Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by G. Gregory Smith
Edward Augustus Freeman (18231892)
[Edward Augustus Freeman was born at Mitchley Abbey, Staffordshire, on 2nd August 1823, and died at Alicante, on 16th March 1892. From the time when he surrendered his fellowship at Trinity College, Oxford, on his marriage in 1847, till his return to the University in 1884 as Regius Professor of History, he passed a retired life in the country and abroad in the pursuit of historical study. The first volume of his largest work, The History of the Norman Conquest, appeared in 1867, and the sixth in 1879. These were supplemented in 1882 by two volumes on William Rufus. His earliest writings were on architectural subjects, probably suggested by the Oxford Movement of his undergraduate days. Architecture continued to be his favourite study to the last, and his application of it and geography in the interpretation of historical fact exerted a strong influence on younger Oxford. His four volumes of Historical Essays contain the best of his contributions to the Reviews and many of his public lectures as Professor of History. The Crimean War turned his attention to the History and Conquest of the Saracens, the American Civil War to Federal Government, and the troubles in the East in 1877 to the Ottoman Power in Europe. In 1872 he published the Growth of the English Constitution, and in the month in which he died appeared the third of the four volumes of his History of Sicily.]
THE REPUTATION of the historian of the Norman Conquest rests rather on his doctrine of history and his method of study than on any outstanding merit of style. He will be remembered as one of the pioneers, perhaps the doughtiest, who discredited alike the piecemeal interpretation and superficial treatment of Hume and Robertson by a vigorous insistence on the Unity of History and on the necessity of accuracy and research. His style shows the effects of this reforming mood: it inspires confidence by its straightforwardness and emphasis, but it is often wearisome in repetition, too didactic to be artistic, and too accurate to be suggestive.
In all his work he is essentially analytic, just as, by curious contrast, his predecessors, who had no thought of the Unity of History, were nothing if not synthetic. At times he reaches to what has been called epic grandeur, as in the description of the night after the Battle of Hastings, but more often he suffers the pedantry of explanation or the temptations of minor criticism to play havoc with his literary opportunities. Even in the most stirring episodes of Norman prowess he will not let us forget that Senlac, not Hastings, was the name of the great battlefield. This love of analysis and accuracy prompted him to look askance at the literary history of his day, and often forced him to a disregard of the finer qualities of style. It is thus probable that when he made a persistent attack upon a more brilliant contemporary for peccadillos in names and dates, he was really proclaiming his dislike of that writing which sometimes seeks effect at the expense of detail. As a result of this strong analytic tendency he shows a lack of proportion in his treatment of light and shade, and in the just relationship of the great and small. This is noticeable in his ill-considered use of the paragraph, especially in the Essays, though within the paragraph he is punctilious in syntax and the choice of words. His style has been called architectural; but the epithet is hardly just, for he shows little of the inspiration which his deep study of architecture might have given. His work is rather strong conscientious masonry, without that harmony of line and disposition of parts which reveal the mind of the artist.
His natural emphasis of manner gives to certain themes a polemical, sometimes eloquent, expression. He is fond of the trick of repetition, especially in those passages which were written to be spoken, and, when once he is satisfied as to his facts, defends his view with the pertinacity of an advocate. In this way he weakens the judicial value of his work, which the reader, impressed by the learned investigation of fact and argument, is ready to assume. What of fervour he denies himself in description he makes good in polemic. It is there he is at his best: in strictly historical narrative he is unequal and irritatingly slow, but in the swing of political passion he may be impressive. His literary art is at the highest when it approaches the grandiloquent: he fails when he attempts a light and vivacious manner. His humour is ponderous and provokes a smile by reason of its ingenious pedantry.