Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by James Miller Dodds
James Anthony Froude (18181894)
[Born 1818, son of the Archdeacon of Totnes, and brother of Richard Hurrell Froude. Educated at Westminster School, and at Oriel College, Oxford (183640); Fellow of Exeter. He took deacons orders in 1844, but in 1847 published the Nemesis of Faith, resigned his fellowship, and gave himself up to literature, writing for Fraser and the Westminster. The History of England appeared between 1856 and 1870, the English in Ireland in 1872, the Life of Carlyle in 188284, Oceana in 1886. Appointed Professor of History at Oxford, 1892; died 1894.]
FROUDE was one of the most productive writers of his day, but through the forty or more volumes of history, romance, travels, essays, personal narrative and biography which constitute his works, there may easily be traced a single note. Early in life it was his fortune to fall under two great influences, Newmans and Carlyles. Carlyles proved the stronger, and when Froude first caught the public ear, his opinions were already formed upon those of his master. With Carlyle, Ruskin, and Kingsley he must be classed as belonging to the band of latter-day Protestants (to use the word in its primary sense) whose influence has been so powerful in suggesting the social and political ideas of to-day. His interest in history was ethical. In the writing of history he found a splendid vehicle for his convictions; but he was ever ready to throw off the trappings and trammels of the historian and to appear in his true guise, that of the preacher or prophet. If Ruskin (as Carlyle said) was the greatest preacher of his generation, Froude was a good second. Like the Roman senator of old, he could not speak without recurring to his one deep-set convictionDelenda est Carthago: down with the Carthage of canting wealth, dishonest religiosity, mock patriotism! Such is the text of all his writings. The Nemesis of Faith was a formal attack on the spirit of compromise; the History was, at least in its inception, a protest against the theory that material progress spells improvement, or that we are better than our ancestors; the English in Ireland was a challenge to democratic methods, Cæsar a warning to constitutional bigots. Hardly one of his books but has begotten a controversy.
If the average reader were asked to name Froudes special quality, he would probably reply that he is uniformly interesting. With some confidence one may hazard the guess that the twelve volumes of the History of England have been read from cover to cover by more persons than any other consecutive English work of equal length written during the last half-century. The Short Studies reveal the same power of compelling attention; the Life of Carlyle ranks with the Life of Johnson and the Life of Macaulay; Oceana is as difficult to lay down as Eothen. Froude possessed the secret of eloquence, and used it to the full, though no man took more pleasure in declaiming against oratory. But to his eloquence was added the more rare talent of sincerity. Egotism, says the hero of the Nemesis, is not tiresome, or it ought not to be, if one is sincere about oneself; but it is so hard to be sincere. Froude always chose subjects which were of intense interest to himself; his style reflected the clearness of his convictions, and his sincerity was as transparent as his style. He is the most egotistical, and the most delightful, of historians. Having made up his own mind about the events which he narrates, he cannot rest till he has made up the readers also. Some writers place a narrative before us as we throw a bone to a dog: their motto seems to be Take it, or leave it; anyhow we have done with it. It is not so with Froude. As we read we feel that the narrative is not to him an end in itself: it is rather an opportunity of operating on our feelings, raising or dissipating our prejudices, suggesting new views, and influencing the present through the past. His conception of history is given in a fine passage in the Life of Carlyle, which will be found below. It is characteristic of his mental attitude that in the short mythical sketch called A Siding at a Railway Station, where judgment is passed on his own career, the one claim which he allows himself to make is that The worst charge of wilfully and dishonestly setting down what I did not believe to be true was not alleged against me.
Froude cannot be called a master of style in the sense in which Gibbon, or Newman, or Macaulay deserves the name. There are few pages in his writings of which we could say with certainty, were they shown to us for the first time, that Froude, and Froude alone, could have written them. There are many passages, on the other hand, especially in his earlier works, which reveal the disciple. The spectacle of a living human being boiled to death was really witnessed three hundred years ago by the London citizens: an example terrible indeed, the significance whereof is not easily exhausted (History, vol. i.). The two last sharing between them the higher qualities of nobleness, enthusiasm, self-devotion; but in their faith being without discretion, and in their piety without understanding (ibid.). The former sentence is an echo of Carlyle, the latter of Ruskin. At first there was a universal panic. Seven ships were at Carrigafoyle. The Mayor of Limerick, in sending word of their appearance to the Council, converted them into seven score. Twenty-four men were said to have landed at Tralee. Sir William Fitzwilliam, who had returned to be Deputy, and was more inferior and incapable than ever, described them as twenty-four galleons. Rumour gradually took more authentic form (History, vol. xii.). Here the influence of Macaulay is equally visible; and that influence, indeed, predominates over the narrative style of the later volumes of Froudes History, though no two writers are more dissimilar in tone than Froude and Macaulay. Froudes sentences, however, are much looser in their texture than Macaulays; and there is a noble music in his style, when it is at its best, which takes us back far beyond the eighteenth century (to which Macaulay properly belongs) to those spacious times of Great Elizabeth which Froude and Kingsley, beyond all others, have opened to our view. In what he himself calls the representative power, no modern historian, unless it be Michelet, has excelled him. His vivid imagination enabled him to bring not only scenes, but characters and motives, before the reader, in the most effective, sometimes in the most dramatic form; and it may be noted that more than any other recent English writer he affects that familiar, but dangerous, companion of our youth, the oratio obliqua.