to magazines and newspapers; these attracted attention and were reprinted as Sketches by “Boz” (February 1836). The same month, he was invited to provide a comic serial narrative to accompany engravings by a well-known artist; seven weeks later the first installment of Pickwick Papers appeared. Within a few months Pickwick was the rage and Dickens the most popular author of the day. During 1836 he also wrote two plays and a pamphlet on a topical issue (how the poor should be allowed to enjoy the Sabbath) and, resigning from his newspaper job, undertook to edit a monthly magazine, Bentley’s Miscellany, in which he serialized Oliver Twist (1837–39). Thus, he had two serial installments to write every month. Already the first of his nine surviving children had been born; he had married (in April 1836) Catherine, eldest daughter of a respected Scottish journalist and man of letters, George Hogarth.

For several years his life continued at this intensity. Finding serialization congenial and profitable, he repeated the Pickwick pattern of 20 monthly parts in Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39); then he experimented with shorter weekly installments for The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41) and Barnaby Rudge (1841). Exhausted at last, he then took a five-month vacation in America, touring strenuously and receiving quasi-royal honours as a literary celebrity but offending national sensibilities by protesting against the absence of copyright protection. A radical critic of British institutions, he had expected more from “the republic of my imagination,” but he found more vulgarity and sharp practice to detest than social arrangements to admire. Some of these feelings appear in American Notes (1842) and Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44).

Early years » First novels
His writing during these prolific years was remarkably various and, except for his plays, resourceful. Pickwick began as high-spirited farce and contained many conventional comic butts and traditional jokes; like other early works, it was manifestly indebted to the contemporary theatre, the 18th-century English novelists, and a few foreign classics, notably Don Quixote. But, besides giving new life to old stereotypes, Pickwick displayed, if sometimes in embryo, many of the features that were to be blended in varying proportions throughout his fiction: attacks, satirical or denunciatory, on social evils and inadequate institutions; topical references; an encyclopaedic knowledge of London (always his predominant fictional locale); pathos; a vein of the macabre; a delight in the demotic joys of Christmas; a pervasive spirit of benevolence and geniality; inexhaustible powers of character creation; a wonderful ear for characteristic speech, often imaginatively heightened; a strong narrative impulse; and a prose style that, if here overdependent on a few comic mannerisms, was highly individual and inventive. Rapidly improvised and written only weeks or days ahead of its serial publication, Pickwick contains weak and jejune passages and is an unsatisfactory whole—partly because Dickens was rapidly developing his craft as a novelist while writing and publishing it. What is remarkable is that a first novel, written in such circumstances, not only established him overnight and created a new tradition of popular literature but also survived, despite its crudities, as one of the best known novels in the world.

Early years » First novels » Oliver Twist and others
His self-assurance and artistic ambitiousness had appeared in Oliver Twist, where he rejected the temptation to repeat the successful Pickwick formula. Though containing much comedy still, Oliver Twist is more centrally concerned with social and moral evil (the workhouse and the criminal world); it culminates in Bill Sikes’s murdering Nancy and Fagin’s last night in the condemned cell at Newgate. The latter episode was memorably depicted in George Cruikshank’s engraving; the imaginative potency of Dickens’ characters and settings owes much, indeed, to his original illustrators (Cruikshank for Sketches by “Boz” and Oliver Twist, “Phiz” [Hablot K. Browne] for most of the other novels until the 1860s). The currency of his fiction owed much, too, to its being so easy to adapt into effective stage versions. Sometimes 20 London theatres simultaneously were producing adaptations of his latest story; so even nonreaders became acquainted with simplified versions of his works. The theatre was often a subject of his fiction, too, as in the Crummles troupe in Nicholas Nickleby. This novel reverted to the Pickwick shape and atmosphere, though the indictment of the brutal Yorkshire schools (Dotheboys Hall) continued the important innovation in English fiction seen in Oliver Twist—the spectacle of the lost or oppressed child as an occasion for pathos and social criticism. This was amplified in The Old Curiosity Shop, where the death of Little Nell was found overwhelmingly powerful at the time, though a few decades later it became a byword for “Victorian sentimentality.” In Barnaby Rudge he attempted another genre, the historical novel. Like his later attempt in this kind, A Tale of Two Cities, it was set in the late 18th century and presented with great vigour and understanding (and some ambivalence of attitude) the spectacle of large-scale mob violence.

To create an artistic unity out of the wide range of moods and materials included in every novel, with often several complicated plots involving scores of characters, was made even more difficult by Dickens’ writing and publishing them serially. In Martin Chuzzlewit he tried “to resist the temptation of the current Monthly Number, and to keep a steadier eye upon the general purpose and design” (1844 Preface). Its American episodes had, however, been unpremeditated (he suddenly decided to boost the disappointing sales by some America-baiting and to revenge himself against insults and injuries from the American press). A concentration on “the general purpose and design” was more effective in the next novel, Dombey and Son (1846–48), though the experience of writing the shorter, and unserialized, Christmas books had helped him obtain greater coherence.

Early years » First novels » Christmas books
A Christmas Carol, suddenly conceived and written in a few weeks, was the first of these Christmas books (a new literary genre thus created incidentally). Tossed off while he was amply engaged in writing Chuzzlewit, it was an extraordinary achievement—the one great Christmas myth of modern literature. His view of life was later to be described or dismissed as “Christmas philosophy,” and he himself spoke of “Carol philosophy” as the basis of a projected work. His “philosophy,” never very elaborated, involved more than wanting the Christmas spirit to prevail throughout the year, but his great attachment to Christmas (in his family life as well as his writings) is indeed significant and has contributed to his popularity. “Dickens dead?” exclaimed a London costermonger’s girl in 1870. “Then will Father Christmas die too?”—a tribute both to his association with Christmas and to the mythological status of the man as well as of his work. The Carol immediately entered the general consciousness; Thackeray, in a review, called it “a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.” Further Christmas books, essays, and stories followed annually (except in 1847) through 1867. None equalled the Carol in potency, though some achieved great immediate popularity. Cumulatively they represent a celebration of Christmas attempted by no other great author.

Early years » First novels » Renown
How he struck his contemporaries in these early years appears in R.H. Horne’s New Spirit of the Age (1844). Dickens occupied the first and longest chapter, as

. . . manifestly the product of his age . . . a genuine emanation from its aggregate and entire spirit. . . . He mixes extensively in society, and continually. Few public meetings in a benevolent cause are without him. He speaks effectively. . . . His influence upon his age is extensive—pleasurable, instructive, healthy, reformatory. . . .

Mr. Dickens is, in private, very much what might be expected from his works. . . . His conversation is genial . . . [He] has singular personal activity, and is fond of games of practical skill. He is also a great walker, and very much given to dancing Sir Roger de Coverley. In private, the general impression of him is that of a first-rate practical intellect, with “no nonsense” about him.

He was indeed very much a public figure, actively and centrally involved in his world, and a man of confident presence. He was reckoned the best after-dinner speaker of the age; other superlatives he attracted included his having been the best shorthand reporter on the London press and his being the best amateur actor on the stage. Later he became one of the most successful periodical editors and the finest dramatic recitalist of the day. He was splendidly endowed with many skills. “Even irrespective of his literary genius,” wrote an obituarist, “he was an able and strong-minded man, who would have succeeded in almost any profession to which he devoted himself ” (Times, June 10, 1870). Few of his extraliterary skills and interests were irrelevant to the range and mode of his fiction.

Privately in these early years, he was both domestic and social. He loved home and family life and was a proud and efficient householder; he once contemplated writing a cookbook. To his many children, he was a devoted and delightful father, at least while they were young; relations with them proved less happy during their adolescence. Apart from periods in Italy (1844–45) and Switzerland and France (1846–47), he still lived in London, moving from an apartment in Furnival’s Inn to larger houses as his income and family grew. Here he entertained his many friends, most of them popular authors, journalists, actors, or artists, though some came from the law and other professions or from commerce and a few from the aristocracy. Some friendships dating from his youth endured to the end, and, though often exasperated by the financial demands of his parents and other relatives, he was very fond of some of his family and loyal to most of the rest. Some literary squabbles came later, but he was on friendly terms with most of his fellow authors, of the older generation as well as his own. Necessarily solitary while writing and during the long walks (especially through the streets at night) that became essential to his creative processes, he was generally social at other times. He enjoyed society that was unpretentious and conversation that was genial and sensible but not too intellectualized or exclusively literary. High society he generally avoided, after a few early incursions into the great houses; he hated to be lionized or patronized.

He had about him “a sort of swell and overflow as of a prodigality of life,” an American journalist said. Everyone was struck by the brilliance of his eyes and his smart, even dandyish, appearance (“I have the fondness of a savage for finery,” he confessed). John Forster, his intimate friend and future biographer, recalled him at the Pickwick period:

the quickness, keenness, and practical power, the eager, restless, energetic outlook on each several feature [of his face] seemed to tell so little of a student or writer of books, and so much of a man of action and business in the world. Light and motion flashed from every part of it.

He was proud of his art and devoted to improving it and using it to good ends (his works would show, he wrote, that “Cheap Literature is not behind-hand with the Age, but holds its place, and strives to do its duty”), but his art never engaged all his formidable energies. He had no desire to be narrowly literary.

A notable, though unsuccessful, demonstration of this was his being founder-editor in 1846 of the Daily News (soon to become the leading Liberal newspaper). His journalistic origins, his political convictions and readiness to act as a leader of opinion, and his wish to secure a steady income independent of his literary creativity and of any shifts in novel readers’ tastes made him attempt or plan several periodical ventures in the 1840s. The return to daily journalism soon proved a mistake—the biggest fiasco in a career that included few such misdirections or failures. A more limited but happier exercise of his practical talents began soon afterward: for more than a decade he directed, energetically and with great insight and compassion, a reformatory home for young female delinquents, financed by his wealthy friend Angela Burdett-Coutts. The benevolent spirit apparent in his writings often found practical expression in his public speeches, fund-raising activities, and private acts of charity.

Dombey and Son (1846–48) was a crucial novel in his development, a product of more thorough planning and maturer thought and the first in which “a pervasive uneasiness about contemporary society takes the place of an intermittent concern with specific social wrongs” (Kathleen Tillotson). Using railways prominently and effectively, it was very up-to-date, though the questions posed included such perennial moral and religious challenges as are suggested by the child Paul’s first words in the story: “Papa, what’s money?” Some of the corruptions of money and pride of place and the limitations of “respectable” values are explored, virtue and human decency being discovered most often (as elsewhere in Dickens) among the poor, humble, and simple. In Paul’s early death Dickens offered another famous pathetic episode; in Mr. Dombey he made a more ambitious attempt than before at serious and internal characterization. David Copperfield (1849–50) has been described as a “holiday” from these larger social concerns and most notable for its childhood chapters, “an enchanting vein which he had never quite found before and which he was never to find again” (Edmund Wilson). Largely for this reason and for its autobiographical interest, it has always been among his most popular novels and was Dickens’ own “favourite child.” It incorporates material from the autobiography he had recently begun but soon abandoned and is written in the first person, a new technique for him. David differs from his creator in many ways, however, though Dickens uses many early experiences that had meant much to him—his period of work in the factory while his father was jailed, his schooling and reading, his passion for Maria Beadnell, and (more cursorily) his emergence from parliamentary reporting into successful novel writing. In Micawber the novel presents one of the “Dickens characters” whose imaginative potency extends far beyond the narratives in which they figure; Pickwick and Sam Weller, Mrs. Gamp and Mr. Pecksniff, and Scrooge are some others.

Middle years » Journalism
Dickens’ journalistic ambitions at last found a permanent form in Household Words (1850–59) and its successor, All the Year Round (1859–88). Popular weekly miscellanies of fiction, poetry, and essays on a wide range of topics, these had substantial and increasing circulations, reaching 300,000 for some of the Christmas numbers. Dickens contributed some serials—the lamentable Child’s History of England (1851–53), Hard Times (1854), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1860–61)—and essays, some of which were collected in Reprinted Pieces (1858) and The Uncommercial Traveller (1861, later amplified). Particularly in 1850–52 and during the Crimean War, he contributed many items on current political and social affairs; in later years he wrote less—much less on politics—and the magazine was less political, too. Other distinguished novelists contributed serials, including Mrs. Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, and Bulwer Lytton. The poetry was uniformly feeble; Dickens was imperceptive here. The reportage, often solidly based, was bright (sometimes painfully so) in manner. His conduct of these weeklies shows his many skills as editor and journalist but also some limitations in his tastes and intellectual ambitions. The contents are revealing in relation to his novels: he took responsibility for all the opinions expressed (for articles were anonymous) and selected and amended contributions accordingly; thus comments on topical events and so on may generally be taken as representing his opinions, whether or not he wrote them. No English author of comparable status has devoted 20 years of his maturity to such unremitting editorial work, and the weeklies’ success was due not only to his illustrious name but also to his practical sagacity and sustained industry. Even in his creative work, as his eldest son said,

No city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality, or with more businesslike regularity.

Middle years » Novels
The novels of these years, Bleak House (1852–53), Hard Times (1854), and Little Dorrit (1855–57), were much “darker” than their predecessors. Presenting a remarkably inclusive and increasingly sombre picture of contemporary society, they were inevitably often seen at the time as fictionalized propaganda about ephemeral issues. They are much more than this, though it is never easy to state how Dickens’ imagination transforms their many topicalities into an artistically coherent vision that transcends their immediate historical context. Similar questions are raised by his often basing fictional characters, places, and institutions on actual originals. He once spoke of his mind’s taking “a fanciful photograph” of a scene, and there is a continual interplay between photographic realism and “fancy” (or imagination). “He describes London like a special correspondent for posterity” (Walter Bagehot, 1858), and posterity has certainly found in his fiction the response of an acute, knowledgeable, and concerned observer to the social and political developments of “the moving age.” In the novels of the 1850s, he is politically more despondent, emotionally more tragic. The satire is harsher, the humour less genial and abundant, the “happy endings” more subdued than in the early fiction. Technically, the later novels are more coherent, plots being more fully related to themes, and themes being often expressed through a more insistent use of imagery and symbols (grim symbols, too, such as the fog in Bleak House or the prison in Little Dorrit). His art here is more akin to poetry than to what is suggested by the photographic or journalistic comparisons. “Dickensian” characterization continues in the sharply defined and simplified grotesque or comic figures, such as Chadband in Bleak House or Mrs. Sparsit in Hard Times, but large-scale figures of this type are less frequent (the Gamps and Micawbers belong to the first half of his career). Characterization also has become more subordinate to “the general purpose and design”; moreover, Dickens is presenting characters of greater complexity, who provoke more complex responses in the reader (William Dorrit, for instance). Even the juvenile leads, who had usually been thinly conceived conventional figures, are now often more complicated in their make-up and less easily rewarded by good fortune. With his secular hopes diminishing, Dickens becomes more concerned with “the great final secret of all life”—a phrase from Little Dorrit, where the spiritual dimension of his work is most overt. Critics disagree as to how far so worldly a novelist succeeds artistically in enlarging his view to include the religious. These novels, too, being manifestly an ambitious attempt to explore the prospects of humanity at this time, raise questions, still much debated, about the intelligence and profundity of his understanding of society.

Middle years » Personal unhappiness
Dickens’ spirits and confidence in the future had indeed declined: 1855 was “a year of much unsettled discontent for him,” his friend Forster recalled, partly for political reasons (or, as Forster hints, his political indignation was exacerbated by a “discontent” that had personal origins). The Crimean War, besides exposing governmental inefficiency, was distracting attention from the “poverty, hunger, and ignorant desperation” at home. In Little Dorrit, “I have been blowing off a little of indignant steam which would otherwise blow me up . . . ,” he wrote, “but I have no present political faith or hope—not a grain.” Not only were the present government and Parliament contemptible but “representative government is become altogether a failure with us, . . . the whole thing has broken down . . . and has no hope in it.” Nor had he a coherent alternative to suggest. This desperation coincided with an acute state of personal unhappiness. The brief tragicomedy of Maria Beadnell’s reentry into his life, in 1855, finally destroyed one nostalgic illusion and also betrayed a perilous emotional immaturity and hunger. He now openly identified himself with some of the sorrows dramatized in the adult David Copperfield:

Why is it, that as with poor David, a sense comes always crushing on me, now, when I fall into low spirits, as of one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made?

This comes from the correspondence with Forster in 1854–55, which contains the first admissions of his marital unhappiness; by 1856 he is writing, “I find the skeleton in my domestic closet is becoming a pretty big one”; by 1857–58, as Forster remarks, an “unsettled feeling” had become almost habitual with him, “and the satisfactions which home should have supplied, and which indeed were essential requirements of his nature, he had failed to find in his home.” From May 1858, Catherine Dickens lived apart from him. A painful scandal arose, and Dickens did not act at this time with tact, patience, or consideration. The affair disrupted some of his friendships and narrowed his social circle, but surprisingly it seems not to have damaged his popularity with the public.

Catherine Dickens maintained a dignified silence, and most of Dickens’ family and friends, including his official biographer, Forster, were discreetly reticent about the separation. Not until 1939 did one of his children (Katey), speaking posthumously through conversations recorded by a friend, offer a candid inside account. It was discreditable to him, and his self-justifying letters must be viewed with caution. He there dated the unhappiness of his marriage back to 1838, attributed to his wife various “peculiarities” of temperament (including her sometimes labouring under “a mental disorder”), emphatically agreed with her (alleged) statement that “she felt herself unfit for the life she had to lead as my wife,” and maintained that she never cared for the children nor they for her. In more temperate letters, where he acknowledged her “amiable and complying” qualities, he simply and more acceptably asserted that their temperaments were utterly incompatible. She was, apparently, pleasant but rather limited; such faults as she had were rather negative than positive, though family tradition from a household that knew the Dickenses well speaks of her as “a whiney woman” and as having little understanding of, or patience with, the artistic temperament.

Dickens’ self-justifying letters lack candour in omitting to mention Ellen Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior, his passion for whom had precipitated the separation. Two months earlier he had written more frankly to an intimate friend:

The domestic unhappiness remains so strong upon me that I can’t write, and (waking) can’t rest, one minute. I have never known a moment’s peace or content, since the last night of The Frozen Deep.

The Frozen Deep was a play in which he and Nelly (as Ellen was called) had performed together in August 1857. She was an intelligent girl, of an old theatrical family; reports speak of her as having “a pretty face and well-developed figure”—or “passably pretty and not much of an actress.” She left the stage in 1860; after Dickens’ death she married a clergyman and helped him run a school. The affair was hushed up until the 1930s, and evidence about it remains scanty, but every addition confirms that Dickens was deeply attached to her and that their relationship lasted until his death. It seems likely that she became his mistress, though probably not until the 1860s; assertions that a child, or children, resulted remain unproved. Similarly, suggestions that the anguish experienced by some of the lovers in the later novels may reflect Dickens’ own feelings remain speculative. It is tempting, indeed, to associate Nelly with some of their heroines (who are more spirited and complex, less of the “legless angel,” than most of their predecessors), especially as her given names, Ellen Lawless, seem to be echoed by those of heroines in the three final novels—Estella, Bella, and Helena Landless—but nothing definite is known about how she responded to Dickens, what she felt for him at the time, or how close any of these later love stories were to aspects or phases of their relationship.

“There is nothing very remarkable in the story,” commented one early transmitter of it, and this seems just. Many middle-aged men feel an itch to renew their emotional lives with a pretty young girl, even if, unlike Dickens, they cannot plead indulgence for “the wayward and unsettled feeling which is part (I suppose) of the tenure on which one holds an imaginative life.” But the eventual disclosure of this episode caused surprise, shock, or piquant satisfaction, being related of a man whose rebelliousness against his society had seemed to take only impeccably reformist shapes. A critic in 1851, listing the reasons for his unique popularity, had cited “above all, his deep reverence for the household sanctities, his enthusiastic worship of the household gods.” After these disclosures he was, disconcertingly or intriguingly, a more complex man; and, partly as a consequence, Dickens the novelist also began to be seen as more complex, less conventional, than had been realized. The stimulus was important, though Nelly’s significance, biographically and critically, has proved far from inexhaustible.

Middle years » Public readings
In the longer term, Kathleen Tillotson’s remark is more suggestive: “his lifelong love-affair with his reading public, when all is said, is by far the most interesting love-affair of his life.” This took a new form, about the time of Dickens’ separation from his wife, in his giving public readings from his works, and it is significant that, when trying to justify this enterprise as certain to succeed, he referred to “that particular relation (personally affectionate and like no other man’s) which subsists between me and the public.” The remark suggests how much Dickens valued his public’s affection, not only as a stimulus to his creativity and a condition for his commercial success but also as a substitute for the love he could not find at home. He had been toying with the idea of turning paid reader since 1853, when he began giving occasional readings in aid of charity. The paid series began in April 1858, the immediate impulse being to find some energetic distraction from his marital unhappiness. But the readings drew on more permanent elements in him and his art: his remarkable histrionic talents, his love of theatricals and of seeing and delighting an audience, and the eminently performable nature of his fiction. Moreover, he could earn more by reading than by writing, and more certainly; it was easier to force himself to repeat a performance than create a book.

His initial repertoire consisted entirely of Christmas books but was soon amplified by episodes from the novels and magazine Christmas stories. A performance usually consisted of two items; of the 16 eventually performed, the most popular were “The Trial from Pickwick” and the Carol. Comedy predominated, though pathos was important in the repertoire, and horrifics were startlingly introduced in the last reading he devised, “Sikes and Nancy,” with which he petrified his audiences and half killed himself. Intermittently, until shortly before his death, he gave seasons of readings in London and embarked upon hardworking tours through the provinces and (in 1867–68) the United States. Altogether he performed about 471 times. He was a magnificent performer, and important elements in his art—the oral and dramatic qualities—were demonstrated in these renderings. His insight and skill revealed nuances in the narration and characterization that few readers had noticed. Necessarily, such extracts or short stories, suitable for a two-hour entertainment, excluded some of his larger and deeper effects—notably, his social criticism and analysis—and his later novels were underrepresented. Dickens never mentions these inadequacies. He manifestly enjoyed the experience until, near the end, he was becoming ill and exhausted. He was writing much less in the 1860s. It is debatable how far this was because the readings exhausted his energies, while providing the income, creative satisfaction, and continuous contact with an audience that he had formerly obtained through the novels. He gloried in his audiences’ admiration and love. Some friends thought this too crude a gratification, too easy a triumph, and a sad declension into a lesser and ephemeral art. In whatever way the episode is judged, it was characteristic of him—of his relationship with his public, his business sense, his stamina, his ostentatious display of supplementary skills, and also of his originality. No important author (at least, according to reviewers, since Homer) and no English author since who has had anything like his stature has devoted so much time and energy to this activity. The only comparable figure is his contemporary, Mark Twain, who acknowledged Dickens as the pioneer.

Last years » Final novels
Tired and ailing though he was, he remained inventive and adventurous in his final novels. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) was an experiment, relying less than before on characterization, dialogue, and humour. An exciting and compact narrative, it lacks too many of his strengths to count among his major works. Sydney Carton’s self-sacrifice was found deeply moving by Dickens and by many readers; Dr. Manette now seems a more impressive achievement in serious characterization. The French Revolution scenes are vivid, if superficial in historical understanding. Great Expectations (1860–61) resembles Copperfield in being a first-person narration and in drawing on parts of Dickens’ personality and experience. Compact like its predecessor, it lacks the panoramic inclusiveness of Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, but, though not his most ambitious, it is his most finely achieved novel. The hero Pip’s mind is explored with great subtlety, and his development through a childhood and youth beset with hard tests of character is traced critically but sympathetically. Various “great expectations” in the book proved ill founded—a comment as much on the values of the age as on the characters’ weaknesses and misfortunes. Our Mutual Friend (1864–65), a large inclusive novel, continues this critique of monetary and class values. London is now grimmer than ever before, and the corruption, complacency, and superficiality of “respectable” society are fiercely attacked. Many new elements are introduced into Dickens’ fictional world, but his handling of the old comic-eccentrics (such as Boffin, Wegg, and Venus) is sometimes tiresomely mechanical. How the unfinished Edwin Drood (1870) would have developed is uncertain. Here again Dickens left panoramic fiction to concentrate on a limited private action. The central figure was evidently to be John Jasper, whose eminent respectability as a cathedral organist was in extreme contrast to his haunting low opium dens and, out of violent sexual jealousy, murdering his nephew. It would have been his most elaborate treatment of the themes of crime, evil, and psychological abnormality that had recurred throughout his novels; a great celebrator of life, he was also obsessed with death.

How greatly Dickens personally had changed appears in remarks by friends who met him again, after many years, during the American reading tour in 1867–68. “I sometimes think . . . ,” wrote one, “I must have known two individuals bearing the same name, at various periods of my own life.” But just as the fiction, despite many developments, still contained many stylistic and narrative features continuous with the earlier work, so, too, the man remained a “human hurricane,” though he had aged considerably, his health had deteriorated, and his nerves had been jangled by travelling ever since his being in a railway accident in 1865. Other Americans noted that, though grizzled, he was “as quick and elastic in his movements as ever.” His photographs, wrote a journalist after one of the readings, “give no idea of his genial expression. To us he appears like a hearty, companionable man, with a deal of fun in him.” But that very day Dickens was writing, “I am nearly used up,” and listing the afflictions now “telling heavily upon me.” His pride and the old-trouper tradition made him conceal his sufferings. And, if sometimes by an effort of will, his old high spirits were often on display. “The cheerfullest man of his age,” he was called by his American publisher, J.T. Fields; Fields’s wife more perceptively noted, “Wonderful, the flow of spirits C.D. has for a sad man.”

His fame remained undiminished, though critical opinion was increasingly hostile to him. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, noting the immense enthusiasm for him during the American tour, remarked: “One can hardly take in the whole truth about it, and feel the universality of his fame.” But in many respects he was “a sad man” in these later years. He never was tranquil or relaxed. Various old friends were now estranged or dead or for other reasons less available; he was now leading a less social life and spending more time with young friends of a calibre inferior to his former circle. His sons were causing much worry and disappointment; “all his fame goes for nothing,” said a friend, “since he has not the one thing. He is very unhappy in his children.” His life was not all dreary, however. He loved his country house, Gad’s Hill, and he could still “warm the social atmosphere wherever he appeared with that summer glow which seemed to attend him.” T.A. Trollope (contributor to Dickens’ All the Year Round and brother of the novelist Anthony Trollope), who wrote that, despaired of giving people who had not met him any idea of

the general charm of his manner. . . . His laugh was brimful of enjoyment. . . . His enthusiasm was boundless. . . . He was a hearty man, a large-hearted man, . . . a strikingly manly man.

Last years » Farewell readings
His health remained precarious after the punishing American tour and was further impaired by his addiction to giving the strenuous “Sikes and Nancy” reading. His farewell reading tour was abandoned when, in April 1869, he collapsed. He began writing another novel and gave a short farewell season of readings in London, ending with the famous speech, “From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore . . .”—words repeated, less than three months later, on his funeral card. He died suddenly in June 1870 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Assessment » Contemporary opinion
Ralph Waldo Emerson, attending one of Dickens’ readings in Boston, “laughed as if he must crumble to pieces,” but, discussing Dickens afterward, he said:

I am afraid he has too much talent for his genius; it is a fearful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from it nor set to rest. . . . He daunts me! I have not the key.

There is no simple key to so prolific and multifarious an artist nor to the complexities of the man, and interpretation of both is made harder by his possessing and feeling the need to exercise so many talents besides his imagination. How his fiction is related to these talents—practical, journalistic, oratorical, histrionic—remains controversial. Also the geniality and unequalled comedy of the novels must be related to the sufferings, errors, and self-pity of their author and to his concern both for social evils and for the perennial griefs and limitations of humanity. The novels cover a wide range, social, moral, emotional, and psychological. Thus, he is much concerned with very ordinary people but also with abnormality (e.g., eccentricity, depravity, madness, hallucinations, dream states). He is both the most imaginative and fantastic and the most topical and documentary of great novelists. He is unequal, too; a wonderfully inventive and poetic writer, he can also, even in his mature novels, write with a painfully slack conventionality.

Biographers have only since the mid-20th century known enough to explore the complexity of Dickens’ nature. Critics have always been challenged by his art, though from the start it contained enough easily acceptable ingredients, evident skill and gusto, to ensure popularity. The earlier novels were and by and large have continued to be Dickens’ most popular works: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, A Christmas Carol, and David Copperfield. Critics began to demur against the later novels, deploring the loss of the freer comic spirit, baffled by the more symbolic mode of his art, and uneasy when the simpler reformism over isolated issues became a more radical questioning of social assumptions and institutions. Dickens was never neglected or forgotten and never lost his popularity, but for 70 years after his death he received remarkably little serious attention (George Gissing, G.K. Chesterton, and George Bernard Shaw being notable exceptions). F.R. Leavis, later to revise his opinion, was speaking for many, in 1948, when he asserted that “the adult mind doesn’t as a rule find in Dickens a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness”; Dickens was indeed a great genius, “but the genius was that of a great entertainer.”

Assessment » Modern criticism
Modern Dickens criticism dates from 1940–41, with the very different impulses given by George Orwell, Edmund Wilson, and Humphry House. In the 1950s, a substantial reassessment and re-editing of the works began, his finest artistry and greatest depth now being discovered in the later novels—Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations—and (less unanimously) in Hard Times and Our Mutual Friend. Scholars have explored his working methods, his relations with his public, and the ways in which he was simultaneously an eminently Victorian figure and an author “not of an age but for all time.” Biographically, little had been added to Forster’s massive and intelligent Life (1872–74), except the Ellen Ternan story, until Edgar Johnson’s in 1952. Since then, no radically new view has emerged, though several works—including those by Joseph Gold (1972) and Fred Kaplan (1975)—have given particular phases or aspects fuller attention. The centenary in 1970 demonstrated a critical consensus about his standing second only to William Shakespeare in English literature, which would have seemed incredible 40 or even 20 years earlier.

G.K. Chesterton’s biography of Charles Dickens appeared in the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (see the Britannica Classic: Charles Dickens).

Philip Collins


Thackeray, Gaskell, and others

Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray came from a wealthy and educated background. The loss of his fortune at age 22, however, meant that he too learned his trade in the field of sketch writing and occasional journalism. His early fictions were published as serials in Fraser’s Magazine or as contributions to the great Victorian comic magazine Punch (founded 1841). For his masterpiece, Vanity Fair (1847–48), however, he adopted Dickens’s procedure of publication in monthly parts. Thackeray’s satirical acerbity is here combined with a broad narrative sweep, a sophisticated self-consciousness about the conventions of fiction, and an ambitious historical survey of the transformation of English life in the years between the Regency and the mid-Victorian period. His later novels never match this sharpness. Vanity Fair was subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero.” Subsequently, it has been suggested, a more sentimental Thackeray wrote novels without villains.


William Makepeace Thackeray

British author

born July 18, 1811, Calcutta, India
died Dec. 24, 1863, London, Eng.

English novelist whose reputation rests chiefly on Vanity Fair (1847–48), a novel of the Napoleonic period in England, and The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852), set in the early 18th century.

Thackeray was the only son of Richmond Thackeray, an administrator in the East India Company. His father died in 1815, and in 1816 Thackeray was sent home to England. His mother joined him in 1820, having married (1817) an engineering officer with whom she had been in love before she met Richmond Thackeray. After attending several grammar schools Thackeray went in 1822 to Charterhouse, the London public (private) school, where he led a rather lonely and miserable existence.

He was happier while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge (1828–30). In 1830 he left Cambridge without taking a degree, and during 1831–33 he studied law at the Middle Temple, London. He then considered painting as a profession; his artistic gifts are seen in his letters and many of his early writings, which are amusingly and energetically illustrated. All his efforts at this time have a dilettante air, understandable in a young man who, on coming of age in 1832, had inherited £20,000 from his father. He soon lost his fortune, however, through gambling and unlucky speculations and investments. In 1836, while studying art in Paris, he married a penniless Irish girl, and his stepfather bought a newspaper so that he could remain there as its correspondent. After the paper’s failure (1837) he took his wife back to Bloomsbury, London, and became a hardworking and prolific professional journalist.

Of Thackeray’s three daughters, one died in infancy (1839); and in 1840, after her last confinement, Mrs. Thackeray became insane. She never recovered and long survived her husband, living with friends in the country. Thackeray was, in effect, a widower, relying much on club life and gradually giving more and more attention to his daughters, for whom he established a home in London in 1846. The serial publication in 1847–48 of his novel Vanity Fair brought Thackeray both fame and prosperity, and from then on he was an established author on the English scene.

Thackeray’s one serious romantic attachment in his later life, to Jane Brookfield, can be traced in his letters. She was the wife of a friend of his Cambridge days, and during Thackeray’s “widowerhood,” when his life lacked an emotional centre, he found one in the Brookfield home. Henry Brookfield’s insistence in 1851 that his wife’s passionate but platonic friendship with Thackeray should end was a grief greater than any the author had known since his wife’s descent into insanity.

Thackeray tried to find consolation in travel, lecturing in the United States on The English Humorists of the 18th Century (1852–53; published 1853) and on The Four Georges (1855–56; published 1860). But after 1856 he settled in London. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1857, quarreled with Dickens, formerly a friendly rival, in the so-called “Garrick Club Affair” (1858), and in 1860 founded The Cornhill Magazine, becoming its editor. After he died in 1863, a commemorative bust of him was placed in Westminster Abbey.

Early writings.
The 19th century was the age of the magazine, which had been developed to meet the demand for family reading among the growing middle class. In the late 1830s Thackeray became a notable contributor of articles on varied topics to Fraser’s Magazine, The New Monthly Magazine, and, later, to Punch. His work was unsigned or written under such pen names as Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Fitz-Boodle, The Fat Contributor, or Ikey Solomons. He collected the best of these early writings in Miscellanies, 4 vol. (1855–57). These include The Yellowplush Correspondence, the memoirs and diary of a young cockney footman written in his own vocabulary and style; Major Gahagan (1838–39), a fantasy of soldiering in India; Catherine (1839–40), a burlesque of the popular “Newgate novels” of romanticized crime and low life, and itself a good realistic crime story; The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond (1841), which was an earlier version of the young married life described in Philip; and The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844; revised as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, 1856), which is a historical novel and his first full-length work. Barry Lyndon is an excellent, speedy, satirical narrative until the final sadistic scenes and was a trial run for the great historical novels, especially Vanity Fair. The Book of Snobs (1848) is a collection of articles that had appeared successfully in Punch (as “The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves,” 1846–47). It consists of sketches of London characters and displays Thackeray’s virtuosity in quick character-drawing. The Rose and the Ring, Thackeray’s Christmas book for 1855, remains excellent entertainment, as do some of his verses; like many good prose writers, he had a facility in writing light verse and ballads.

Mature writings.
With Vanity Fair (1847–48), the first work published under his own name, Thackeray adopted the system of publishing a novel serially in monthly parts that had been so successfully used by Dickens. Set in the second decade of the 19th century, the period of the Regency, the novel deals mainly with the interwoven fortunes of two contrasting women, Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp. The latter, an unprincipled adventuress, is the leading personage and is perhaps the most memorable character Thackeray created. Subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero,” the novel is deliberately antiheroic: Thackeray states that in this novel his object is to “indicate . . . that we are for the most part . . . foolish and selfish people . . . all eager after vanities.”

The wealthy, wellborn, passive Amelia Sedley and the ambitious, energetic, scheming, provocative, and essentially amoral Becky Sharp, daughter of a poor drawing master, are contrasted in their fortunes and reactions to life, but the contrast of their characters is not the simple one between moral good and evil—both are presented with dispassionate sympathy. Becky is the character around whom all the men play their parts in an upper middle-class and aristocratic background. Amelia marries George Osborne, but George, just before he is killed at the Battle of Waterloo, is ready to desert his young wife for Becky, who has fought her way up through society to marriage with Rawdon Crawley, a young officer of good family. Crawley, disillusioned, finally leaves Becky, and in the end virtue apparently triumphs, Amelia marries her lifelong admirer, Colonel Dobbin, and Becky settles down to genteel living and charitable works.

The rich movement and colour of this panorama of early 19th-century society make Vanity Fair Thackeray’s greatest achievement; the narrative skill, subtle characterization, and descriptive power make it one of the outstanding novels of its period. But Vanity Fair is more than a portrayal and imaginative analysis of a particular society. Throughout we are made subtly aware of the ambivalence of human motives, and so are prepared for Thackeray’s conclusion: “Ah! Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire, or having it, is satisfied?” It is its tragic irony that makes Vanity Fair a lasting and insightful evaluation of human ambition and experience.

Successful and famous, Thackeray went on to exploit two lines of development opened up in Vanity Fair: a gift for evoking the London scene and for writing historical novels that demonstrate the connections between past and present. He began with the first, writing The History of Pendennis (1848–50), which is partly fictionalized autobiography. In it, Thackeray traces the youthful career of Arthur Pendennis—his first love affair, his experiences at “Oxbridge University,” his working as a London journalist, and so on—achieving a convincing portrait of a much-tempted young man.

Turning to the historical novel, Thackeray chose the reign of Queen Anne for the period of The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., 3 vol. (1852). Some critics had thought that Pendennis was a formless, rambling book. In response, Thackeray constructed Henry Esmond with great care, giving it a much more formal plot structure. The story, narrated by Esmond, begins when he is 12, in 1691, and ends in 1718. Its complexity of incident is given unity by Beatrix and Esmond, who stand out against a background of London society and the political life of the time. Beatrix dominates the book. Seen first as a charming child, she develops beauty combined with a power that is fatal to the men she loves. One of Thackeray’s great creations, she is a heroine of a new type, emotionally complex and compelling, but not a pattern of virtue. Esmond, a sensitive, brave, aristocratic soldier, falls in love with her but is finally disillusioned. Befriended as an orphan by Beatrix’ parents, Lord and Lady Castlewood, Henry initially adores Lady Castlewood as a mother and eventually, in his maturity, marries her.

Written in a pastiche of 18th-century prose, the novel is one of the best evocations in English of the atmosphere of a past age. It was not well received, however—Esmond’s marriage to Lady Castlewood was criticized. George Eliot called it “the most uncomfortable book you can imagine.” But it has come to be accepted as a notable English historical novel.

Thackeray returned to the contemporary scene in his novel The Newcomes (1853–55). This work is essentially a detailed study of prosperous middle-class society and is centred upon the family of the title. Col. Thomas Newcome returns to London from India to be with his son Clive. The unheroic but attractive Clive falls in love with his cousin Ethel, but the love Clive and Ethel have for each other is fated to be unhappily thwarted for years because of worldly considerations. Clive marries Rose Mackenzie; the selfish, greedy, cold-hearted Barnes Newcome, Ethel’s father and head of the family, intrigues against Clive and the Colonel; and the Colonel invests his fortune imprudently and ends as a pensioner in an almshouse. Rose dies in childbirth, and the narrative ends with the Colonel’s death. This deathbed scene, described with deep feeling that avoids sentimentality, is one of the most famous in Victorian fiction. In a short epilogue Thackeray tells us that Clive and Ethel eventually marry—but this, he says, is a fable.

The Virginians (1857–59), Thackeray’s next novel, is set partly in America and partly in England in the latter half of the 18th century and is concerned mostly with the vicissitudes in the lives of two brothers, George and Henry Warrington, who are the grandsons of Henry Esmond, the hero of his earlier novel. Thackeray wrote two other serial novels, Lovel the Widower (1860) and The Adventures of Philip (1861–62). He died after having begun writing the novel Denis Duval.

In his own time Thackeray was regarded as the only possible rival to Dickens. His pictures of contemporary life were obviously real and were accepted as such by the middle classes. A great professional, he provided novels, stories, essays, and verses for his audience, and he toured as a nationally known lecturer. He wrote to be read aloud in the long Victorian family evenings, and his prose has the lucidity, spontaneity, and pace of good reading material. Throughout his works, Thackeray analyzed and deplored snobbery and frequently gave his opinions on human behaviour and the shortcomings of society, though usually prompted by his narrative to do so. He examined such subjects as hypocrisy, secret emotions, the sorrows sometimes attendant on love, remembrance of things past, and the vanity of much of life—such moralizing being, in his opinion, an important function of the novelist. He had little time for such favourite devices of Victorian novelists as exaggerated characterization and melodramatic plots, preferring in his own work to be more true to life, subtly depicting various moods and plunging the reader into a stream of entertaining narrative, description, dialogue, and comment.

Thackeray’s high reputation as a novelist continued unchallenged to the end of the 19th century but then began to decline. Vanity Fair is still his most interesting and readable work and has retained its place among the great historical novels in the English language.

Laurence Brander


Elizabeth Gaskell began her career as one of the “Condition of England” novelists of the 1840s, responding like Frances Trollope, Benjamin Disraeli, and Charles Kingsley to the economic crisis of that troubled decade. Mary Barton (1848) and Ruth (1853) are both novels about social problems, as is North and South (1854–55), although, like her later work—Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), Wives and Daughters (1864–66), and the remarkable novella Cousin Phyllis (1864)—this book also has a psychological complexity that anticipates George Eliot’s novels of provincial life.

Political novels, religious novels, historical novels, sporting novels, Irish novels, crime novels, and comic novels all flourished in this period. The years 1847–48, indeed, represent a pinnacle of simultaneous achievement in English fiction. In addition to Vanity Fair, Dombey and Son, and Mary Barton, they saw the completion of Disraeli’s trilogy of political novels—Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847)—and the publication of first novels by Kingsley, Anne Brontė, Charlotte Brontė, Emily Brontė, and Anthony Trollope. For the first time, literary genius appeared to be finding its most natural expression in prose fiction, rather than in poetry or drama. By 1853 the poet Arthur Hugh Clough would concede that “the modern novel is preferred to the modern poem.”


Elizabeth Gaskell

born Sept. 29, 1810, Chelsea, London, Eng.
died Nov. 12, 1865, near Alton, Hampshire

English novelist, short-story writer, and first biographer of Charlotte Brontė.

She was a daughter of a Unitarian minister. When her mother died, she was brought up by a maternal aunt in the Cheshire village of Knutsford in a kindly atmosphere of rural gentility that was already old-fashioned at the time. In 1832 she married William Gaskell, a Unitarian minister, and settled in the overcrowded, problem-ridden industrial city of Manchester, which remained her home for the rest of her life. Domestic life—the Gaskells had six children, of whom four daughters lived to adulthood—and the social and charitable obligations of a minister’s wife claimed her time but not all her thoughts. She did not begin her literary career until middle life, when the death of her only son had intensified her sense of community with the poor and her desire to “give utterance” to their “agony.” Her first novel, Mary Barton, reflects the temper of Manchester in the late 1830s. It is the story of a working-class family in which the father, John Barton, lapses into bitter class hatred during a cyclic depression and carries out a retaliatory murder at the behest of his trade union. Its timely appearance in the revolutionary year of 1848 brought the novel immediate success, and it won the praise of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. Dickens invited her to contribute to his magazine, Household Words, where her next major work, Cranford (1853), appeared. This social history of a gentler era, which describes, without sentimentalizing or satirizing, her girlhood village of Knutsford and the efforts of its shabby-genteel inhabitants to keep up appearances, has remained her most popular work.

The conflict between Mrs. Gaskell’s sympathetic understanding and the strictures of Victorian morality resulted in a mixed reception for her next social novel, Ruth (1853). It offered an alternative to the seduced girl’s traditional progress to prostitution and an early grave.

Among the many friends attracted by Mrs. Gaskell was Charlotte Brontė, who died in 1855 and whose biography Charlotte’s father, Patrick Brontė, urged her to write. The Life of Charlotte Brontė (1857), written with warmhearted admiration, disposed of a mass of firsthand material with unforced narrative skill. It is at once a work of art and a well-documented interpretation of its subject.

Among her later works, Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), dealing with the impact of the Napoleonic Wars upon simple people, is notable. Her last and longest work, Wives and Daughters (1864–66), concerning the interlocking fortunes of two or three country families, is considered by many her finest. It was left unfinished at her death.



Frances Trollope

Frances Trollope (10 March 1780 – 6 October 1863) was an English novelist and miscellaneous writer who published as Mrs. Trollope or Mrs. Frances Trollope. Her detractors diminished her reputation by making the common name used for her the overly familiar and slightly vulgar diminutive Fanny Trollope. Her third son was Anthony Trollope, the well-known novelist. Her eldest son, Thomas Adolphus Trollope, wrote The Girlhood of Catherine de Medici, History of Florence, What I Remember, Life of Pius IX, and some novels.

She was born at Stapleton, Bristol, and in 1809 married Thomas A. Trollope, a barrister, who fell into financial misfortune. She then in 1827 went with her family to Fanny Wright's utopian community, Nashoba Commune, in America. This community soon failed, and she ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the efforts which she made to support herself were unsuccessful, though she encouraged Hiram Powers to do Dante Alighieri's Commedia in waxworks. On her return to England, however, she brought herself into notice by publishing Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), in which she gave an unfavourable and, in the opinions of partisans of America, somewhat exaggerated account of the subject, reflecting the disparaging views of American society allegedly commonplace among English people of the higher social classes at that time; and a novel, The Refugee in America, pursued it on similar lines. Next came The Abbess and Belgium and Western Germany, and other works of the same kind on Paris and the Parisians, and Vienna and the Austrians followed.

Trollope also, however, wrote several strong novels of social protest: Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy began publication in 1840 and was the first industrial novel to be published in Britain. Other socially conscious novels included Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1836, the first anti-slavery novel, influencing Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin) about the evils of slavery, and The Vicar of Wrexhill, which took on church corruption. Possibly her greatest work is the Widow Barnaby trilogy, which set a pattern followed by Anthony in the frequent use of sequels in his oeuvre.

In later years she continued to write novels and books on miscellaneous subjects, writing in all over 100 volumes. Though possessed of considerable powers of observation and a sharp and caustic wit, such an output was fatal to permanent literary success, and few of her books are now read. She spent the last 20 years of her life at Florence, where she died in 1863, being buried with four other members of the Trollope household in the English Cemetery of Florence.



Benjamin Disraeli

born December 21, 1804, London, England
died April 19, 1881, London

British statesman and novelist who was twice prime minister (1868, 1874–80) and who provided the Conservative Party with a twofold policy of Tory democracy and imperialism.

Early life.
Disraeli was of Italian-Jewish descent, the eldest son and second child of Isaac D’Israeli and Maria Basevi. The most important event in Disraeli’s boyhood was his father’s quarrel in 1813 with the synagogue of Bevis Marks, which led to the decision in 1817 to have his children baptized as Christians. Until 1858 Jews by religion were excluded from Parliament; except for the father’s decision Disraeli’s political career could never have taken the form it did.

Disraeli was educated at small private schools. At the age of 17 he was articled to a firm of solicitors, but he longed to become notable in a more sensational manner. His first efforts were disastrous. In 1824 he speculated recklessly in South American mining shares, and, when he lost all a year later, he was left so badly in debt that he did not recover until well past middle age. Earlier he had persuaded the publisher John Murray, his father’s friend, to launch a daily newspaper, the Representative. It was a complete failure. Disraeli, unable to pay his promised share of the capital, quarreled with Murray and others. Moreover, in his novel Vivian Grey (1826–27), published anonymously, he lampooned Murray while telling the story of the failure. Disraeli was unmasked as the author, and he was widely criticized.

Disraeli suffered what would later be called a nervous breakdown and did little during the next four years. He wrote another extravagant novel, The Young Duke (1831), and in 1830 began 16 months of travel in the Mediterranean countries and the Middle East. These travels not only furnished him with material for Oriental descriptions he used in later novels but also influenced his attitude in foreign relations with India, Egypt, and Turkey in the 1870s.

Back in England, he was active in London social and literary life, where his dandified dress, conceit and affectation, and exotic good looks made him a striking if not always popular figure. He was invited to fashionable parties and met most of the celebrities of the day. His novel Contarini Fleming (1832) has considerable autobiographical interest, like many of his novels, as well as echoes of his political thought.

Political beginnings.
By 1831 Disraeli had decided to enter politics and sought a seat in Buckinghamshire, near Wycombe, where his family had settled. As an independent radical, he stood for and lost High Wycombe twice in 1832 and once in 1835. Realizing that he must attach himself to one of the political parties, he made a somewhat eccentric interpretation of Toryism, which some features of his radicalism fitted. In 1835 he unsuccessfully stood for Taunton as the official Conservative candidate. His extravagant behaviour, great debts, and open liaison with Henrietta, wife of Sir Francis Sykes (the prototype of the heroine in his novel Henrietta Temple [1837]), all gave him a dubious reputation. In 1837, however, he successfully stood for Maidstone in Kent as the Conservative candidate. His maiden speech in the House of Commons was a failure. Elaborate metaphors, affected mannerisms, and foppish dress led to his being shouted down. But he was not silenced. He concluded, defiantly and prophetically, “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.”

Before long, Disraeli became a speaker who commanded attention. He established his social position by marrying in 1839 Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, a widow with a life interest in a London house and £4,000 a year. She was deeply devoted to Disraeli, and when he teased her in company that he had married for her worldly goods, she would say: “Dizzy married me for my money but if he had the chance again he would marry me for love.” Her husband agreed.

Breach with Peel.
The Conservative leader, Sir Robert Peel, encouraged Disraeli, but when in 1841 the Conservatives won the election and Peel became prime minister, Disraeli was not given office in the Cabinet. He was mortified at the rebuff, and his attitude toward Peel and his brand of Conservatism became increasingly critical. A group of young Tories, nicknamed Young England, and led by George Smythe (later Lord Stangford), looked to Disraeli for inspiration, and he obliged them, notably in his novel Coningsby; or The New Generation (1844), in which the hero is patterned on Smythe, and the cool, pragmatic, humdrum, middle-class Conservatism that Peel represented is contrasted to Young England’s romantic, aristocratic, nostalgic, and escapist attitude.

In 1845, when the combination of the Irish famine and the arguments of Richard Cobden convinced Peel to repeal the protective duties on foreign imported grain known as the Corn Laws, Disraeli found his issue. Young England could rally against Peel not only their own members but the great mass of the country squires who formed the backbone of the Conservative Party. As lieutenant to Lord George Bentinck, the nominal leader of the rebels, Disraeli consolidated the opposition to Peel in a series of brilliant speeches. His invective greatly embittered the battle and created lasting resentment among Peel’s followers. While Disraeli and his fellow protectionists could not stop the repeal of the Corn Laws because the Whigs also backed the bill, the rebels put Peel in the minority on another issue and forced him to resign in 1846.

Conservative leader.
The loyalty of most of the Conservative former ministers to Peel and the death of Bentinck made Disraeli indisputably the leader of the opposition in the Commons. Disraeli spent the next few years trying to extricate his party from what he had come to recognize as the “hopeless cause” of protection. While Disraeli’s policy was sensible, it raised mistrust among his followers, as did his pride in and insistence upon his Jewish ancestry. The party could not, however, do without his talents. His election to Parliament as member for Buckinghamshire in 1847 and his purchase of Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe, in 1848 fortified his social and political power. His finances, however, remained shaky.

When the Whig government fell in 1852 and the Earl of Derby, leader of the Conservative Party, formed a short-lived minority government, Disraeli was chancellor of the Exchequer despite his protest that he knew nothing of finance. His budget in fact brought the government down in 1852, though Disraeli could hardly be blamed. The free-trade majority in the House was determined to defeat measures that relieved agriculture, even though the method chosen did not involve protection; yet Disraeli had to bring forward some such proposals to placate his followers. Again, until 1858, the Tories were in opposition. Then Derby again formed a minority government with Disraeli as chancellor of the Exchequer. Disraeli for some time had felt there was no reason to allow parliamentary reform to be a Whig monopoly, and so he introduced a moderate reform bill in 1859. The bill, however, seemed too obviously designed to help his party, and so it was defeated; the Tories again were out of office and remained so for six years.

In 1865 when the Whig-Liberal leader Lord Russell brought forward a moderate reform bill, a combination of Tory opposition and a revolt against Russell toppled his government. Derby formed his third minority government with Disraeli as chancellor of the Exchequer. Although the initiative for a new Conservative reform bill came from Queen Victoria and Lord Derby, Disraeli introduced it in the House and conducted the fight for it with unsurpassed enthusiasm and mastery of parliamentary tactics. He believed the bill should be a sweeping one with certain safeguards, and he was determined that it should be carried by a Conservative government. The Liberals, however, had a majority, and he had to accept their amendments, which removed nearly all the safeguards. The bill that passed doubled the existing electorate and was more democratic than most Conservatives had foreseen. Derby called it “a leap in the dark”; but Disraeli could fairly claim that the bill had gone far toward “realizing the dream of my life and re-establishing Toryism as a national foundation.”

The “top of the greasy pole.” In 1868 when Derby retired from politics, Disraeli became prime minister. “Yes,” he said in reply to a friend’s congratulations, “I have climbed to the top of a greasy pole.” The government was only a caretaker one, for the general election awaited only the completion of a new electoral register, and later in 1868 the Liberals won. Disraeli set a precedent by resigning before Parliament met.

In the following 12-year period, politics changed from the chaotic collection of ill-defined, shifting groups that had been common from the beginning of Disraeli’s career. Now the old politics defined by personalities shifted to an emergence of two parties with coherent policies. The party leaders, Disraeli and William E. Gladstone, were implacable enemies, and they polarized the parties.

At first Disraeli played a comparatively peaceful role. He tried to create a new image for the Conservative Party that he hoped would persuade the new electorate. His seeming apathy disturbed his followers, and his novel Lothair (3 vol., 1870), a political comedy, seemed to some of them undignified.

From 1872, however, Disraeli ran the party with a firm hand. He sharply differentiated Conservative from Liberal policy on several issues: he defended the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the church against what he took to be the threat of radical Liberal policy; he put forth a policy to consolidate the empire, with special emphasis on India; he dwelt on social reform; he enunciated a strong foreign policy, especially against Russia.

In 1872 Disraeli’s wife died of cancer after many months of illness. Her death brought material losses: her house in London and her fortune passed to cousins. At age 68 his health was not good, but he turned implacably to political battle. He began a romantic friendship with two sisters, Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield, with whom he corresponded on politics and his personal feelings until his death.

His political fortunes turned when Gladstone’s ministry was defeated in 1873. When Gladstone resigned, Disraeli refused to take office, pleading there was too much uncompleted business to dissolve Parliament, and that a minority government could only damage his party’s prospects. Gladstone reluctantly returned to office, but within a year he dissolved the Parliament himself. Disraeli had been at work on party organization and electoral machinery, and the Conservatives won a resounding victory in 1874.

Second administration.
Disraeli gained power too late. He aged rapidly during his second ministry. But he formed a strong Cabinet and profited from the friendship of the Queen, a political conservative who disliked Gladstone. Disraeli treated her as a human being, whereas Gladstone treated her as a political institution.

In regard to social reform, Disraeli was able at last to show that Tory democracy was more than a slogan. The Artizans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act made effective slum clearance possible. The Public Health Act of 1875 codified the complicated law on that subject. Equally important were an enlightened series of factory acts (1874, 1878) preventing the exploitation of labour and two trades union acts that clarified the legal position of those bodies.

Disraeli’s imperial and foreign policies were even more in the public eye. His first great success was the acquisition of Suez Canal shares. The extravagant and spendthrift khedive Ismāʾīl Pasha of Egypt owned slightly less than half the Suez Canal Company’s shares and was anxious to sell. An English journalist discovered this fact and told the Foreign Office. Disraeli overrode its recommendation against the purchase and bought the shares using funds provided by the Rothschild family until Parliament could confirm the bargain. The deal was seen as a notable triumph for imperial prestige. Early in 1876 Disraeli brought in a bill conferring on Queen Victoria the title empress of India. There was much opposition, and Disraeli would have gladly postponed it, but the Queen insisted. For some time his poor health had made leading the Commons onerous, so he accepted a peerage, taking the title earl of Beaconsfield, and became leader in the House of Lords.

Foreign policy largely occupied him until 1878. The Russian–Turkish conflict had lain dormant since the Crimean War in the 1850s, but Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire revolted against intolerable misrule. Russia declared war on Turkey in 1877 and reached the gates of Constantinople early in 1878. Britain feared for the safety of the route to India, but Disraeli correctly judged that a show of force would be enough to bring the exhausted Russian forces to terms. The highly Pan-Slavist Treaty of Stefano forced on Turkey by Russia had to be submitted to a European Congress at Berlin in 1878. Beaconsfield attended and won all concessions he wanted. He returned to London in triumph, declaring that he had brought back “peace with honour.”

At this climax of his career, the Queen offered him a dukedom, which he refused, and the Order of the Garter, which he accepted. Thereafter his fortunes waned with disaster in Afghanistan, forces slaughtered in South Africa, agricultural distress, and an industrial slump. The Conservatives were heavily defeated in the general election of 1880. Beaconsfield kept his party leadership and finished Endymion (3 vol., 1880), a mellow, nostalgic political novel viewing his early career. His health failed rapidly, and a few days after his burial in the family vault at Hughenden, Queen Victoria came to lay a wreath upon the tomb of her favourite prime minister.

Robert Norman William Blake, Baron Blake



Charles Kingsley

born June 12, 1819, Holne Vicarage, Devon, Eng.
died Jan. 23, 1875, Eversley, Hampshire

Anglican clergyman and writer whose successful fiction ranged from social-problem novels to historical romances and children’s literature.

The son of a clergyman, he grew up in Devon, where he developed an interest in nature study and geology. After graduating from Magdalene College, Cambridge, he was ordained in 1842 as curate of Eversley and two years later became parish priest there. Much influenced by the theologian Frederick Denison Maurice, he became in 1848 a founding member of the Christian Socialist movement, which sought to correct the evils of industrialism through measures based on Christian ethics. His first novel, Yeast (printed in Fraser’s Magazine, 1848; in book form, 1851), deals with the relations of the landed gentry to the rural poor. His second, the much superior Alton Locke (1850), is the story of a tailor-poet who rebels against the ignominy of sweated labour and becomes a leader of the Chartist movement. Kingsley advocated adult education, improved sanitation, and the growth of the cooperative movement, rather than political change, for the amelioration of social problems. The strenuous tone of his Broad Church Protestantism is often described as “muscular Christianity.” His novels, similarly, are often attributed to the “muscular” school of fiction.

Kingsley soon turned to writing popular historical novels. Hypatia (1853) is a luridly erotic story set in early Christian Egypt. Westward Ho! (1855) is an imperialist and anti-Roman Catholic adventure set in the Elizabethan period, and Hereward the Wake (1866) is about Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, also with an anti-Catholic slant. Kingsley’s fear of the trend within the church toward Roman Catholicism, growing out of the Oxford Movement, led to a notorious controversy with John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman. In answer to an attack by Kingsley, Newman wrote his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), the history of his religious development.

The didactic children’s fantasy The Water-Babies (1863) combines Kingsley’s concern for sanitary reform with his interest in natural history and the theory of evolution. He was also a very competent poet who wrote some memorable ballads (“Airly Beacon,” “The Sands of Dee,” “Young and Old” ). Kingsley became chaplain to Queen Victoria (1859), professor of modern history at Cambridge (1860–69), and canon of Westminster (1873). His brother Henry Kingsley was a novelist, and his niece Mary Henrietta Kingsley was a travel writer and adventurer.

The Brontės

The Brontë sisters, painted by their brother, Branwell c. 1834.
From left to right, Anne, Emily and Charlotte

In many ways, however, the qualities of Romantic verse could be absorbed, rather than simply superseded, by the Victorian novel. This is suggested clearly by the work of the Brontė sisters. Growing up in a remote but cultivated vicarage in Yorkshire, they, as children, invented the imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal. These inventions supplied the context for many of the poems in their first, and pseudonymous, publication, Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell (1846). Their Gothic plots and Byronic passions also informed the novels that began to be published in the following year.

Anne Brontė wrote of the painful reality of disagreeable experience, although both her novels have cheerful romantic endings. Agnes Grey (1847) is a stark account of the working life of a governess, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) paints a grim picture of the heroine’s marriage to an abusive husband.

Charlotte Brontė, like her sisters, appears at first sight to have been writing a literal fiction of provincial life. In her first novel, Jane Eyre (1847), for example, the heroine’s choice between sexual need and ethical duty belongs very firmly to the mode of moral realism. But her hair’s-breadth escape from a bigamous marriage with her employer and the death by fire of his mad first wife derive from the rather different tradition of the Gothic novel. In Shirley (1849) Charlotte Brontė strove to be, in her own words, “as unromantic as Monday morning.” In Villette (1853) the distinctive Gothic elements return to lend this study of the limits of stoicism an unexpected psychological intensity and drama.

Emily Brontė united these diverse traditions still more successfully in her only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847). Closely observed regional detail, precisely handled plot, and a sophisticated use of multiple internal narrators are combined with vivid imagery and an extravagantly Gothic theme. The result is a perfectly achieved study of elemental passions and the strongest possible refutation of the assumption that the age of the novel must also be an age of realism.


Anne Brontë


British author
pseudonym Acton Bell
born Jan. 17, 1820, Thornton, Yorkshire, Eng.
died May 28, 1849, Scarborough, Yorkshire

English poet and novelist, sister of Charlotte and Emily Brontë and author of Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

The youngest of six children of Patrick and Marie Brontë, Anne was taught in the family’s Haworth home and at Roe Head School. With her sister Emily, she invented the imaginary kingdom of Gondal, about which they wrote verse and prose (the latter now lost) from the early 1830s until 1845. She took a position as governess briefly in 1839 and then again for four years, 1841–45, with the Robinsons, the family of a clergyman, at Thorpe Green, near York. There her irresponsible brother, Branwell, joined her in 1843, intending to serve as a tutor. Anne returned home in 1845 and was followed shortly by her brother, who had been dismissed, charged with making love to his employer’s wife.
In 1846 Anne contributed 21 poems to Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, a joint work with her sisters Charlotte and Emily. Her first novel, Agnes Grey, was published together with Emily’s Wuthering Heights in three volumes (of which Agnes Grey was the third) in December 1847. The reception to these volumes, associated in the public mind with the immense popularity of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (October 1847), led to quick publication of Anne’s second novel (again as Acton Bell), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in three volumes in June 1848; it sold well. She fell ill with tuberculosis toward the end of the year and died the following May.
Her novel Agnes Grey, probably begun at Thorpe Green, records with limpidity and some humour the life of a governess. George Moore called it “simple and beautiful as a muslin dress.” The Tenant of Wildfell Hall presents an unsoftened picture of the debauchery and degradation of the heroine’s first husband and sets against it the Arminian belief, opposed to Calvinist predestination, that no soul shall be ultimately lost. Her outspokenness raised some scandal, and Charlotte deplored the subject as morbid and out of keeping with her sister’s nature, but the vigorous writing indicates that Anne found in it not only a moral obligation but also an opportunity of artistic development.




Charlotte Bronte


Illustrations by F. H. Townsend

British author
married name Mrs. Arthur Bell Nicholls, pseudonym Currer Bell

born April 21, 1816, Thornton, Yorkshire, England
died March 31, 1855, Haworth, Yorkshire

English novelist, noted for Jane Eyre (1847), a strong narrative of a woman in conflict with her natural desires and social condition. The novel gave new truthfulness to Victorian fiction. She later wrote Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853).

Her father was Patrick Brontë (1777–1861), an Anglican clergyman. Irish-born, he had changed his name from the more commonplace Brunty. After serving in several parishes, he moved with his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë, and their six small children to Haworth amid the Yorkshire moors in 1820, having been awarded a rectorship there. Soon after, Mrs. Brontë and the two eldest children (Maria and Elizabeth) died, leaving the father to care for the remaining three girls—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—and a boy, Patrick Branwell. Their upbringing was aided by an aunt, Elizabeth Branwell, who left her native Cornwall and took up residence with the family at Haworth.

In 1824 Charlotte and Emily, together with their elder sisters before their deaths, attended Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge, near Kirkby Lonsdale, Lancashire. The fees were low, the food unattractive, and the discipline harsh. Charlotte condemned the school (perhaps exaggeratedly) long years afterward in Jane Eyre, under the thin disguise of Lowood; and the principal, the Rev. William Carus Wilson, has been accepted as the counterpart of Mr. Naomi Brocklehurst in the novel.

Charlotte and Emily returned home in June 1825, and for more than five years the Brontë children learned and played there, writing and telling romantic tales for one another and inventing imaginative games played out at home or on the desolate moors.

In 1831 Charlotte was sent to Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, near Huddersfield, where she stayed a year and made some lasting friendships; her correspondence with one of her friends, Ellen Nussey, continued until her death, and has provided much of the current knowledge of her life. In 1832 she came home to teach her sisters but in 1835 returned to Roe Head as a teacher. She wished to improve her family’s position, and this was the only outlet that was offered to her unsatisfied energies. Branwell, moreover, was to start on his career as an artist, and it became necessary to supplement the family resources. The work, with its inevitable restrictions, was uncongenial to Charlotte. She fell into ill health and melancholia and in the summer of 1838 terminated her engagement.

In 1839 Charlotte declined a proposal from the Rev. Henry Nussey, her friend’s brother, and some months later one from another young clergyman. At the same time Charlotte’s ambition to make the practical best of her talents and the need to pay Branwell’s debts urged her to spend some months as governess with the Whites at Upperwood House, Rawdon. Branwell’s talents for writing and painting, his good classical scholarship, and his social charm had engendered high hopes for him; but he was fundamentally unstable, weak willed, and intemperate. He went from job to job and took refuge in alcohol and opium.

Meanwhile his sisters had planned to open a school together, which their aunt had agreed to finance, and in February 1842 Charlotte and Emily went to Brussels as pupils to improve their qualifications in French and acquire some German. The talent displayed by both brought them to the notice of Constantin Héger, a fine teacher and a man of unusual perception. After a brief trip home upon the death of her aunt, Charlotte returned to Brussels as a pupil-teacher. She stayed there during 1843 but was lonely and depressed. Her friends had left Brussels, and Madame Héger appears to have become jealous of her. The nature of Charlotte’s attachment to Héger and the degree to which she understood herself have been much discussed. His was the most interesting mind she had yet met, and he had perceived and evoked her latent talents. His strong and eccentric personality appealed both to her sense of humour and to her affections. She offered him an innocent but ardent devotion, but he tried to repress her emotions. The letters she wrote to him after her return may well be called love letters. When, however, he suggested that they were open to misapprehension, she stopped writing and applied herself, in silence, to disciplining her feelings. However they are interpreted, Charlotte’s experiences at Brussels were crucial for her development. She received a strict literary training, became aware of the resources of her own nature, and gathered material that served her, in various shapes, for all her novels.

In 1844 Charlotte attempted to start a school that she had long envisaged in the parsonage itself, as her father’s failing sight precluded his being left alone. Prospectuses were issued, but no pupils were attracted to distant Haworth.

In the autumn of 1845 Charlotte came across some poems by Emily, and this led to the publication of a joint volume of Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (1846), or Charlotte, Emily, and Anne; the pseudonyms were assumed to preserve secrecy and avoid the special treatment that they believed reviewers accorded to women. The book was issued at their own expense. It received few reviews and only two copies were sold. Nevertheless, a way had opened to them, and they were already trying to place the three novels they had written. Charlotte failed to place The Professor: A Tale but had, however, nearly finished Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, begun in August 1846 in Manchester, where she was staying with her father, who had gone there for an eye operation. When Smith, Elder and Company, declining The Professor, declared themselves willing to consider a three-volume novel with more action and excitement in it, she completed and submitted it at once. Jane Eyre was accepted, published less than eight weeks later (on Oct. 16, 1847), and had an immediate success, far greater than that of the books that her sisters published the same year.

The months that followed were tragic ones. Branwell died in September 1848, Emily in December, and Anne in May 1849. Charlotte completed Shirley: A Tale in the empty parsonage, and it appeared in October. In the following years Charlotte went three times to London as the guest of her publisher; there she met the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray and sat for her portrait by George Richmond. She stayed in 1851 with the writer Harriet Martineau and also visited her future biographer, Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell, in Manchester and entertained her at Haworth. Villette came out in January 1853. Meanwhile, in 1851, she had declined a third offer of marriage, this time from James Taylor, a member of Smith, Elder and Company. Her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls (1817–1906), an Irishman, was her fourth suitor. It took some months to win her father’s consent, but they were married on June 29, 1854, in Haworth church. They spent their honeymoon in Ireland and then returned to Haworth, where her husband had pledged himself to continue as curate to her father. He did not share his wife’s intellectual life, but she was happy to be loved for herself and to take up her duties as his wife. She began another book, Emma, of which some pages remain. Her pregnancy, however, was accompanied by exhausting sickness, and she died in 1855.

Jane Eyre and other novels.
Charlotte’s first novel, The Professor (published posthumously, 1857), shows her sober reaction from the indulgences of her girlhood. Told in the first person by an English tutor in Brussels, it is based on Charlotte’s experiences there, with a reversal of sexes and roles. The necessity of her genius, reinforced by reading her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, modified this restrictive self-discipline; and, though there is plenty of satire and dry, direct phrasing in Jane Eyre, its success was the fiery conviction with which it presented a thinking, feeling woman, craving for love but able to renounce it at the call of impassioned self-respect and moral conviction. The book’s narrator and main character, Jane Eyre, is an orphan and is governess to the ward of Mr. Rochester, the Byronic and enigmatic employer with whom she falls in love. Her love is reciprocated, but on the wedding morning it comes out that Rochester is already married and keeps his mad and depraved wife in the attics of his mansion. Jane leaves him, suffers hardship, and finds work as a village schoolmistress. When Jane learns, however, that Rochester has been maimed and blinded while trying vainly to rescue his wife from the burning house that she herself had set afire, Jane seeks him out and marries him. There are melodramatic naïvetés in the story, and Charlotte’s elevated rhetorical passages do not much appeal to modern taste, but she maintains her hold on the reader. The novel is subtitled An Autobiography and is written in the first person; but, except in Jane Eyre’s impressions of Lowood, the autobiography is not Charlotte’s. Personal experience is fused with suggestions from widely different sources, and the Cinderella theme may well come from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. The action is carefully motivated, and apparently episodic sections, like the return to Gateshead Hall, are seen to be necessary to the full expression of Jane’s character and the working out of the threefold moral theme of love, independence, and forgiveness.

In her novel Shirley, Charlotte avoided melodrama and coincidences and widened her scope. Setting aside Maria Edgworth and Sir Walter Scott as national novelists, Shirley is the first regional novel in English, full of shrewdly depicted local material—Yorkshire characters, church and chapel, the cloth workers and machine breakers of her father’s early manhood, and a sturdy but rather embittered feminism.

In Villette she recurred to the Brussels setting and the first-person narrative, disused in Shirley; the characters and incidents are largely variants of the people and life at the Pension Héger. Against this background she set the ardent heart, deprived of its object, contrasted with the woman happily fulfilled in love.

The influence of Charlotte’s novels was much more immediate than that of Wuthering Heights. Charlotte’s combination of romance and satiric realism had been the mode of nearly all the women novelists for a century. Her fruitful innovations were the presentation of a tale through the sensibility of a child or young woman, her lyricism, and the picture of love from a woman’s standpoint.

Joyce M.S. Tompkins




Emily Brontë

British author
pseudonym Ellis Bell
born July 30, 1818, Thornton, Yorkshire, Eng.
died Dec. 19, 1848, Haworth, Yorkshire

English novelist and poet who produced but one novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), a highly imaginative novel of passion and hate set on the Yorkshire moors. Emily was perhaps the greatest of the three Brontë sisters, but the record of her life is extremely meagre, for she was silent and reserved and left no correspondence of interest, and her single novel darkens rather than solves the mystery of her spiritual existence.

Her father, Patrick Brontë (1777–1861), an Irishman, held a number of curacies: Hartshead-cum-Clifton, Yorkshire, was the birthplace of his elder daughters, Maria and Elizabeth (who died young), and nearby Thornton that of Emily and her siblings Charlotte, Patrick Branwell, and Anne. In 1820 the father became rector of Haworth, remaining there for the rest of his life.

After the death of their mother in 1821, the children were left very much to themselves in the bleak moorland rectory. The children were educated, during their early life, at home, except for a single year that Charlotte and Emily spent at the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire. In 1835, when Charlotte secured a teaching position at Miss Wooler’s school at Roe Head, Emily accompanied her as a pupil but suffered from homesickness and remained only three months. In 1838 Emily spent six exhausting months as a teacher in Miss Patchett’s school at Law Hill, near Halifax, and then resigned.

To keep the family together at home, Charlotte planned to keep a school for girls at Haworth. In February 1842 she and Emily went to Brussels to learn foreign languages and school management at the Pension Héger. Although Emily pined for home and for the wild moorlands, it seems that in Brussels she was better appreciated than Charlotte. Her passionate nature was more easily understood than Charlotte’s decorous temperament. In October, however, when her aunt died, Emily returned permanently to Haworth.

In 1845 Charlotte came across some poems by Emily, and this led to the discovery that all three sisters—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—had written verse. A year later they published jointly a volume of verse, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, the initials of these pseudonyms being those of the sisters; it contained 21 of Emily’s poems, and a consensus of later criticism has accepted the fact that Emily’s verse alone reveals true poetic genius. The venture cost the sisters about £50 in all, and only two copies were sold.

By midsummer of 1847 Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey had been accepted for joint publication by J. Cautley Newby of London, but publication of the three volumes was delayed until the appearance of their sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, which was immediately and hugely successful. Wuthering Heights, when published in December 1847, did not fare well; critics were hostile, calling it too savage, too animal-like, and clumsy in construction. Only later did it come to be considered one of the finest novels in the English language.

Soon after the publication of her novel, Emily’s health began to fail rapidly. She had been ill for some time, but now her breathing became difficult, and she suffered great pain. She died of tuberculosis in December 1848.

Wuthering Heights.
Emily Brontë’s work on Wuthering Heights cannot be dated, and she may well have spent a long time on this intense, solidly imagined novel. It is distinguished from other novels of the period by its dramatic and poetic presentation, its abstention from all comment by the author, and its unusual structure. It recounts in the retrospective narrative of an onlooker, which in turn includes shorter narratives, the impact of the waif Heathcliff on the two families of Earnshaw and Linton in a remote Yorkshire district at the end of the 18th century. Embittered by abuse and by the marriage of Cathy Earnshaw—who shares his stormy nature and whom he loves—to the gentle and prosperous Edgar Linton, Heathcliff plans a revenge on both families, extending into the second generation. Cathy’s death in childbirth fails to set him free from his love-hate relationship with her, and the obsessive haunting persists until his death; the marriage of the surviving heirs of Earnshaw and Linton restores peace.

Sharing her sisters’ dry humour and Charlotte’s violent imagination, Emily diverges from them in making no use of the events of her own life and showing no preoccupation with a spinster’s state or a governess’s position. Working, like them, within a confined scene and with a small group of characters, she constructs an action, based on profound and primitive energies of love and hate, which proceeds logically and economically, making no use of such coincidences as Charlotte relies on, requiring no rich romantic similes or rhetorical patterns, and confining the superb dialogue to what is immediately relevant to the subject. The sombre power of the book and the elements of brutality in the characters affronted some 19th-century opinion. Its supposed masculine quality was adduced to support the claim, based on the memories of her brother Branwell’s friends long after his death, that he was author or part author of it. While it is not possible to clear up all the minor puzzles, neither the external nor the internal evidence offered is substantial enough to weigh against Charlotte’s plain statement that Emily was the author.

Joyce M.S. Tompkins



Early Victorian verse


Despite the growing prestige and proliferation of fiction, this age of the novel was in fact also an age of great poetry. Alfred Tennyson made his mark very early with Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830) and Poems (1832; dated 1833), publications that led some critics to hail him as the natural successor to Keats and Shelley. A decade later, in Poems (1842), Tennyson combined in two volumes the best of his early work with a second volume of more-recent writing. The collection established him as the outstanding poet of the era.

In his early work Tennyson brought an exquisite lyric gift to late Romantic subject matter. The result is a poetry that, for all its debt to Keats, anticipates the French Symbolists of the 1880s. The death of his friend and supporter Arthur Hallam in 1833, however, left him vulnerable to accusations from less-sympathetic critics that this highly subjective verse was insufficiently engaged with the public issues of the day. The second volume of the Poems of 1842 contains two remarkable responses to this challenge. One is the dramatic monologue, a form of poetry in which the speaker is a figure other than the poet. Used occasionally by writers since the time of the Greek poet Theocritus, the technique was developed independently by both Tennyson and his great contemporary Robert Browning in the 1830s, and it became the mode by which many of the greatest achievements of Victorian poetry were expressed. The other is the form that Tennyson called the “English Idyl,” in which he combined brilliant vignettes of contemporary landscape with relaxed debate.

In the major poems of his middle period, Tennyson combined the larger scale required by his new ambitions with his original gift for the brief lyric by building long poems out of short ones. In Memoriam (1850) is an elegy for Hallam, formed by 133 individual lyrics. Eloquent, vivid, and ample, it is at the same time an acute pathological study of individual grief and the central Victorian statement of the problems posed by the decline of Christian faith. Maud (1855) assembles 27 lyric poems into a single dramatic monologue that disturbingly explores the psychology of violence.

Tennyson became poet laureate in 1850 and wrote some apt and memorable poems on patriotic themes. The chief work of his later period, however, was Idylls of the King (1859–85). An Arthurian epic constructed as a series of idylls, or “little pictures,” it offers a sombre vision of an idealistic community in decay, implicitly articulating Tennyson’s anxieties about contemporary society.

G.K. Chesterton described Tennyson as “a suburban Virgil.” The elegant Virgilian note was the last thing aimed at by Robert Browning. Browning’s work was Germanic rather than Italianate, grotesque rather than idyllic, and colloquial rather than refined. The differences between Browning and Tennyson underline the creative diversity of the period.


Alfred, Lord Tennyson

"Idylls of the King"  PART I, PART II   Illustrations by G. Dore

"Lady of Shalott", "Sir Galahad"

English poet
byname Alfred, Lord Tennyson
born Aug. 6, 1809, Somersby, Lincolnshire, Eng.
died Oct. 6, 1892, Aldworth, Surrey

English poet often regarded as the chief representative of the Victorian age in poetry. He was raised to the peerage in 1884.

Early life and work
Tennyson was the fourth of 12 children, born into an old Lincolnshire family, his father a rector. Alfred, with two of his brothers, Frederick and Charles, was sent in 1815 to Louth grammar school—where he was unhappy. He left in 1820, but, though home conditions were difficult, his father managed to give him a wide literary education. Alfred was precocious, and before his teens he had composed in the styles of Alexander Pope, Sir Walter Scott, and John Milton. To his youth also belongs The Devil and the Lady (a collection of previously unpublished poems published posthumously in 1930), which shows an astonishing understanding of Elizabethan dramatic verse. Lord Byron was a dominant influence on the young Tennyson.

At the lonely rectory in Somersby the children were thrown upon their own resources. All writers on Tennyson emphasize the influence of the Lincolnshire countryside on his poetry: the plain, the sea about his home, “the sand-built ridge of heaped hills that mound the sea,” and “the waste enormous marsh.”

In 1824 the health of Tennyson’s father began to break down, and he took refuge in drink. Alfred, though depressed by unhappiness at home, continued to write, collaborating with Frederick and Charles in Poems by Two Brothers (1826; dated 1827). His contributions (more than half the volume) are mostly in fashionable styles of the day.

In 1827 Alfred and Charles joined Frederick at Trinity College, Cambridge. There Alfred made friends with Arthur Hallam, the gifted son of the historian Henry Hallam. This was the deepest friendship of Tennyson’s life. The friends became members of the Apostles, an exclusive undergraduate club of earnest intellectual interests. Tennyson’s reputation as a poet increased at Cambridge. In 1829 he won the chancellor’s gold medal with a poem called Timbuctoo. In 1830 Poems, Chiefly Lyrical was published; and in the same year Tennyson, Hallam, and other Apostles went to Spain to help in the unsuccessful revolution against Ferdinand VII. In the meantime, Hallam had become attached to Tennyson’s sister Emily but was forbidden by her father to correspond with her for a year.

In 1831 Tennyson’s father died. Alfred’s misery was increased by his grandfather’s discovery of his father’s debts. He left Cambridge without taking a degree, and his grandfather made financial arrangements for the family. In the same year, Hallam published a eulogistic article on Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in The Englishman’s Magazine. He went to Somersby in 1832 as the accepted suitor of Emily.

In 1832 Tennyson published another volume of his poems (dated 1833), including “The Lotos-Eaters,” “The Palace of Art,” and “The Lady of Shalott.” Among them was a satirical epigram on the critic Christopher North (pseudonym of the Scottish writer John Wilson), who had attacked Poems, Chiefly Lyrical in Blackwood’s Magazine. Tennyson’s sally prompted a scathing attack on his new volume in the Quarterly Review. The attacks distressed Tennyson, but he continued to revise his old poems and compose new ones.

In 1833 Hallam’s engagement was recognized by his family, but while on a visit to Vienna in September he died suddenly. The shock to Tennyson was severe. It came at a depressing time; three of his brothers, Edward, Charles, and Septimus, were suffering from mental illness, and the bad reception of his own work added to the gloom. Yet it was in this period that he wrote some of his most characteristic work: “The Two Voices” (of which the original title, significantly, was “Thoughts of a Suicide”), “Ulysses,” “St. Simeon Stylites,” and, probably, the first draft of “Morte d’Arthur.” To this period also belong some of the poems that became constituent parts of In Memoriam, celebrating Hallam’s death, and lyrics later worked into Maud.

In May 1836 his brother Charles married Louisa Sellwood of Horncastle, and at the wedding Alfred fell in love with her sister Emily. For some years the lovers corresponded, but Emily’s father disapproved of Tennyson because of his bohemianism, addiction to port and tobacco, and liberal religious views; and in 1840 he forbade the correspondence. Meanwhile the Tennysons had left Somersby and were living a rather wandering life nearer London. It was in this period that Tennyson made friends with many famous men, including the politician William Ewart Gladstone, the historian Thomas Carlyle, and the poet Walter Savage Landor.

Major literary work
In 1842 Tennyson published Poems, in two volumes, one containing a revised selection from the volumes of 1830 and 1832, the other, new poems. The new poems included “Morte d’Arthur,” “The Two Voices,” “Locksley Hall,” and “The Vision of Sin” and other poems that reveal a strange naïveté, such as “The May Queen,” “Lady Clara Vere de Vere,” and “The Lord of Burleigh.” The new volume was not on the whole well received. But the grant to him at this time, by the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, of a pension of £200 helped to alleviate his financial worries. In 1847 he published his first long poem, The Princess, a singular anti-feminist fantasia.

The year 1850 marked a turning point. Tennyson resumed his correspondence with Emily Sellwood, and their engagement was renewed and followed by marriage. Meanwhile, Edward Moxon offered to publish the elegies on Hallam that Tennyson had been composing over the years. They appeared, at first anonymously, as In Memoriam (1850), which had a great success with both reviewers and the public, won him the friendship of Queen Victoria, and helped bring about, in the same year, his appointment as poet laureate.

In Memoriam is a vast poem of 131 sections of varying length, with a prologue and epilogue. Inspired by the grief Tennyson felt at the untimely death of his friend Hallam, the poem touches on many intellectual issues of the Victorian Age as the author searches for the meaning of life and death and tries to come to terms with his sense of loss. Most notably, In Memoriam reflects the struggle to reconcile traditional religious faith and belief in immortality with the emerging theories of evolution and modern geology. The verses show the development over three years of the poet’s acceptance and understanding of his friend’s death and conclude with an epilogue, a happy marriage song on the occasion of the wedding of Tennyson’s sister Cecilia.

After his marriage, which was happy, Tennyson’s life became more secure and outwardly uneventful. There were two sons: Hallam and Lionel. The times of wandering and unsettlement ended in 1853, when the Tennysons took a house, Farringford, in the Isle of Wight. Tennyson was to spend most of the rest of his life there and at Aldworth (near Haslemere, Surrey).

Tennyson’s position as the national poet was confirmed by his Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington (1852)—though some critics at first thought it disappointing—and the famous poem on the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava, published in 1855 in Maud and Other Poems. Maud itself, a strange and turbulent “monodrama,” provoked a storm of protest; many of the poet’s admirers were shocked by the morbidity, hysteria, and bellicosity of the hero. Yet Maud was Tennyson’s favourite among his poems.

A project that Tennyson had long considered at last issued in Idylls of the King (1859), a series of 12 connected poems broadly surveying the legend of King Arthur from his falling in love with Guinevere to the ultimate ruin of his kingdom. The poems concentrate on the introduction of evil to Camelot because of the adulterous love of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, and on the consequent fading of the hope that had at first infused the Round Table fellowship. Idylls of the King had an immediate success, and Tennyson, who loathed publicity, had now acquired a sometimes embarrassing public fame. The Enoch Arden volume of 1864 perhaps represents the peak of his popularity. New Arthurian Idylls were published in The Holy Grail, and Other Poems in 1869 (dated 1870). These were again well received, though some readers were beginning to show discomfort at the “Victorian” moral atmosphere that Tennyson had introduced into his source material from Sir Thomas Malory.

In 1874 Tennyson decided to try his hand at poetic drama. Queen Mary appeared in 1875, and an abridged version was produced at the Lyceum in 1876 with only moderate success. It was followed by Harold (1876; dated 1877), Becket (not published in full until 1884), and the “village tragedy” The Promise of May, which proved a failure at the Globe in November 1882. This play—his only prose work—shows Tennyson’s growing despondency and resentment at the religious, moral, and political tendencies of the age. He had already caused some sensation by publishing a poem called “Despair” in The Nineteenth Century (November 1881). A more positive indication of Tennyson’s later beliefs appears in “The Ancient Sage,” published in Tiresias and Other Poems (1885). Here the poet records his intimations of a life before and beyond this life.

Tennyson accepted a peerage (after some hesitation) in 1884. In 1886 he published a new volume containing “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After,” consisting mainly of imprecations against modern decadence and liberalism and a retraction of the earlier poem’s belief in inevitable human progress.

In 1889 Tennyson wrote the famous short poem “Crossing the Bar,” during the crossing to the Isle of Wight. In the same year he published Demeter and Other Poems, which contains the charming retrospective “To Mary Boyle,” “The Progress of Spring,” a fine lyric written much earlier and rediscovered, and “Merlin and the Gleam,” an allegorical summing-up of his poetic career. In 1892 his play The Foresters was successfully produced in New York City. Despite ill health, he was able to correct the proofs of his last volume, The Death of Oenone, Akbar’s Dream, and Other Poems (1892).

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was the leading poet of the Victorian Age in England and by the mid-19th century had come to occupy a position similar to that of Alexander Pope in the 18th. Tennyson was a consummate poetic artist, consolidating and refining the traditions bequeathed to him by his predecessors in the Romantic movement—especially Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. His poetry is remarkable for its metrical variety, rich descriptive imagery, and exquisite verbal melodies. But Tennyson was also regarded as the preeminent spokesman for the educated middle-class Englishman, in moral and religious outlook and in political and social consciousness no less than in matters of taste and sentiment. His poetry dealt often with the doubts and difficulties of an age in which established Christian Faith and traditional assumptions about man’s nature and destiny were increasingly called into question by science and modern progress. His poetry dealt with these misgivings, moreover, as the intimate personal problems of a sensitive and troubled individual inclined to melancholy. Yet through his poetic mastery—the spaciousness and nobility of his best verse, its classical aptness of phrase, its distinctive harmony—he conveyed to sympathetic readers a feeling of implicit reassurance, even serenity. Tennyson may be seen as the first great English poet to be fully aware of the new picture of man’s place in the universe revealed by modern science. While the contemplation of this unprecedented human situation sometimes evoked his fears and forebodings, it also gave him a larger imaginative range than most of the poets of his time and added a greater depth and resonance to his art.

Tennyson’s ascendancy among Victorian poets began to be questioned even during his lifetime, however, when Robert Browning and Algernon Charles Swinburne were serious rivals. And 20th-century criticism, influenced by the rise of a new school of poetry headed by T.S. Eliot (though Eliot himself was an admirer of Tennyson), has proposed some drastic devaluations of his work. Undoubtedly much in Tennyson that appealed to his contemporaries has ceased to appeal to many readers today. He can be mawkish and banal, pompous and orotund, offering little more than the mellifluous versifying of shallow or confused thoughts. The rediscovery of such earlier poets as John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins (a poet of Tennyson’s own time who was then unknown to the public), together with the widespread acceptance of Eliot and W.B. Yeats as the leading modern poets, opened the ears of readers to a very different, and perhaps more varied, poetic music. A more balanced estimate of Tennyson has begun to prevail, however, with the recognition of the enduring greatness of “Ulysses,” the unique poignancy of Tennyson’s best lyric poems, and, above all, the stature of In Memoriam as the great representative poem of the Victorian Age. It is now also recognized that the realistic and comic aspects of Tennyson’s work are more important than they were thought to be during the period of the reaction against him. Finally, the perception of the poet’s awed sense of the mystery of life, which lies at the heart of his greatness, as in “Crossing the Bar” or “Flower in the Crannied Wall,” unites his admirers in this century with those in the last. Though less of Tennyson’s work may survive than appeared likely during his Victorian heyday, what does remain—and it is by no means small in quantity—seems likely to be imperishable.

William Wallace Robson



Arthur Hallam


born Feb. 1, 1811, London, Eng.
died Sept. 15, 1833, Vienna, Austria

English essayist and poet who died before his considerable talent developed; he is remembered principally as the friend of Alfred Tennyson commemorated in Tennyson’s elegy In Memoriam.

Hallam was the son of the English historian Henry Hallam. He met Tennyson at Trinity College, Cambridge (1828), where they joined other artistically and politically progressive students in the club called The Apostles. Hallam defended Tennyson’s early work, Poems, Chiefly Lyrical (1830), in a review for the Englishman’s Magazine and was engaged to Tennyson’s sister Emily (1832). Hallam’s prizewinning essays and critically acclaimed poems were collected and printed posthumously by his father, the historian Henry Hallam, in Remains, in Verse and Prose, of Arthur Henry Hallam (1834).


Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Deeply influenced by
Shelley, Robert Browning made two false starts. One was as a playwright in the 1830s and ’40s. The other was as the late-Romantic poet of the confessional meditation Pauline (1833) and the difficult though innovatory narrative poem Sordello (1840).

Browning found his individual and distinctively modern voice in 1842, with the volume Dramatic Lyrics. As the title suggests, it was a collection of dramatic monologues, among them Porphyria’s Lover, Johannes Agricola in Meditation, and My Last Duchess. The monologues make clear the radical originality of Browning’s new manner: they involve the reader in sympathetic identification with the interior processes of criminal or unconventional minds, requiring active rather than merely passive engagement in the processes of moral judgment and self-discovery. More such monologues and some equally striking lyrics make up Men and Women (1855).

In 1846 Browning married Elizabeth Barrett. Though now remembered chiefly for her love poems Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) and her experiment with the verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856; dated 1857), she was in her own lifetime far better known than her husband. Her Poems (1844) established her as a leading poet of the age. Casa Guidi Windows (1851) is a subtle reflection on her experience of Italian politics, and A Musical Instrument (1862) is one of the century’s most memorable expressions of the difficulty of the poet’s role. Only with the publication of Dramatis Personae (1864) did Robert Browning achieve the sort of fame that Tennyson had enjoyed for more than 20 years. The volume contains, in Rabbi Ben Ezra, the most extreme statement of Browning’s celebrated optimism. Hand in hand with this reassuring creed, however, go the skeptical intelligence and the sense of the grotesque displayed in such poems as Caliban upon Setebos and Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium.’ 

His The Ring and the Book (1868–69) gives the dramatic monologue format unprecedented scope. Published in parts, like a Dickens novel, it tells a sordid murder story in a way that both explores moral issues and suggests the problematic nature of human knowledge. Browning’s work after this date, though voluminous, is uneven.


Robert Browning

"Dramatic Romances"

British poet

born May 7, 1812, London
died Dec. 12, 1889, Venice

Major English poet of the Victorian age, noted for his mastery of dramatic monologue and psychological portraiture. His most noted work was The Ring and the Book (1868–69), the story of a Roman murder trial in 12 books.

The son of a clerk in the Bank of England in London, Browning received only a slight formal education, although his father gave him a grounding in Greek and Latin. In 1828 he attended classes at the University of London but left after half a session. Apart from a journey to St. Petersburg in 1834 with George de Benkhausen, the Russian consul general, and two short visits to Italy in 1838 and 1844, he lived with his parents in London until 1846, first at Camberwell and after 1840 at Hatcham. During this period (1832–46) he wrote his early long poems and most of his plays.

Browning’s first published work, Pauline: A Fragment of a Confession (1833, anonymous), although formally a dramatic monologue, embodied many of his own adolescent passions and anxieties. Although it received some favourable comment, it was attacked by John Stuart Mill, who condemned the poet’s exposure and exploitation of his own emotions and his “intense and morbid self-consciousness.” It was perhaps Mill’s critique that determined Browning never to confess his own emotions again in his poetry but to write objectively. In 1835 he published Paracelsus and in 1840 Sordello, both poems dealing with men of great ability striving to reconcile the demands of their own personalities with those of the world. Paracelsus was well received, but Sordello, which made exacting demands on its reader’s knowledge, was almost universally declared incomprehensible.

Encouraged by the actor Charles Macready, Browning devoted his main energies for some years to verse drama, a form that he had already adopted for Strafford (1837). Between 1841 and 1846, in a series of pamphlets under the general title of Bells and Pomegranates, he published seven more plays in verse, including Pippa Passes (1841), A Blot in the ’Scutcheon (produced in 1843), and Luria (1846). These, and all his earlier works except Strafford, were printed at his family’s expense. Although Browning enjoyed writing for the stage, he was not successful in the theatre, since his strength lay in depicting, as he had himself observed of Strafford, “Action in Character, rather than Character in Action.”

By 1845 the first phase of Browning’s life was near its end. In that year he met Elizabeth Barrett. In her Poems (1844) Barrett had included lines praising Browning, who wrote to thank her (January 1845). In May they met and soon discovered their love for each other. Barrett had, however, been for many years an invalid, confined to her room and thought incurable. Her father, moreover, was a dominant and selfish man, jealously fond of his daughter, who in turn had come to depend on his love. When her doctors ordered her to Italy for her health and her father refused to allow her to go, the lovers, who had been corresponding and meeting regularly, were forced to act. They were married secretly in September 1846; a week later they left for Pisa.

Throughout their married life, although they spent holidays in France and England, their home was in Italy, mainly at Florence, where they had a flat in Casa Guidi. Their income was small, although after the birth of their son, Robert, in 1849 Mrs. Browning’s cousin John Kenyon made them an allowance of £100 a year, and on his death in 1856 he left them £11,000.

Browning produced comparatively little poetry during his married life. Apart from a collected edition in 1849 he published only Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day (1850), an examination of different attitudes toward Christianity, perhaps having its immediate origin in the death of his mother in 1849; an introductory essay (1852) to some spurious letters of Shelley, Browning’s only considerable work in prose and his only piece of critical writing; and Men and Women (1855). This was a collection of 51 poems—dramatic lyrics such as “Memorabilia,” “Love Among the Ruins,” and “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”; the great monologues such as “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “How It Strikes a Contemporary,” and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”; and a very few poems in which implicitly (“By the Fireside”) or explicitly (“One Word More”) he broke his rule and spoke of himself and of his love for his wife. Men and Women, however, had no great sale, and many of the reviews were unfavourable and unhelpful. Disappointed for the first time by the reception of his work, Browning in the following years wrote little, sketching and modeling in clay by day and enjoying the society of his friends at night. At last Mrs. Browning’s health, which had been remarkably restored by her life in Italy, began to fail. On June 29, 1861, she died in her husband’s arms. In the autumn he returned slowly to London with his young son.

His first task on his return was to prepare his wife’s Last Poems for the press. At first he avoided company, but gradually he accepted invitations more freely and began to move in society. Another collected edition of his poems was called for in 1863, but Pauline was not included. When his next book of poems, Dramatis Personae (1864)—including “Abt Vogler,” “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” “Caliban upon Setebos,” and “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’ ”—reached two editions, it was clear that Browning had at last won a measure of popular recognition.

In 1868–69 he published his greatest work, The Ring and the Book, based on the proceedings in a murder trial in Rome in 1698. Grand alike in plan and execution, it was at once received with enthusiasm, and Browning was established as one of the most important literary figures of the day. For the rest of his life he was much in demand in London society. He spent his summers with friends in France, Scotland, or Switzerland or, after 1878, in Italy.

The most important works of his last years, when he wrote with great fluency, were the long narrative or dramatic poems, often dealing with contemporary themes, such as Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau (1871), Fifine at the Fair (1872), Red Cotton Night-Cap Country (1873), The Inn Album (1875), and the two series of Dramatic Idyls (1879 and 1880). He wrote a number of poems on classical subjects, including Balaustion’s Adventure (1871) and Aristophanes’ Apology (1875). In addition to many collections of shorter poems—Pacchiarotto and How He Worked in Distemper (1876), Jocoseria (1883), Ferishtah’s Fancies (1884), and Asolando: Fancies and Facts (1889)—Browning published toward the end of his life two books of unusually personal origin—La Saisiaz (1878), at once an elegy for his friend Anne Egerton-Smith and a meditation on mortality, and Parleyings with Certain People of Importance in Their Day (1887), in which he discussed books and ideas that had influenced him since his youth.

While staying in Venice in 1889, Browning caught cold, became seriously ill, and died on December 12. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Few poets have suffered more than Browning from hostile incomprehension or misplaced admiration, both arising very often from a failure to recognize the predominantly dramatic nature of his work. The bulk of his writing before 1846 was for the theatre; thereafter his major poems showed his increasing mastery of the dramatic monologue. This consists essentially of a narrative spoken by a single character and amplified by his comments on his story and the circumstances in which he is speaking. From his own knowledge of the historical or other events described, or else by inference from the poem itself, the reader is eventually enabled to assess the intelligence and honesty of the narrator and the value of the views he expresses. This type of dramatic monologue, since it depends on the unconscious provision by the speaker of the evidence by which the reader is to judge him, is eminently suitable for the ironist. Browning’s fondness for this form has, however, encouraged the two most common misconceptions of the nature of his poetry—that it is deliberately obscure and that its basic “message” is a facile optimism. Neither of these criticisms is groundless; both are incomplete.

Browning is not always difficult. In many poems, especially short lyrics, he achieves effects of obvious felicity. Nevertheless, his superficial difficulties, which prevent an easy understanding of the sense of a passage, are evident enough: his attempts to convey the broken and irregular rhythms of speech make it almost impossible to read the verse quickly; his elliptical syntax sometimes disconcerts and confuses the reader but can be mastered with little effort; certain poems, such as Sordello or “Old Pictures in Florence,” require a considerable acquaintance with their subjects in order to be understood; and his fondness for putting his monologues into the mouths of charlatans and sophists, such as Mr. Sludge or Napoleon III, obliges the reader to follow a chain of subtle or paradoxical arguments. All these characteristics stand in the way of easy reading.

But even when individual problems of style and technique have been resolved, the poems’ interest is seldom exhausted. First, Browning often chooses an unexpected point of view, especially in his monologues, thus forcing the reader to accept an unfamiliar perspective. Second, he is capable of startling changes of focus within a poem. For example, he chooses subjects in themselves insignificant, as in “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Master Hugues of Saxe-Gotha,” and treats through them the eternal themes of poetry. This transition from particular observation to transcendental truth presents much the same challenge to the reader as do the metaphysical poets of the 17th century and much the same excitement. Third, because Browning seldom presents a speaker without irony, there is a constant demand on the reader to appreciate exactly the direction of satiric force in the poem. Even in a melodious poem such as “A Toccata of Galuppi’s,” the valid position must be distinguished from the false at every turn of the argument, while in the major casuistic monologues, such as “Bishop Blougram’s Apology,” the shifts of sympathy are subtler still.

It has also been objected that Browning uses his poetry as a vehicle for his philosophy, which is not of itself profound or interesting, being limited to an easy optimism. But Browning’s dramatic monologues must, as he himself insisted, be recognized as the utterances of fictitious persons drawing their strength from their appropriateness in characterizing the speaker, and not as expressions of Browning’s own sentiments. Thus his great gallery of imagined characters is to be regarded as an exhaustive catalog of human motives, not as a series of self-portraits. Nevertheless, certain fundamental assumptions are made so regularly that they may be taken to represent Browning’s personal beliefs, such as his Christian faith. In matters of human conduct his sympathies are with those who show loving hearts, honest natures, and warmth of feeling; certainly these qualities are never satirized. He is in general on the side of those who commit themselves wholeheartedly to an ideal, even if they fail. By itself this might suggest rather a naive system of values, yet he also, sometimes even in the same poem, shows his understanding of those who have been forced to lower their standards and accept a compromise. Thus, although Browning is far from taking a cynical or pessimistic view of man’s nature or destiny, his hopes for the world are not simple and unreasoning.

In The Ring and the Book Browning displays all his distinctive qualities. He allows a dramatic monologue to each character he portrays—to the man on trial for murder, to his young wife, whom he has mortally wounded, to her protector, to various Roman citizens, to the opposing lawyers, and to the pope, who ultimately decides the accused’s fate. Each monologue deals with substantially the same occurrences, but each, of course, describes and interprets them differently. By permitting the true facts to emerge gradually by inference from these conflicting accounts, Browning reveals with increasing subtlety the true natures of his characters. As each great monologue illuminates the moral being of the speaker, it becomes clear that nothing less than the whole ethical basis of human actions is in question. For over 20,000 lines Browning explores his theme, employing an unfaltering blank verse, rising often to passages of moving poetry, realizing in extraordinary detail the life of 17th-century Rome, and creating a series of characters as diverse and fully realized as those in any novel.

During Browning’s lifetime, critical recognition came rapidly after 1864; and, although his books never sold as well as his wife’s or Tennyson’s, he thereafter acquired a considerable and enthusiastic public. In the 20th century his reputation, along with those of the other great Victorians, declined, and his work did not enjoy a wide reading public, perhaps in part because of increasing skepticism of the values implied in his poetry. He has, however, influenced many modern poets, such as Robert Frost and Ezra Pound, partly through his development of the dramatic monologue, with its emphasis on the psychology of the individual and his stream of consciousness, but even more through his success in writing about the variety of modern life in language that owed nothing to convention. As long as technical accomplishment, richness of texture, sustained imaginative power, and a warm interest in humanity are counted virtues, Browning will be numbered among the great English poets.

Philip Drew



Elizabeth Barrett Browning

"Sonnets from the Portuguese"

British poet
née Barrett

born March 6, 1806, near Durham, Durham, England
died June 29, 1861, Florence, Italy

English poet whose reputation rests chiefly upon her love poems, Sonnets from the Portuguese and Aurora Leigh, now considered an early feminist text. Her husband was Robert Browning.

Elizabeth was the eldest child of Edward Barrett Moulton (later Edward Moulton Barrett). Most of her girlhood was spent at a country house within sight of the Malvern Hills, in Worcestershire, where she was extraordinarily happy. At the age of 15, however, she fell seriously ill, probably as the result of a spinal injury, and her health was permanently affected. In 1832 the family moved to Sidmouth, Devon, and in 1836 they moved to London, where, in 1838, they took up residence at 50 Wimpole Street.

In London she contributed to several periodicals, and her first collection, The Seraphim and Other Poems, appeared in 1838. For reasons of health, she spent the next three years in Torquay, Devon, but after the death by drowning of her brother, Edward, she developed an almost morbid terror of meeting anyone apart from a small circle of intimates.

Her name, however, was well known in literary circles, and in 1844 her second volume of poetry, Poems, by E. Barrett Barrett, was enthusiastically received. In January 1845 she received from the poet Robert Browning a telegram: “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett. I do, as I say, love these books with all my heart—and I love you too.” In early summer the two met. Their courtship (whose daily progress is recorded in their letters) was kept a close secret from Elizabeth’s despotic father, of whom she stood in some fear. Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850) records her reluctance to marry, but their wedding had taken place on September 12, 1846. Her father knew nothing of it, and Elizabeth continued to live at home for a week.

The Brownings then left for Pisa. (When Barrett died in 1856, Elizabeth was still unforgiven.) While in Pisa she wrote The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point (Boston, 1848; London, 1849), a protest against slavery in the United States. The couple then settled in Florence, where their only child, Robert Wiedemann Barrett, was born in 1849. In 1851 and in 1855 the couple visited London; during the second visit, Elizabeth completed her most ambitious work, Aurora Leigh (1857), a long blank-verse poem telling the complicated and melodramatic love story of a young girl and a misguided philanthropist. This work did not impress most critics, though it was a huge popular success.

During the last years of her life, Mrs. Browning developed an interest in spiritualism and the occult, but her energy and attention were chiefly taken up by an obsession, to a degree that alarmed her closest friends, with Italian politics. Casa Guidi Windows (1851) had been a deliberate attempt to win sympathy for the Florentines, and she continued to believe in the integrity of Napoleon III. In Poems Before Congress (1860), the poem A Curse for a Nation was mistaken for a denunciation of England, whereas it was aimed at U.S. slavery.

In the summer of 1861 Mrs. Browning suffered a severe chill and died.


Arnold and Clough

Matthew Arnold’s first volume of verse, The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems (1849), combined lyric grace with an acute sense of the dark philosophical landscape of the period. The title poem of his next collection, Empedocles on Etna (1852), is a sustained statement of the modern dilemma and a remarkable poetic embodiment of the process that Arnold called “the dialogue of the mind with itself.” Arnold later suppressed this poem and attempted to write in a more impersonal manner. His greatest work (Switzerland, Dover Beach, The Scholar-Gipsy) is, however, always elegiac in tone. In the 1860s he turned from verse to prose and became, with Essays in Criticism (1865), Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Literature and Dogma (1873), a lively and acute writer of literary, social, and religious criticism.

Arnold’s friend Arthur Hugh Clough died young but managed nonetheless to produce three highly original poems. The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich (1848) is a narrative poem of modern life, written in hexameters. Amours de Voyage (1858) goes beyond this to the full-scale verse novel, using multiple internal narrators and vivid contemporary detail. Dipsychus (published posthumously in 1865 but not available in an unexpurgated version until 1951) is a remarkable closet drama that debates issues of belief and morality with a frankness, and a metrical liveliness, unequaled in Victorian verse.

Matthew Arnold


born Dec. 24, 1822, Laleham, Middlesex, Eng.
died April 15, 1888, Liverpool

English Victorian poet and literary and social critic, noted especially for his classical attacks on the contemporary tastes and manners of the “Barbarians” (the aristocracy), the “Philistines” (the commercial middle class), and the “Populace.” He became the apostle of “culture” in such works as Culture and Anarchy (1869).

Matthew was the eldest son of the renowned Thomas Arnold, who was appointed headmaster of Rugby School in 1828. Matthew entered Rugby (1837) and then attended Oxford as a scholar of Balliol College; there he won the Newdigate Prize with his poem Cromwell (1843) and was graduated with second-class honours in 1844. For Oxford Arnold retained an impassioned affection. His Oxford was the Oxford of John Henry Newman—of Newman just about to be received into the Roman Catholic Church; and although Arnold’s own religious thought, like his father’s, was strongly liberal, Oxford and Newman always remained for him joint symbols of spiritual beauty and culture.

In 1847 Arnold became private secretary to Lord Lansdowne, who occupied a high Cabinet post during Lord John Russell’s Liberal ministries. And in 1851, in order to secure the income needed for his marriage (June 1851) with Frances Lucy Wightman, he accepted from Lansdowne an appointment as inspector of schools. This was to be his routine occupation until within two years of his death. He engaged in incessant travelling throughout the British provinces and also several times was sent by the government to inquire into the state of education in France, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland. Two of his reports on schools abroad were reprinted as books, and his annual reports on schools at home attracted wide attention, written, as they were, in Arnold’s own urbane and civilized prose.

Poetic achievement.
The work that gives Arnold his high place in the history of literature and the history of ideas was all accomplished in the time he could spare from his official duties. His first volume of verse was The Strayed Reveller, and Other Poems. By A. (1849); this was followed (in 1852) by another under the same initial: Empedocles on Etna, and Other Poems. In 1853 appeared the first volume of poems published under his own name; it consisted partly of poems selected from the earlier volumes and also contained the well-known preface explaining (among other things) why Empedocles was excluded from the selection: it was a dramatic poem “in which the suffering finds no vent in action,” in which there is “everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” This preface foreshadows his later criticism in its insistence upon the classic virtues of unity, impersonality, universality, and architectonic power and upon the value of the classical masterpieces as models for “an age of spiritual discomfort”—an age “wanting in moral grandeur.” Other editions followed, and Merope, Arnold’s classical tragedy, appeared in 1858, and New Poems in 1867. After that date, though there were further editions, Arnold wrote little additional verse.

Not much of Arnold’s verse will stand the test of his own criteria; far from being classically poised, impersonal, serene, and grand, it is often intimate, personal, full of romantic regret, sentimental pessimism, and nostalgia. As a public and social character and as a prose writer, Arnold was sunny, debonair, and sanguine; but beneath ran the current of his buried life, and of this much of his poetry is the echo:

From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne

As from an infinitely distant land,

Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey

A melancholy into all our day.

“I am past thirty,” he wrote a friend in 1853, “and three parts iced over.” The impulse to write poetry came typically when

A bolt is shot back somewhere in the breast,

And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.

Though he was “never quite benumb’d by the world’s sway,” these hours of insight became more and more rare, and the stirrings of buried feeling were associated with moods of regret for lost youth, regret for the freshness of the early world, moods of self-pity, moods of longing for

The hills where his life rose

And the sea where it goes.

Yet, though much of Arnold’s most characteristic verse is in this vein of soliloquy or intimate confession, he can sometimes rise, as in “Sohrab and Rustum,” to epic severity and impersonality; to lofty meditation, as in “Dover Beach”; and to sustained magnificence and richness, as in “The Scholar Gipsy” and “Thyrsis”—where he wields an intricate stanza form without a stumble.

In 1857, assisted by the vote of his godfather (and predecessor) John Keble, Arnold was elected to the Oxford chair of poetry, which he held for 10 years. It was characteristic of him that he revolutionized this professorship. The keynote was struck in his inaugural lecture: “On the Modern Element in Literature,” “modern” being taken to mean not merely “contemporary” (for Greece was “modern”), but the spirit that, contemplating the vast and complex spectacle of life, craves for moral and intellectual “deliverance.” Several of the lectures were afterward published as critical essays, but the most substantial fruits of his professorship were the three lectures On Translating Homer (1861)—in which he recommended Homer’s plainness and nobility as medicine for the modern world, with its “sick hurry and divided aims” and condemned Francis Newman’s recent translation as ignoble and eccentric—and the lectures On the Study of Celtic Literature (1867), in which, without much knowledge of his subject or of anthropology, he used the Celtic strain as a symbol of that which rejects the despotism of the commonplace and the utilitarian.

Arnold as critic.
It is said that when the poet in Arnold died, the critic was born; and it is true that from this time onward he turned almost entirely to prose. Some of the leading ideas and phrases were early put into currency in Essays in Criticism (First Series, 1865; Second Series, 1888) and Culture and Anarchy. The first essay in the 1865 volume, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” is an overture announcing briefly most of the themes he developed more fully in later work. It is at once evident that he ascribes to “criticism” a scope and importance hitherto undreamed of. The function of criticism, in his sense, is “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” It is in fact a spirit that he is trying to foster, the spirit of an awakened and informed intelligence playing upon not “literature” merely but theology, history, art, science, sociology, and politics, and in every sphere seeking “to see the object as in itself it really is.”

In this critical effort, thought Arnold, England lagged behind France and Germany, and the English accordingly remained in a backwater of provinciality and complacency. Even the great Romantic poets, with all their creative energy, suffered from the want of it. The English literary critic must know literatures other than his own and be in touch with European standards. This last line of thought Arnold develops in the second essay, “The Literary Influence of Academies,” in which he dwells upon “the note of provinciality” in English literature, caused by remoteness from a “centre” of correct knowledge and correct taste. To realize how much Arnold widened the horizons of criticism requires only a glance at the titles of some of the other essays in Essays in Criticism (1865): “Maurice de Guérin,” “Eugénie de Guérin,” “Heinrich Heine,” “Joubert,” “Spinoza,” “Marcus Aurelius”; in all these, as increasingly in his later books, he is “applying modern ideas to life” as well as to letters and “bringing all things under the point of view of the 19th century.”

The first essay in the 1888 volume, “The Study of Poetry,” was originally published as the general introduction to T.H. Ward’s anthology, The English Poets (1880). It contains many of the ideas for which Arnold is best remembered. In an age of crumbling creeds, poetry will have to replace religion. More and more, we will “turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us.” Therefore we must know how to distinguish the best poetry from the inferior, the genuine from the counterfeit; and to do this we must steep ourselves in the work of the acknowledged masters, using as “touchstones” passages exemplifying their “high seriousness,” and their superiority of diction and movement.

The remaining essays, with the exception of the last two (on Tolstoy and Amiel), all deal with English poets: Milton, Gray, Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley. All contain memorable things, and all attempt a serious and responsible assessment of each poet’s “criticism of life” and his value as food for the modern spirit. Arnold has been taken to task for some of his judgments and omissions: for his judgment that Dryden and Pope were not “genuine” poets because they composed in their wits instead of “in the soul”; for calling Gray a “minor classic” in an age of prose and spiritual bleakness; for paying too much attention to the man behind the poetry (Gray, Keats, Shelley); for making no mention of Donne; and above all for saying that poetry is “at bottom a criticism of life.” On this last point it should be remembered that he added “under the conditions fixed. . .by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty,” and that if by “criticism” is understood (as Arnold meant) “evaluation,” Arnold’s dictum is seen to have wider significance than has been sometimes supposed.

Culture and Anarchy is in some ways Arnold’s most central work. It is an expansion of his earlier attacks, in “The Function of Criticism” and “Heinrich Heine,” upon the smugness, philistinism, and mammon worship of Victorian England. Culture, as “the study of perfection,” is opposed to the prevalent “anarchy” of a new democracy without standards and without a sense of direction. By “turning a stream of fresh thought upon our stock notions and habits,” culture seeks to make “reason and the will of God prevail.”

Arnold’s classification of English society into Barbarians (with their high spirit, serenity, and distinguished manners and their inaccessibility to ideas), Philistines (the stronghold of religious nonconformity, with plenty of energy and morality but insufficient “sweetness and light”), and Populace (still raw and blind) is well known. Arnold saw in the Philistines the key to the whole position; they were now the most influential section of society; their strength was the nation’s strength, their crudeness its crudeness: Educate and humanize the Philistines, therefore. Arnold saw in the idea of “the State,” and not in any one class of society, the true organ and repository of the nation’s collective “best self.” No summary can do justice to this extraordinary book; it can still be read with pure enjoyment, for it is written with an inward poise, a serene detachment, and an infusion of mental laughter, which make it a masterpiece of ridicule as well as a searching analysis of Victorian society. The same is true of its unduly neglected sequel, Friendship’s Garland (1871).

Religious writings.
Lastly Arnold turned to religion, the constant preoccupation and true centre of his whole life, and wrote St. Paul and Protestantism (1870), Literature and Dogma (1873), God and the Bible (1875), and Last Essays on Church and Religion (1877). In these books, Arnold really founded Anglican “modernism.” Like all religious liberals, he came under fire from two sides: from the orthodox, who accused him of infidelity, of turning God into a “stream of tendency” and of substituting vague emotion for definite belief; and from the infidels, for clinging to the church and retaining certain Christian beliefs of which he had undermined the foundations. Arnold considered his religious writings to be constructive and conservative. Those who accused him of destructiveness did not realize how far historical and scientific criticism had already riddled the old foundations; and those who accused him of timidity failed to see that he regarded religion as the highest form of culture, the one indispensable without which all secular education is in vain. His attitude is best summed up in his own words (from the preface to God and the Bible): “At the present moment two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head. One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” Convinced that much in popular religion was “touched with the finger of death” and convinced no less of the hopelessness of man without religion, he sought to find for religion a basis of “scientific fact” that even the positive modern spirit must accept. A reading of Arnold’s Note Books will convince any reader of the depth of Arnold’s spirituality and of the degree to which, in his “buried life,” he disciplined himself in constant devotion and self-forgetfulness.

Arnold died suddenly, of heart failure, in the spring of 1888, at Liverpool and was buried at Laleham, with the three sons whose early loss had shadowed his life.

Basil Willey


Arthur Hugh Clough

born Jan. 1, 1819, Liverpool
died Nov. 13, 1861, Florence

poet whose work reflects the perplexity and religious doubt of mid-19th century England. He was a friend of Matthew Arnold and the subject of Arnold’s commemorative elegy “Thyrsis.”

While at Oxford, Clough had intended to become a clergyman, but his increasing religious skepticism caused him to leave the university. He became head of University Hall, London, in 1849, and in 1852, at the invitation of Ralph Waldo Emerson, he spent several months lecturing in Massachusetts. He later worked as a government education official and helped his wife’s first cousin, Florence Nightingale, in her philanthropic work. While on a visit to Italy he contracted malaria and died at age 42.

Clough’s deeply critical and questioning attitude made him as doubtful of his own powers as he was about the spirit of his age, and he gave his contemporaries the impression of promise unfulfilled, especially since he left the bulk of his verse unpublished. Nonetheless, Clough’s Poems (1862) proved so popular that they were reprinted 16 times within 40 years of his death. His best verse has a flavour that is closer to the taste and temper of the 20th century than to the Victorian age, however. Among his works are Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich (1848) and Amours de Voyage (1858), poems written in classical hexameters and dealing with romantic love, doubt, and social conflict. The long, incomplete poem Dipsychus most fully expresses Clough’s doubts about the social and spiritual developments of his era, while his sharpest criticisms of Victorian moral complacency are found in “The Latest Decalogue”:

Thou shalt not kill, but need’st not strive

Officiously to keep alive.

The Poems of Arthur Hugh Clough (1974), edited by F.L. Mulhauser, is the standard edition of Clough’s work.


Early Victorian nonfiction prose

Carlyle may be said to have initiated Victorian literature with Sartor Resartus. He continued thereafter to have a powerful effect on its development. The French Revolution (1837), the book that made him famous, spoke very directly to this consciously postrevolutionary age. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) combined the Romantic idea of the genius with a further statement of German transcendentalist philosophy, which Carlyle opposed to the influential doctrines of empiricism and utilitarianism. Carlyle’s political writing, in Chartism (1839; dated 1840), Past and Present (1843), and the splenetic Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), inspired other writers to similar “prophetic” denunciations of laissez-faire economics and utilitarian ethics. The first importance of John Ruskin is as an art critic who, in Modern Painters (5 vol., 1843–60), brought Romantic theory to the study of painting and forged an appropriate prose for its expression. But in The Stones of Venice (3 vol., 1851–53), Ruskin took the political medievalism of Carlyle’s Past and Present and gave it a poetic fullness and force. This imaginative engagement with social and economic problems continued into Unto This Last (1860), The Crown of Wild Olive (1866), and Fors Clavigera (1871–84). John Henry Newman was a poet, novelist, and theologian who wrote many of the tracts, published as Tracts for the Times (1833–41), that promoted the Oxford movement, which sought to reassert the Roman Catholic identity of the Church of England. His subsequent religious development is memorably described in his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864), one of the many great autobiographies of this introspective century.

John Ruskin
"The King of the Golden River" Illustrations by Maria L. Kirk


John Ruskin

"The King of the Golden River"

Illustrations by Maria L. Kirk

born February 8, 1819, London, England
died January 20, 1900, Coniston, Lancashire

English critic of art, architecture, and society who was a gifted painter, a distinctive prose stylist, and an important example of the Victorian Sage, or Prophet: a writer of polemical prose who seeks to cause widespread cultural and social change.

Early life and influences
Ruskin was born into the commercial classes of the prosperous and powerful Britain of the years immediately following the Napoleonic Wars. His father, John James Ruskin, was a Scots wine merchant who had moved to London and made a fortune in the sherry trade. John Ruskin, an only child, was largely educated at home, where he was given a taste for art by his father’s collecting of contemporary watercolours and a minute and comprehensive knowledge of the Bible by his piously Protestant mother.

This combination of the religious intensity of the Evangelical Revival and the artistic excitement of English Romantic painting laid the foundations of Ruskin’s later views. In his formative years, painters such as J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, and John Sell Cotman were at the peak of their careers. At the same time religious writers and preachers such as Charles Simeon, John Keble, Thomas Arnold, and John Henry Newman were establishing the spiritual and ethical preoccupations that would characterize the reign of Queen Victoria. Ruskin’s family background in the world of business was significant, too: it not only provided the means for his extensive travels to see paintings, buildings, and landscapes in Britain and continental Europe but also gave him an understanding of the newly rich, middle-class audience for which his books would be written.

Ruskin discovered the work of Turner through the illustrations to an edition of Samuel Rogers’s poem Italy given him by a business partner of his father in 1833. By the mid-1830s he was publishing short pieces in both prose and verse in magazines, and in 1836 he was provoked into drafting a reply (unpublished) to an attack on Turner’s painting by the art critic of Blackwood’s Magazine. After five years at the University of Oxford, during which he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry but was prevented by ill health from sitting for an honours degree, Ruskin returned, in 1842, to his abandoned project of defending and explaining the late work of Turner.

Art criticism
In 1843 Ruskin published the first volume of Modern Painters, a book that would eventually consist of five volumes and occupy him for the next 17 years. His first purpose was to insist on the “truth” of the depiction of Nature in Turner’s landscape paintings. Neoclassical critics had attacked the later work of Turner, with its proto-Impressionist concern for effects of light and atmosphere, for mimetic inaccuracy, and for a failure to represent the “general truth” that had been an essential criterion of painting in the age of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Drawing on his serious amateur interests in geology, botany, and meteorology, Ruskin made it his business to demonstrate in detail that Turner’s work was everywhere based on a profound knowledge of the local and particular truths of natural form. One after another, Turner’s “truth of tone,” “truth of colour,” “truth of space,” “truth of skies,” “truth of earth,” “truth of water,” and “truth of vegetation” were minutely considered, in a laborious project that would not be completed until the appearance of the fifth and final volume of Modern Painters in 1860.

This shift of concern from general to particular conceptions of truth was a key feature of Romantic thought, and Ruskin’s first major achievement was thus to bring the assumptions of Romanticism to the practice of art criticism. By 1843 avant-garde painters had been working in this new spirit for several decades, but criticism and public understanding had lagged behind. More decisively than any previous writer, Ruskin brought 19th-century English painting and 19th-century English art criticism into sympathetic alignment. As he did so, he alerted readers to the fact that they had, in Turner, one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art alive and working among them in contemporary London, and, in the broader school of English landscape painting, a major modern art movement.

Ruskin did this in a prose style peculiarly well adapted to the discussion of the visual arts in an era when there was limited reproductive illustration and no easy access to well-stocked public art galleries. In these circumstances the critic was obliged to create in words an effective sensory and emotional substitute for visual experience. Working in the tradition of the Romantic poetic prose of Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey, though more immediately influenced by the descriptive writing of Sir Walter Scott, the rhetoric of the Bible, and the blank verse of William Wordsworth, Ruskin vividly evoked the effect on the human eye and sensibility both of Turner’s paintings and of the actual landscapes that Turner and other artists had sought to represent.

In the process Ruskin introduced the newly wealthy commercial and professional classes of the English-speaking world to the possibility of enjoying and collecting art. Since most of them had been shaped by an austerely puritanical religious tradition, Ruskin knew that they would be suspicious of claims for painting that stressed its sensual or hedonic qualities. Instead, he defined painting as “a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.” What that language expressed, in Romantic landscape painting, was a Wordsworthian sense of a divine presence in Nature: a morally instructive natural theology in which God spoke through physical “types.” Conscious of the spiritual significance of the natural world, young painters should “go to Nature in all singleness of heart…having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remember her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.”

Three years later, in the second volume of Modern Painters (1846), Ruskin would specifically distinguish this strenuously ethical or Theoretic conception of art from the Aesthetic, undidactic, or art-for-art’s-sake definition that would be its great rival in the second half of the 19th century. Despite his friendships with individual Aesthetes, Ruskin would remain the dominant spokesman for a morally and socially committed conception of art throughout his lifetime.

Art, architecture, and society
After the publication of the first volume of Modern Painters in 1843, Ruskin became aware of another avant-garde artistic movement: the critical rediscovery of the painting of the Gothic Middle Ages. He wrote about these Idealist painters (especially Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Benozzo Gozzoli) at the end of the second volume of Modern Painters, and he belatedly added an account of them to the third edition of the first volume in 1846. These medieval religious artists could provide, he believed, in a way in which the Dutch, French, and Italian painters of the 17th and 18th centuries could not, an inspiring model for the art of the “modern” age.

This medievalist enthusiasm was one reason that Ruskin was so ready to lend his support to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a group of young English artists formed in 1848 to reject the Neoclassical assumptions of contemporary art schools. Ruskin published an enthusiastic pamphlet about the PRB (in which he misleadingly identified them as the natural heirs of Turner) in 1851, wrote letters to the Times in 1851 and 1854 to defend them from their critics, and recommended their work in his Edinburgh Lectures of 1853 (published 1854).

But medievalism was even more important in the field of architecture, where the Gothic Revival was as direct an expression of the new Romantic spirit as the landscape painting of Turner or Constable. Ruskin had been involved in a major Gothic Revival building project in 1844, when George Gilbert Scott redesigned Ruskin’s parents’ parish church, St. Giles’s Camberwell. In 1848, newly married to Euphemia (Effie) Gray, Ruskin went on a honeymoon tour of the Gothic churches of northern France and began to write his first major book on buildings, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Conceived in the disturbing context of the European revolutions of 1848, the book lays down seven moral principles (or “Lamps”) to guide architectural practice, one of which, “The Lamp of Memory,” articulates the scrupulous respect for the original fabric of old buildings that would inspire William Morris and, through him, the conservation movement of the 20th century. In November Ruskin went abroad again, this time to Venice to research a more substantial book on architecture.

The Stones of Venice was published in three volumes, one in 1851 and two more in 1853. In part it is a laboriously researched history of Venetian architecture, based on long months of direct study of the original buildings, then in a condition of serious neglect and decay. But it is also a book of moral and social polemic with the imaginative structure of a Miltonic or Wordsworthian sublime epic. Ruskin’s narrative charts the fall of Venice from its medieval Eden, through the impiety and arrogance (as Ruskin saw it) of the Renaissance, to its modern condition of political impotence and social frivolity. As such, the book is a distinguished late example of the political medievalism found in the work of William Cobbett, Robert Southey, Thomas Carlyle, and the Young England movement of the 1840s. Ruskin differs from these predecessors both in the poetic power of his prose and in his distinctive—and widely influential—insistence that art and architecture are, necessarily, the direct expression of the social conditions in which they were produced. Here, as elsewhere, the Aesthetic movement, with its view of art as a rebellious alternative to the social norm and its enthusiasm for Renaissance texts and artifacts, stands in direct contrast to Ruskin’s Theoretic views.

The Stones of Venice was influential in other ways as well. Its celebration of Italian Gothic encouraged the use of foreign models in English Gothic Revival architecture. By 1874 Ruskin would regret the extent to which architects had “dignified our banks and drapers’ shops with Venetian tracery.” But, for good or ill, his writing played a key part in establishing the view that the architectural style of Venice, the great maritime trading nation of the medieval world, was particularly appropriate for buildings in modern Britain. The other enduring influence derived, more subtly, from a single chapter in the second volume, “The Nature of Gothic.” There Ruskin identified “imperfection” as an essential feature of Gothic art, contrasting it with the mechanical regularity of Neoclassical buildings and modern mass production. Gothic architecture, he believed, allowed a significant degree of creative freedom and artistic fulfillment to the individual workman. We could not, and should not, take pleasure in an object that had not itself been made with pleasure. In this proposition lay the roots both of Ruskin’s own quarrel with industrial capitalism and of the Arts and Crafts movement of the later 19th century.

Cultural criticism
Turner died in 1851. Ruskin’s marriage was dissolved, on grounds of nonconsummation, in 1854, leaving the former Effie Gray free to marry the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais. Ruskin withdrew somewhat from society. He traveled extensively in Europe and, from 1856 to 1858, took on a considerable body of administrative work as the chief artistic executor of Turner’s estate. He contributed both financially and physically to the construction of a major Gothic Revival building: Benjamin Woodward’s Oxford University Museum. In 1856 he published the third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters, with their penetrating inquiry into the reasons for the predominance of landscape painting in 19th-century art and their invention of the important critical term “pathetic fallacy.” His annual Academy Notes (a series of pamphlets issued by an English publisher from 1855 to 1859) sustained his reputation as a persuasive commentator on contemporary painting. But by 1858 Ruskin was beginning to move on from the specialist criticism of art and architecture to a wider concern with the cultural condition of his age. His growing friendship with the historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle contributed to this process. Like Carlyle, Ruskin began to adopt the “prophetic” stance, familiar from the Bible, of a voice crying from the wilderness and seeking to call a lapsed people back into the paths of righteousness.

This marginal role as a disenchanted outsider both legitimized and, to an extent, required a ferocity and oddness that would be conspicuous features of Ruskin’s later career. In 1858 Ruskin lectured on “The Work of Iron in Nature, Art and Policy” (published in The Two Paths, 1859), a text in which both the radical-conservative temper and the symbolic method of his later cultural criticism are clearly established. Beginning as an art critic, Ruskin contrasts the exquisite sculptured iron grilles of medieval Verona with the mass-produced metal security railings with which modern citizens protect their houses. The artistic contrast is, of course, also a social contrast, and Ruskin goes rapidly beyond this to a symbolic assertion of the “iron” values involved in his definition of the just society. By wearing the fetters of a benignly neofeudalist social order, men and women, Ruskin believed, might lead lives of greater aesthetic fulfillment, in an environment less degraded by industrial pollution.

These values are persistently restated in Ruskin’s writings of the 1860s, sometimes in surprising ways. Unto This Last and Munera Pulveris (1862 and 1872 as books, though published in magazines in 1860 and 1862–63) are attacks on the classical economics of Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Neither book makes any significant technical contribution to the study of economics (though Ruskin thought otherwise); both memorably express Ruskin’s moral outrage at the extent to which the materialist and utilitarian ethical assumptions implicit in this new technique for understanding human behaviour had come to be accepted as normative. Sesame and Lilies (1865) would become notorious in the late 20th century as a stock example of Victorian male chauvinism. In fact, Ruskin was using the conventional construction of the feminine, as pacific, altruistic, and uncompetitive, to articulate yet another symbolic assertion of his anticapitalist social model. The Crown of Wild Olive (1866, enlarged in 1873) collects some of the best specimens of Ruskin’s Carlylean manner, notably the lecture “Traffic” of 1864, which memorably draws its audience’s attention to the hypocrisy manifested by their choice of Gothic architecture for their churches but Neoclassical designs for their homes.

The dogmatic Protestantism of Ruskin’s childhood had been partially abandoned in 1858, after an “unconversion” experience in Turin. Ten years later, in a moving lecture on “The Mystery of Life and Its Arts,” Ruskin reflected on his returning sense of the spiritual and transcendent. In The Queen of the Air (1869) he attempted to express his old concept of a divine power in Nature in new terms calculated for an age in which assent to the Christian faith was no longer automatic or universal. Through an account of the Greek myth of Athena, Ruskin sought to suggest an enduring human need for—and implicit recognition of—the supernatural authority on which the moral stresses of his artistic, political, and cultural views depend.

His father’s death in 1864 had left Ruskin a wealthy man. He used his wealth, in part, to promote idealistic social causes, notably the Guild of St. George, a pastoral community first planned in 1871 and formally constituted seven years later. From 1866 to 1875 he was unhappily in love with a woman 30 years his junior, Rose La Touche, whose physical and mental deterioration caused him acute distress. During these years he began, himself, to show signs of serious psychological illness. In 1871 he bought Brantwood, a house in the English Lake District (now a museum of his work) and lived there for the rest of his life.

Ruskin’s appointment as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford in 1870 was a welcome encouragement at a troubled stage of his career, and in the following year he launched Fors Clavigera, a one-man monthly magazine in which, from 1871 to 1878 and 1880 to 1884 he developed his idiosyncratic cultural theories. Like his successive series of Oxford lectures (1870–79 and 1883–84), Fors is an unpredictable mixture of striking insights, powerful rhetoric, self-indulgence, bigotry, and occasional incoherence. As a by-product of the Fors project, however, Ruskin wrote his last major work: his autobiography, Praeterita (1885–89). Unfinished, shamelessly partial (it omits, for example, all mention of his marriage), and chronologically untrustworthy, it provides a subtle and memorable history of the growth of Ruskin’s distinctive sensibility.

In November 1878 the painter James McNeill Whistler’s action for libel against Ruskin—brought after Ruskin’s attack on the impressionist manner of a Whistler Nocturne—came to trial. The trial made the conflict between Ruskin’s moral view of art and Whistler’s Aestheticism a matter of wide public interest. Whistler, awarded only a farthing’s damages and no costs, was driven into bankruptcy. Ruskin suffered no financial ill effects, but his reputation as an art critic was seriously harmed. After this date there was a growing tendency to see him as an enemy of modern art: blinkered, eccentric, and out-of-date.

Modernist artists and critics rejected Ruskin. His stress on the moral, social, and spiritual purposes of art and his Naturalist theory of visual representation were unpopular in the era of Impressionism, Cubism, and Dada. Gothic Revival buildings became deeply unfashionable; the architecture critic Geoffrey Scott, in 1914, would dismiss Ruskin’s architectural theory as “The Ethical Fallacy.”

Since then, Ruskin has gradually been rediscovered. His formative importance as a thinker about ecology, about the conservation of buildings and environments, about Romantic painting, about art education, and about the human cost of the mechanization of work became steadily more obvious. The outstanding quality of his own drawings and watercolours (modestly treated in his lifetime as working notes or amateur sketches) was increasingly acknowledged, as was his role as a stimulus to the flowering of British painting, architecture, and decorative art in the second half of the 19th century.

Above all, Ruskin was rediscovered as a great writer of English prose. Frequently self-contradictory, hectoringly moralistic, and insufficiently informed, Ruskin was nonetheless gifted with exceptional powers of perception and expression. These are the gifts that the poet Matthew Arnold acknowledged when he spoke of “the genius, the feeling, the temperament” of the descriptive writing in the fourth volume of Modern Painters. This unusual capacity to see things and to say what he saw makes Ruskin’s work not just an important episode in the history of taste but also an enduring and distinctive part of English literature.

Nicholas Shrimpton



John Henry Newman


born Feb. 21, 1801, London, Eng.
died Aug. 11, 1890, Birmingham, Warwick

influential churchman and man of letters of the 19th century, who led the Oxford Movement in the Church of England and later became a cardinal-deacon in the Roman Catholic church. His eloquent books, notably Parochial and Plain Sermons (1834–42), Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), and University Sermons (1843), revived emphasis on the dogmatic authority of the church and urged reforms of the Church of England after the pattern of the original “catholic,” or universal, church of the first five centuries ad. By 1845 he came to view the Roman Catholic church as the true modern development from the original body.

Early life and education.
Newman was born in London in 1801. After pursuing his education in an evangelical home and at Trinity College, Oxford, he was made a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, in 1822, vice principal of Alban Hall in 1825, and vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford, in 1828. Under the influence of the clergyman John Keble and Richard Hurrell Froude, Newman became a convinced high churchman (one of those who emphasized the Anglican church’s continuation of the ancient Christian tradition, particularly as regards the episcopate, priesthood, and sacraments).

Association with the Oxford Movement.
When the Oxford Movement began Newman was its effective organizer and intellectual leader, supplying the most acute thought produced by it. A High Church movement within the Church of England, the Oxford Movement was started at Oxford in 1833 with the object of stressing the Catholic elements in the English religious tradition and of reforming the Church of England. Newman’s editing of the Tracts for the Times and his contributing of 24 tracts among them were less significant for the influence of the movement than his books, especially the Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church (1837), the classic statement of the Tractarian doctrine of authority; the University Sermons (1843), similarly classical for the theory of religious belief; and above all his Parochial and Plain Sermons (1834–42), which in their published form took the principles of the movement, in their best expression, into the country at large.

In 1838 and 1839 Newman was beginning to exercise far-reaching influence in the Church of England. His stress upon the dogmatic authority of the church was felt to be a much-needed reemphasis in a new liberal age. He seemed decisively to know what he stood for and where he was going, and in the quality of his personal devotion his followers found a man who practiced what he preached. Moreover, he had been endowed with the gift of writing sensitive and sometimes magical prose.

Newman was contending that the Church of England represented true catholicity and that the test of this catholicity (as against Rome upon the one side and what he termed “the popular Protestants” upon the other) lay in the teaching of the ancient and undivided church of the Fathers. From 1834 onward this middle way was beginning to be attacked on the ground that it undervalued the Reformation; and when in 1838–39 Newman and Keble published Froude’s Remains, in which the Reformation was violently denounced, moderate men began to suspect their leader. Their worst fears were confirmed in 1841 by Newman’s Tract 90, which, in reconciling the Thirty-nine Articles with the teaching of the ancient and undivided church, appeared to some to assert that the articles were not incompatible with the doctrines of the Council of Trent; and Newman’s extreme disciple, W.G. Ward, claimed that this was indeed the consequence. Bishop Richard Bagot of Oxford requested that the tracts be suspended; and in the distress of the consequent denunciations Newman increasingly withdrew into isolation, his confidence in himself shattered and his belief in the catholicity of the English church weakening. He moved out of Oxford to his chapelry of Littlemore, where he gathered a few of his intimate disciples and established a quasi-monastery.

Conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Newman resigned St. Mary’s, Oxford, on Sept. 18, 1843, and preached his last Anglican sermon (“The Parting of Friends”) in Littlemore Church a week later. He delayed long, because his intellectual integrity found an obstacle in the historical contrast between the early church and the modern Roman Catholic church. Meditating upon the idea of development, a word then much discussed in connection with biological evolution, he applied the law of historical development to Christian society and tried to show (to himself as much as to others) that the early and undivided church had developed rightly into the modern Roman Catholic church and that the Protestant churches represented a break in this development, both in doctrine and in devotion. These meditations removed the obstacle, and on Oct. 9, 1845, he was received at Littlemore into the Roman Catholic church, publishing a few weeks later his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

Newman went to Rome to be ordained to the priesthood and after some uncertainties founded the Oratory at Birmingham in 1848. He was suspect among the more rigorous Roman Catholic clergy because of the quasi-liberal spirit that he seemed to have brought with him; and therefore, though in fact he was no liberal in any normal sense of the word, his early career as a Roman Catholic priest was marked by a series of frustrations. In 1852–53 he was convicted of libeling the apostate former Dominican priest Achilli. He was summoned to Ireland to be the first rector of the new Catholic university in Dublin, but the task was, under the circumstances, impossible, and the only useful result was his lectures on the Idea of a University (1852). His role as editor of the Roman Catholic monthly, the Rambler, and in the efforts of Lord Acton to encourage critical scholarship among Catholics, rendered him further suspect and caused a breach with H.E. Manning, who was soon to be the new archbishop of Westminster. One of Newman’s articles (“On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine”) was reported to Rome on suspicion of heresy. He attempted to found a Catholic hostel at Oxford but was thwarted by the opposition of Manning.

Apologia pro Vita Sua.
From the sense of frustration engendered by these experiences Newman was delivered in 1864 by an unwarranted attack from Charles Kingsley upon his moral teaching. Kingsley in effect challenged him to justify the honesty of his life as an Anglican. And though he treated Kingsley more severely than some thought justified, the resulting history of his religious opinions, Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864; “A Defense of His Life”), was read and approved far beyond the limits of the Roman Catholic church, and by its fairness, candour, interest, and the beauty of some passages, it recaptured the almost national status that he had once held.

Though the Apologia was not liked by Manning and those who thought as he did because it seemed to show the quasi-liberal spirit that they feared, it assured Newman’s stature in the Roman Catholic church. In 1870 he expressed opposition to a definition of papal infallibility, though himself a believer in the doctrine. In the same year, he published his most important book of theology since 1845, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (commonly known as The Grammar of Assent), which contained a further consideration of the nature of faith and an attempt to show how faith can possess certainty when it rises out of evidence that can never be more than probable. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII made him cardinal-deacon of St. George in Velabro. He died at Birmingham in 1890 and is buried (with his closest friend, Ambrose St. John) at Rednal, the rest house of the Oratory.

Mind and character.
Newman’s portraits show a face of sensitivity and aesthetic delicacy. He was a poet—most famous are his contributions in the Lyra Apostolica of his Anglican days, including the hymn “Lead, kindly light,” written in 1833 when he was becalmed in the strait between Sardinia and Corsica, and The Dream of Gerontius (1865), based upon the requiem offices and including such well-known hymns as “Praise to the holiest in the height” and “Firmly I believe and truly.” He was always conscious of the limitations of prose and aware of the necessity for parable and analogy, and logical theologians sometimes found him elusive or thought him muddled.

But his was a mind of penetration and power, trained upon Aristotle, David Hume, Bishop Joseph Butler, and Richard Whately, and his superficial contempt for logic and dialectic blinded some readers into the error of thinking his mind illogical. His intellectual defect was rather that of oversubtlety; he enjoyed the niceties of argumentation, was inclined to be captivated by the twists of his own ingenuity, and had a habit of using the reductio ad absurdum in dangerous places. Newman’s mind at its best is probably to be found in parts of the Parochial and Plain Sermons or the University Sermons, at its worst in the Essay on Ecclesiastical Miracles of 1843.

His sensitive nature, though it made him lovable to his few intimates, made him prickly and resentful of public criticism, and his distresses under the suspicions of his opponents, whether Anglicans defending the Reformation or ultramontanes (exponents of centralized papal power) attacking his Roman theology, weakened his confidence and prevented him from becoming the leader that he was otherwise so well equipped to be. Nevertheless, as the effective creator of the Oxford Movement, he helped to transform the Church of England; and as the upholder of a theory of doctrinal development he helped Catholic theology to become more reconciled to the findings of the new critical scholarship, while in England the Apologia was important in helping to break down the cruder prejudices of the English against Catholic priests. In both the Catholic church and the Church of England his influence has been momentous.

W. Owen Chadwick





Bernard Bosanquet

British philosopher

born June 14, 1848, Alnwick, Northumberland, Eng.
died Feb. 8, 1923, London

philosopher who helped revive in England the idealism of G.W.F. Hegel and sought to apply its principles to social and political problems.

Made a fellow of University College, Oxford, in 1870, Bosanquet was a tutor there until 1881, when he moved to London to devote himself to philosophical writing and to work on behalf of the Charity Organisation Society. He was professor of moral philosophy at St. Andrews University in Scotland (1903–08).

Although Bosanquet owed much to Hegel, his first writings were influenced by the 19th-century German philosopher Rudolf Lotze, whose Logik and Metaphysik he had edited in English translation in 1884. The fundamental principles of such early works as Knowledge and Reality (1885) and Logic (1888) were further explicated in his Essentials of Logic (1895) and Implication and Linear Inference (1920), which stress the central role of logical thought in systematically addressing philosophical problems.

Bosanquet’s debt to Hegel is more evident in his works on ethics, aesthetics, and metaphysics. Having translated in 1886 the introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of Fine Art, he proceeded to his own History of Aesthetic (1892) and Three Lectures on Aesthetic (1915). Both reflect his belief that aesthetics can reconcile the natural and the supernatural worlds. As elsewhere in his work, Bosanquet revealed his distaste for the materialism of his day and favoured the neo-Hegelian antidote, which held that everything considered to be real is a manifestation of a spiritual absolute.

Bosanquet’s ethical and social philosophy, particularly the practical work Some Suggestions in Ethics (1918), shows a similar desire to view reality coherently, as a concrete unity in which pleasure and duty, egoism and altruism are reconciled. He asserted that the same passion shown by Plato for the unity of the universe reappeared in Christianity as the doctrine of the divine spirit manifesting itself in human society. Social life requires a communal will that both grows out of individual cooperation and maintains the individual in a state of freedom and social satisfaction. This view is expounded in Philosophical Theory of the State (1899) and in Social and International Ideals (1917).

Basing his metaphysics on Hegel’s concept of the dynamic quality of human knowledge and experience, Bosanquet emphasized the interrelated character of the content and the object of human thought. Thought, he wrote in Three Chapters on the Nature of Mind (1923), is “the development of connections” and “the sense of the whole.”




F. H. Bradley

British philosopher

born Jan. 30, 1846, Clapham, Surrey, Eng.
died Sept. 18, 1924, Oxford

influential English philosopher of the absolute Idealist school, which based its doctrines on the thought of G.W.F. Hegel and considered mind to be a more fundamental feature of the universe than matter.

Elected to a fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, in 1870, Bradley soon became ill with a kidney disease that made him a semi-invalid for the rest of his life. Because his fellowship involved no teaching duties and because he never married, he was able to devote the major part of his life to writing. He was awarded Britain’s Order of Merit, the first English philosopher to receive the distinction.

In his early work Bradley participated in the growing attack upon the Empiricist theories of English thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and drew heavily on Hegel’s ideas. In Ethical Studies (1876), Bradley’s first major work, he sought to expose the confusions apparent in Mill’s doctrine of Utilitarianism, which urged maximum human happiness as the goal of ethical behaviour. In The Principles of Logic (1883), Bradley denounced the deficient psychology of the Empiricists, whose logic was limited, in his view, to the doctrine of the association of ideas held in the human mind. He gave Hegel due credit for borrowed ideas in both books, but he never embraced Hegelianism thoroughly.

Bradley’s most ambitious work, Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay (1893), was, in his own words, a “critical discussion of first principles,” meant “to stimulate inquiry and doubt.” The book disappointed his followers, who expected a vindication of the truths of religion. While reality is indeed spiritual, he maintained, a detailed demonstration of the notion is beyond human capacity. If for no other reason, the demonstration is impossible because of the fatally abstract nature of human thought. Instead of ideas, which could not properly contain reality, he recommended feeling, the immediacy of which could embrace the harmonious nature of reality. His admirers were disappointed as well by his discussion of worship and the soul. He declared that religion is not a “final and ultimate” matter but, instead, a matter of practice; the philosopher’s absolute idea is incompatible with the God of religious men.

The effect of Appearance and Reality was to encourage rather than to dispel doubt, and the following that Bradley had gained through his work in ethics and logic became disenchanted. Thus, the most influential aspect of his work has been the negative and critical one because of his skill as a polemical writer. Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, who led the attack on Idealism, both benefitted from his sharp dialectic. Modern critics value him less for his conclusions than for the manner in which he reached them, via a ruthless search for truth. In addition to original work in philosophical psychology, Bradley wrote The Presuppositions of Critical History (1874) and Essays on Truth and Reality (1914). His psychological essays and minor writings were combined in Collected Essays (2 vol., 1935).




T. H. Green

British educator and philosopher

born April 7, 1836, Birkin, Yorkshire, Eng.
died March 26, 1882, Oxford, Oxfordshire

English educator, political theorist, and Idealist philosopher of the so-called Neo-Kantian school. Through his teaching, Green exerted great influence on philosophy in late 19th-century England. Most of his life centred at Oxford, where he was educated, elected a fellow in 1860, served as a lecturer, and in 1878 was appointed professor of moral philosophy. His lectures provided the basis for his most significant works, Prolegomena to Ethics (1883) and Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation, published in the collected Works, 3 vol. (1885–88).

Green’s metaphysics begins with the question of man’s relation to nature. Man, he said, is self-conscious. The simplest mental act involves consciousness of changes and of distinctions between the self and the object observed. To know, Green asserted, is to be aware of relations between objects. Above man—who can know only a small portion of such relations—is God. This “principle which renders all relations possible and is itself determined by none of them” is an eternal self-consciousness.

Green based his ethics on the spiritual nature of man. He maintained that man’s determination to act upon his reflections is an “act of will” and is not externally determined by God or any other factor. According to Green, freedom is not the supposed ability to do anything desired but is the power to identify one’s self with the good that reason reveals as one’s own true good.

Green’s political philosophy enlarged upon his ethical system. Ideally, political institutions embody the community’s moral ideas and help develop the character of individual citizens. Although existing institutions do not fully realize the common ideal, the analysis that exposes their deficiencies also indicates the path of true development. His original view of personal self-realization also contained the notion of political obligation, for citizens intent upon realizing themselves will act as if by duty to improve the institutions of the state. Because the state represents the “general will” and is not a timeless entity, citizens have the moral right to rebel against it in the state’s own interest when the general will becomes subverted.

Green’s influence on English philosophy was complemented by his social influence—in part through his efforts to bring the universities into closer touch with practical and political affairs and in part through his attempt to reformulate political liberalism so that it laid more stress on the need for positive actions by the state than on the negative rights of the individual. His address “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract” (1881) gave early expression to ideas central to the modern “welfare state.”




Herbert Spencer

British philosopher

born April 27, 1820, Derby, Derbyshire, Eng.
died Dec. 8, 1903, Brighton, Sussex

English sociologist and philosopher, an early advocate of the theory of evolution, who achieved an influential synthesis of knowledge, advocating the preeminence of the individual over society and of science over religion. His magnum opus was The Synthetic Philosophy, a comprehensive work completed in 1896 and containing volumes on the principles of biology, psychology, morality, and sociology.

Life and works.
Spencer’s father, William George Spencer, was a schoolmaster, and his parents’ dissenting religious convictions inspired in him a nonconformity that continued active even after he had abandoned the Christian faith. Spencer declined an offer from his uncle, the Rev. Thomas Spencer, to send him to Cambridge, and in consequence his higher education was largely the result of his own reading, which was chiefly in the natural sciences. He was, for a few months, a schoolteacher and from 1837 to 1841 a railway civil engineer.

In 1842 he contributed some letters (republished later as a pamphlet, The Proper Sphere of Government, 1843) to The Nonconformist, in which he argued that it is the business of governments to uphold natural rights and that they do more harm than good when they go beyond this. After some association with progressive journalism through such papers as The Zoist (devoted to mesmerism and phrenology) and The Pilot (the organ of the Complete Suffrage Union), Spencer became in 1848 a subeditor of The Economist. In 1851 he published Social Statics (reissued in 1955), which contained in embryo most of his later views, including his argument in favour of an extreme form of economic and social laissez-faire. About 1850 Spencer became acquainted with Marian Evans (the novelist George Eliot), and his philosophical conversations with her led some of their friends to expect that they would marry; but in his Autobiography (1904) Spencer denies any such desire, much as he admired Evans’ intellectual powers. Other friends were G.H. Lewes, T.H. Huxley, and J.S. Mill. In 1853 Spencer, having received a legacy from his uncle, resigned his position with The Economist.

Having published the first part of The Principles of Psychology in 1855, Spencer in 1860 issued a prospectus and accepted subscriptions for a comprehensive work, The Synthetic Philosophy, which was to include, besides the already published Principles of Psychology, volumes on first principles and on biology, sociology, and morality. First Principles was published in 1862, and between then and 1896, when the third volume of The Principles of Sociology appeared, the task was completed. In order to prepare the ground for The Principles of Sociology, Spencer started in 1873 a series of works called Descriptive Sociology, in which information was provided about the social institutions of various societies, both primitive and civilized. The series was interrupted in 1881 because of lack of public support. Spencer was a friend and adviser of Beatrice Potter, later Beatrice Webb, the social reformer, who frequently visited Spencer during his last illness and left a sympathetic and sad record of his last years in My Apprenticeship (1926). Spencer died in 1903, at Brighton, leaving a will by which trustees were set up to complete the publication of the Descriptive Sociology. The series comprised 19 parts (1873–1934).

Spencer was one of the most argumentative and most discussed English thinkers of the Victorian period. His strongly scientific orientation led him to urge the importance of examining social phenomena in a scientific way. He believed that all aspects of his thought formed a coherent and closely ordered system. Science and philosophy, he held, gave support to and enhanced individualism and progress. Though it is natural to cite him as the great exponent of Victorian optimism, it is notable that he was by no means unaffected by the pessimism that from time to time clouded the Victorian confidence. Evolution, he taught, would be followed by dissolution, and individualism would come into its own only after an era of socialism and war.

The synthetic philosophy in outline.
Spencer saw philosophy as a synthesis of the fundamental principles of the special sciences, a sort of scientific summa to replace the theological systems of the Middle Ages. He thought of unification in terms of development, and his whole scheme was in fact suggested to him by the evolution of biological species. In First Principles he argued that there is a fundamental law of matter, which he called the law of the persistence of force, from which it follows that nothing homogeneous can remain as such if it is acted upon, because any external force must affect some part of it differently from other parts and cause difference and variety to arise. From this, he continued, it would follow that any force that continues to act on what is homogeneous must bring about an increasing variety. This “law of the multiplication of effects,” due to an unknown and unknowable absolute force, is in Spencer’s view the clue to the understanding of all development, cosmic as well as biological. It should be noted that Spencer published his idea of the evolution of biological species before the views of Charles Darwin and the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace were known, but Spencer at that time thought that evolution was caused by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, whereas Darwin and Wallace attributed it to natural selection. Spencer later accepted the theory that natural selection was one of the causes of biological evolution, and he himself coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” (Principles of Biology [1864], vol. 1, p. 444).

Sociology and social philosophy. That Spencer first derived his general evolutionary scheme from reflection on human society is seen in Social Statics, in which social evolution is held to be a process of increasing “individuation.” He saw human societies as evolving by means of increasing division of labour from undifferentiated hordes into complex civilizations. Spencer believed that the fundamental sociological classification was between military societies, in which cooperation was secured by force, and industrial societies, in which cooperation was voluntary and spontaneous.

Evolution is not the only biological conception that Spencer applied in his sociological theories. He made a detailed comparison between animal organisms and human societies. In both he found a regulative system (the central nervous system in the one, government in the other), a sustaining system (alimentation in the one case, industry in the other), and a distribution system (veins and arteries in the first; roads, telegraphs, etc., in the second). The great difference between an animal and a social organism, he said, is that, whereas in the former there is one consciousness relating to the whole, in the latter consciousness exists in each member only; society exists for the benefit of its members and not they for its benefit.

This individualism is the key to all of Spencer’s work. His contrast between military and industrial societies is drawn between despotism, which is primitive and bad, and individualism, which is civilized and good. He believed that in industrial society the order achieved, though planned by no one, is delicately adjusted to the needs of all parties. In The Man Versus the State (1884) he wrote that England’s Tories generally favour a military and Liberals an industrial social order but that the Liberals of the latter half of the 19th century, with their legislation on hours of work, liquor licensing, sanitation, education, etc., were developing a “New Toryism” and preparing the way for a “coming slavery.” “The function of liberalism in the past was that of putting a limit to the powers of kings. The function of true liberalism in the future will be that of putting a limit to the powers of parliaments.”

In his emphasis on variety and differentiation, Spencer was unwittingly repeating, in a 19th-century idiom, the metaphysics of liberalism that Spinoza and Leibniz had adumbrated in the 17th century. Spinoza had maintained that “God or Nature” has an infinity of attributes in which every possibility is actualized, and Leibniz had argued that the perfection of God is exhibited in the infinite variety of the universe. Though neither of them believed that time is an ultimate feature of reality, Spencer combined a belief in the reality of time with a belief in the eventual actualization of every possible variety of being. He thus gave metaphysical support to the liberal principle of variety, according to which a differentiated and developing society is preferable to a monotonous and static one.

Spencer’s attempt to synthesize the sciences showed a sublime audacity that has not been repeated because the intellectual specialization he welcomed and predicted increased even beyond his expectations. His sociology, although it gave an impetus to the study of society, was superseded as a result of the development of social anthropology since his day and was much more concerned with providing a rationale for his social ideals than he himself appreciated. Primitive men, for example, are not the childlike emotional creatures that he thought them to be, nor is religion to be explained only in terms of the souls of ancestors. When T.H. Huxley said that Spencer’s idea of a tragedy was “a deduction killed by a fact,” he called attention to the system-building feature of Spencer’s work that led him to look for what confirmed his theories and to ignore or to reinterpret what conflicted with them.

Harry Burrows Acton



Alfred North Whitehead

British mathematician and philosopher

born Feb. 15, 1861, Ramsgate, Isle of Thanet, Kent, Eng.
died Dec. 30, 1947, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.

English mathematician and philosopher, who collaborated with Bertrand Russell on Principia Mathematica (1910–13) and, from the mid-1920s, taught at Harvard University and developed a comprehensive metaphysical theory.

Background and schooling.
Whitehead’s grandfather Thomas Whitehead was a self-made man who started a successful boys’ school known as Chatham House Academy. His father, Alfred Whitehead, an Anglican clergyman, in turn headed the school and later became vicar of St. Peter’s in Thanet. His mother, born Maria Sarah Buckmaster, was the daughter of a prosperous military tailor. Alfred North Whitehead was their youngest child. Because they considered him too frail for school or active sports, his father taught him at home until he was 14, when he was sent to Sherborne School, Dorset, which was then one of the best schools in England. Whitehead received a classical education, showing a special gift for mathematics. Despite his over-protected childhood, he showed himself a natural leader. In his last year at school, he was head prefect, responsible for all discipline outside the classroom, and was a highly successful captain of games.

In 1880 Whitehead entered Trinity College, Cambridge, on a scholarship. He attended only mathematical lectures, and his interests in literature, religion, philosophy, and politics were nourished solely by conversation. It was not until May 1884, however, that he was elected to an elite discussion society known as the “Apostles.” Whitehead did well in the Mathematical Tripos (honours examination) of 1883–84, won a Trinity fellowship, and was appointed to the mathematical staff of the college. His interest in James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism (the subject of his fellowship dissertation) expanded toward a scrutiny of mathematical symbolism and ideas. Stimulated by pioneering works in modern algebra, he envisaged a detailed comparative study of systems of symbolic reasoning allied to ordinary algebra. He did not begin to write his Treatise on Universal Algebra (1898), however, until January 1891, one month after his marriage to Evelyn Willoughby Wade. She had been born in France, a child of impoverished Irish landed gentry, and educated in a convent. She was a woman with a great sense of drama and a real and unusual aesthetic sensibility, and she enriched Whitehead’s life immensely.

Shortly before his marriage, his long-standing interest in religion had taken a new turn. His background had been solidly tied into the Church of England; his father and uncles had been ordained; so had his brother Henry, who would become bishop of Madras. But Whitehead, under the influence of Cardinal Newman, began to consider the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church. For about eight years he read a great deal of theology. Then he sold his theological library and gave up religion. This agnosticism did not survive World War I, but Whitehead was never again a member of any church.

Whitehead was at work on a second volume of his Universal Algebra from 1898 to 1903, when he abandoned it because he was busy on a related, large investigation with Bertrand Russell. He had spotted young Russell’s brilliance when he examined him for entrance scholarships at Trinity College. In 1890 Russell was a freshman studying mathematics there, and Whitehead was one of his teachers. Gradually the two men became close friends. In July 1900 they went to the First International Congress of Philosophy in Paris, where they were impressed by the precision with which the mathematician Giuseppe Peano used symbolic logic to clarify the foundations of arithmetic. Russell at once mastered Peano’s notation and extended his methods. By the end of 1900 he had written the first draft of his brilliant Principles of Mathematics (1903). Whitehead agreed with its main thesis—that all pure mathematics follows from a reformed formal logic so that, of the two, logic is the fundamental discipline. By 1901 Russell had secured his collaboration on volume 2 of the Principles, in which this thesis was to be established by strict symbolic reasoning. The task turned out to be enormous. Their work had to be made independent of Russell’s book; they called it Principia Mathematica. The project occupied them until 1910, when the first of its three volumes was published. The “official” text was written in a notation, most of which was either taken from Peano or invented by Whitehead. Broadly speaking, Whitehead left the philosophical problems—notably the devising of a theory of logical types—to Russell; and Russell, who had no teaching duties, actually wrote out most of the book. But the collaboration was thorough, and Russell gave Whitehead an equal share of the credit. Whitehead’s only large published piece employing the symbolism of the Principia is a masterly speculative memoir, “On Mathematical Concepts of the Material World” (1905).

Career in London.
In 1903 Trinity College had given Whitehead a 10-year appointment as a senior lecturer, made him the head of the mathematics staff, and permitted his teaching career to run beyond the maximum of 25 years set by the college statutes. Yet Whitehead’s future was uncertain: he had not made the sort of discoveries that cause a man to be counted an outstanding mathematician. (His interest was always philosophical, in that it was directed more toward grasping the nature of mathematics in its widest aspects and organizing its ideas than toward discovering new theorems.) There was, thus, little prospect of a Cambridge professorship in mathematics for him at the expiration of his Trinity lectureship. He did not wait for it to expire but moved to London in 1910, even though he had no position waiting for him there. His years of service at Trinity, however, had made him a fellow for life, entitled to twice the regular quarterly dividend paid to fellows. This was scarcely enough to support his family, but Evelyn Whitehead encouraged the venture.

In that first London year, Whitehead wrote the first of his books for a wide audience, An Introduction to Mathematics (1911), still one of the best books of its kind. In 1911 he was appointed to the staff of University College (London), and in 1914 he became professor of applied mathematics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology.

In London Whitehead observed the education then being offered to the English masses. His own teaching had always elicited his pupils’ latent abilities to the fullest. Perceiving that mathematics was being taught as a disconnected set of largely unfathomed exercises, Whitehead made occasional addresses on the teaching of mathematics. He stressed getting a living understanding of a few interrelated abstract ideas by using them in a variety of ways so as to develop an intimate sense for their power. Whitehead also perceived that literature was so taught as to preclude its enjoyment, that curricula were fragmented, and that teachers were handcuffed by the system of uniform examinations set by outside examiners. In 1916, as president of the Mathematical Association, he delivered the notable address “The Aims of Education: A Plea for Reform.” Whitehead reminded youth’s keepers that the purpose of education was not to pack knowledge into the pupils but to stimulate and guide their self-development. “Culture,” he said, “is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it.” Whitehead’s address became a classic in virtue of its unequalled clarity, vigour, and realism and its reconciliation of general with special education. It was followed by penetrating essays on such topics as the rhythm of freedom and discipline. Though Whitehead’s essays on education had little effect on British practice, they inspired many teachers in Great Britain, the United States, and elsewhere.

From 1919 to 1924 Whitehead was chairman of the governing body of Goldsmiths’ College, London, one of England’s major institutes for training teachers. He also served as a governor of several polytechnic schools in London. In the University of London he became a member of the Senate, chairman of the Academic Council, and dean of the Faculty of Science. His shrewdness, common sense, and goodwill put him in great demand as a committeeman.

Whitehead was a pacific man but not a pacifist; he felt that the war was hideous but that England’s part in it was necessary. His elder son, North, fought throughout the war, and his daughter, Jessie, worked in the Foreign Office. In 1918 his younger son, Eric, was killed in action, and after that it was only by immense effort that Whitehead could go on working. To Whitehead, Russell’s pacifism was simplistic; yet he visited him in prison, remained his friend, and, as Russell later said, showed him greater tolerance than he could return.

During those years, Whitehead was also constructing philosophical foundations for physics. He was led to this by the way in which he wanted to present geometry—not as deduced from hypothetical premises about assumed though imperceptible entities (e.g., points) but as the science of actual space, which is a complex of relations between extended things. From perceivable elements and relations, he logically constructed entities that are related to each other just as points are in geometry. That was only the beginning of his task, for Albert Einstein had revised the ideas of space, time, and motion. Whitehead was convinced that these three concepts should be based upon the general character of men’s perception of the external world. In 1919 he published his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge; it was both searching and constructive but too philosophical and too complicated to influence physicists.

Whitehead had begun to have discussions of the perceptual basis of scientific knowledge with philosophers in 1915, and he followed up his Enquiry with a nonmathematical book, The Concept of Nature (1920). Though he rejected Idealistic views of the relation of nature to perceiving minds, neither was he a Realist of the school led by Russell and G.E. Moore. In maintaining that events are the basic components of nature and that passage, or creative advance, is its most fundamental feature—doctrines that foreshadowed his later metaphysics—Whitehead was somewhat influenced by Henri Bergson’s antimechanistic philosophy of change. Yet he was something of a Platonist; he saw the definite character of events as due to the “ingression” of timeless entities.

Career in the United States.
In the early 1920s Whitehead was clearly the most distinguished philosopher of science writing in English. When a friend of Harvard University, the historical scholar Henry Osborn Taylor, pledged the money for his salary, Harvard early in 1924 offered Whitehead a five-year appointment as professor of philosophy. He was 63 years old, with at most two more years to go in the Imperial College. The idea of teaching philosophy appealed to him, and his wife wholeheartedly concurred in the move. Harvard soon found that it had acquired more than a philosopher of science; it had acquired a metaphysician, one comparable in stature to Gottfried Leibniz and Georg Hegel.

Early in 1925, he gave a course of eight lectures in Boston, published that same year (with additions—among them his earliest writing about God) as Science and the Modern World. In it he dramatically described what had long engaged his meditation; namely, the rise, triumph, and impact of “scientific Materialism”—i.e., the view that nature consists of nothing else but matter in motion, or a flux of purely physical energy. He criticized this Materialism as mistaking an abstract system of mathematical physics for the concrete reality of nature. Whitehead’s mind was at home with such abstractions, and he saw them as real discoveries, not intellectual inventions; but his sense for the fullness of existence led him to urge upon philosophy the task of making good their omissions by reverting to the variety of concrete experience and then framing broader ideas. The importance of this book was immediately recognized. What perhaps impressed most readers was Whitehead’s appeal to his favourite poets, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, against the exclusion of values from nature.

In 1926, the compact book Religion in the Making appeared. In it, Whitehead interpreted religion as reaching its deepest level in humanity’s solitude, that is, as an attitude of the individual toward the universe rather than as a social phenomenon.

In January 1927 the University of Edinburgh invited him to give a set of 10 Gifford Lectures in the ensuing academic year. For this, Whitehead drew up the complex technical structure of “the philosophy of organism” (as he called his metaphysics) and thought through his agreements and disagreements with some of the great European philosophers. It was characteristic of him to insist, against David Hume, that an adequate philosophical theory must build on “practice” and not be supplemented by it. The lectures reflected Whitehead’s speculative hypothesis that the universe consists entirely of becomings, each of them a process of appropriating and integrating the infinity of items (“reality”) provided by the antecedent universe and by God (the abiding source of novel possibilities). When, in June 1928, the time for delivering the lectures arrived and Whitehead presented this system in its new and difficult terminology, his audience rapidly vanished, but the publication of the lectures, expanded to 25 chapters, gave Western metaphysics one of its greatest books, Process and Reality (1929).

Whitehead had an unwavering faith in the possibility of understanding existence and a superb power to construct a scheme of general ideas broad enough to overcome the classic dualisms. But he knew that no system can do more than make an approach, somewhat more adequate than its predecessors, to understanding the infinitude of existence. He had seen the collapse of the long-entrenched Newtonian system of physics, and he never forgot its lesson. Henceforth dogmatic assurance, whether in philosophy, science, or theology, was his enemy.

Adventures of Ideas (1933) was Whitehead’s last big philosophical book and the most rewarding one for the general reader. It offered penetrating, balanced reflections on the parts played by brute forces and by general ideas about humanity, God, and the universe in shaping the course of Western civilization. Whitehead emphasized the impulse of life toward newness and the absolute need for societies stable enough to nourish adventure that is fruitful rather than anarchic. In this book he also summarized his metaphysics and used it to elucidate the nature of beauty, truth, art, adventure, and peace. By “peace” he meant a religious attitude that is “primarily a trust in the efficacy of beauty.”

Except for an insufficient familiarity with Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Whitehead was at home in both the scientific and the literary cultures of his time. Young people flocked to “Sunday evenings,” which his wife skillfully managed. Here the spare, rosy-cheeked man, who might have been of average height if he had not been so stooped, talked to them in a high-pitched but gentle voice—talked not about his system but about whatever was on their minds, sharply illuminating it from a broad and historical perspective.

In his Harvard lectures, as in his books, Whitehead liked best to explore the scope of application of an idea and to show how intuitions that were traditionally opposed could supplement each other, which he did by dint of his own ideas. Most students found attendance at his lectures a great experience. Harvard did not retire him until 1937.

In his first years in the United States, Whitehead visited many eastern and midwestern campuses as a lecturer. Though he loved Americans, he remained always very much an Englishman. A Fellow of the Royal Society since 1903, he was elected to the British Academy in 1931. In 1945 he received the Order of Merit. After his death his body was cremated, and there was no funeral. His unpublished manuscripts and correspondence were destroyed by his widow, as he had wanted.

Whitehead has not had disciples, though his admirers have included leaders in every field of thought. His educational and philosophical books have been translated into many languages. His metaphysics has been keenly studied, in the United States most of all. What is now called Whitehead’s “process theology” is easily the most influential part of his system; this is partly due to the influence of the U.S. philosopher Charles Hartshorne.

Whitehead’s habit of helpfulness made him universally beloved. Though his courtesy was perfect, there was nothing soft about him; never contentious, he was astute, charitable, and quietly stubborn. He had a realistic, well-poised mind and a fine irony free of malice. Whitehead combined singular gifts of intuition, intellectual power, and goodness with firmness and wisdom.

Victor Lowe


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