Our book today is a squat, brick-red little triple-decker, the three-volume life of Henry VIII that Everyman editor W. Llweleyn Williams carved out of 12-volume history of England written from 1856 to 1870 by the great J. A. Froude. Williams knew what he was about; Froude’s book – the unabridged edition of which is out of print, will always be out of print, and was fairly panting to be out of print even when it was in print – is from front to back a staggering literary performance, but John Q. Reading Public no more wanted to be staggered a century ago than he does in our post-literate age, whereas no publisher ever balked at the idea of lobbing another biography of “England’s Bluebeard” onto the pile.
The allure is so ready-made, in fact, that in his Introduction to this three-volume set (bought at dear, departed, and much-missed W. B. Clarke & Co. on Tremont Street in Boston, a long, long time ago), Williams feels confident enough to indulge in a little hedge-trimming of our august author himself, done without fear of hindering sales:
Froude has been accused, and not without justice, of not feeling a proper aversion to acts of cruelty. The horrible Boiling Act of Henry VIII excites neither disgust nor hatred in him; and he makes smooth excuses for the illegal tortures of the rack and the screw which were inflicted on prisoners by Elizabeth and her ministers. He had himself been reared in a hardy school; he had been trained to be indifferent to pain. It may well be that his callousness in speaking of Tudor cruelties is to be traced to the influences that surrounded his loveless childhood and youth.
And it goes on! After enumerating some of Froude’s more famous factual slip-ups, Williams gives some of the man’s firmest critics the floor, as in this example:
But Froude was sometimes guilty of something worse than these trivial “howlers.” Lecky exposed, with calm ruthlessness, some of Froude’s exaggerations – to call them by no worse name – in his Story of the English in Ireland. When his Erasmus was translated into Dutch, the countrymen of Erasmus accused him of constant, if not deliberate, inaccuracy.
Lord Carnarvon once sent Froude to South Africa as an informal special commissioner. When he returned to this country he wrote an article on the South African problem in the Quarterly Review. Sir Bartle Frere, who knew South Africa as few men did, said of it that it was an “essay in which for whole pages a truth expressed in brilliant epigrams alternates with mistakes or misstatements which would scarcely be pardoned in a special war correspondent hurriedly writing against time.” So dangerous is the quality of imagination in a writer!
Strangely enough, none of this does anything to shake the strong impression that Williams venerates Froude, and the proof, as they say in Yorkshire, is in the pudding: the man’s rolling, luminously mandarin prose will almost unfailingly generate that veneration in any reader – then or now – who allows himself to sink slowly into its Victorian velvet cushions. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Froude never condescends to his readers (one of the fringe benefits of his striving always to be a popular rather than an academic historian, and also perhaps a byproduct of having tried his hand at writing fiction); the relationship is rather like that of a knowing, slightly world-weary cicerone with his gaggle of eager but uninformed sightseers. He himself knows all, but he won’t pretend to approve all:
Leaving for the present these disorders to mature themselves, I must now return to the weary chapter of European diplomacy, to trace the torturous course of popes and princes, duping one another with false hopes; saying what they did not mean, and meaning what they did not say. It is a very Slough of Despond, through which we must plunge desperately as we may; and we can cheer ourselves in this dismal region only by the knowledge that, although we are now approaching the spot where the mire is deepest, the hard ground is immediately beyond.
He enters with unabashed relish into the centuries-old controversies of his subject, hating, for instance, Anne Boleyn with a calculated fervor born – we won’t say of loveless childhood – of a strident reading of the sources. Not for him the later fad of considering her just another victim:
Thus she too died without denying the crime for which she suffered. Smeton confessed from the first. Brereton, Weston, Rochfort, virtually confessed on the scaffold. Norris said nothing. Of all the sufferers not one ventured to declare that he or she was innocent – and that six human beings should leave the world with the undeserved stain of so odious a charge on them, without attempting to clear themselves, is credible only to those who form opinions by their wills, and believe or disbelieve as they choose.
And oh, can he perorate! When the mood is on him, his expostulations exceed in both their force and their beauty the best parallel passages of all his contemporaries, as when he swerves from a discussion of Reformation religious upheavals to praise the Christian humanists under Henry:
Hunted like wild beasts from hiding-place to hiding-place, decimated by the stake, with the certainty that however many years they might be reprieved, their own lives would close at last in the same fiery trial; beset by informers, imprisoned, racked, and scourged; worst of all, haunted by their own infirmities, the flesh shrinking before the dread of a death of agony – thus it was that they struggled on; earning for themselves martyrdom – and for us, the free England in which we live and breathe.
And what of Henry himself, the object of this utterly fantastic treasure of a three-volume set? Froude’s conclusion isn’t anything original but instead a relativism that tries to walk a path between the growling contempt of a biographer like Francis Hackett and the nearly-unconcealed locker room admiration of later writers:
Henry had many faults. They have been exhibited in the progress of the narrative: I need not return to them. But his position was one of unexampled difficulty; and by the work which he accomplished, and the conditions , internal and external, under which his task was allotted to him, he, like every other man, ought to be judged. He was inconsistent; he can bear the reproach of it.
Froude can be inconsistent too, of course – those ‘howlers’ are very real things, after all, and they exist in their fair number in these three volumes – but it’s not given to many biographies to be so moving and readable after so long a time and so much intervening research on such a well-known subject. Other chunks were carved out of that 12-volume quarry, I know, and re-reading these volumes made me want to hunt down all the others.
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