on 2 July 2013
AN, whom I am liable to confuse with the equally prolific Peter Ackroyd, writes with unaffected relish; a single page gives us prolixity, eremitical, brusqueries. Despite the catchpenny title (actually a Hardy poem title) this is satisfyingly meaty and mulled over, neither dry nor populist, and clearly the fruit of loving research. (Why only four notices, I wonder?) 'One generation's dangerous liberal seems old-fashioned by the standards of the next, until belief has trickled away altogether and it is time for a hard-line religious revival.' The successive failures of the past catastrophic century can easily foster a cosy, woozy atavism (p169 top) - or what goes around comes around, comme dirait ma grande-mère - but there's fun to be had along the way. Chapter 7, ostensibly on George Eliot, horse-faced sybil of unbelief (touchingly, the Eliot-Lewes* ménage makes AN's spirits sink) kicks off with Millais and in the space of a few pages moves from Albert Schweitzer via Tolstoy (pp140-41, most illuminating**) to Feuerbach, 'stepping-stone from Hegel to Marx', amongst obscurer characters like Edward Lombe and Sir John Seeley
The figure of Kant looms surprisingly large. Surprising to me, anyway - but our ignorance in this country about 'the greatest metaphysician of modern times' is matched only, it seems, 'even or especially in intellectual circles up to and including our own day' by our ignorance of science. One would like to feel the situation has improved somewhat - but then we intellectuals are such busy, self-important and - be it said - easily distracted people! The stricture would not have applied to 'scrambling provincial' and self-educated polymath Herbert Spencer. AN's mocking yet sympathetic treatment of this ultimately rather sad figure (someone I'd always rather looked up to) is exemplary. His teeming oeuvre AN likens to 'an overcrowded canvas by Frith'. Another erstwhile hero of mine, that paragon of seriousness Matthew 'sweetness and light' Arnold, is likewise exposed as a foolish, blinkered snob, though to quibble about the sea of faith (because seas have tides) is simply demeaning - a sea may be any large body of water - and when AN says the poet 'appears not to have noticed this rather simple bidiurnal fact' it is he who emerges as the egg-bedaubed prat. The sea of faith has not 'gone out' (AN's term) but is receding (with poetic license Arnold says withdrawing); the lake is shrunken, drying up as we watch and, that shocking word 'roar' suggests, the process is audible to those with ears to hear. Were Arnold's antennae so wrong?
Nearly all the intellectuals who strenuously bolstered unbelief are now unreadable, AN assures us (like sexologists, one imagines, and for similar reasons, though not half as much as theologians of almost ANY period; the point is that rationalists, from Russell and Haldane on, or even before, those who take a godless universe as a given, are very far from unreadable) but he claims we still read Tennyson's In Memoriam. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper - though, striving 'faintly' for that elusive 'larger hope', Alf did stain the purple drapes with 'nature red in tooth and claw', one of unbelief's clinchers. (Did he who made the lamb make thee? Who else?) Christians would do well, too, to ponder AN's quiet words on page 132 about the historical Jesus
As AN points out, the study of Classics showed Victorians that 'not every generation has meant quite the same by God' (to put it mildly) and that even 'the sterner dictates of monotheism were.. quite a late development' - though it's surprising he doesn't both make more of the Greek Anthology and cite FitzGerald's Rubaiyat as the 19th century's key secular texts. The Swinburne chapter from which that quotation comes is a bit of a blind alley - Swinburne was even less of a thinker than Verlaine, who was no thinker, and as a debauchee a frank disappointment - though AN comes up with revealing and sympathetic paragraphs on Swinburne's family history, on William Johnson Cory and on Jowett. 'A confusion of the heart and head may lead sensitive minds into a desertion of the principles of Christian life.. because they are in doubt about facts which are really external to them.' Thus was AN enabled to find his way back to the fold ten years later
Yes, folks, it's AN's own tussles with God that lend this work its vigour. There are tantalising hints throughout of the change of heart that will eventually overtake him (following a surfeit of strenuously bolstered unbelief?); the book's the better for them. If AN has written another as good I'd like to know. The four-page demolition of Shaw (p301-4) is, simply, magisterial. The only weakness is that unaccountable Swinburne crush. Swinburne of all people - one just wouldn't have had AN down as the greenery-yallery type. The index is exemplary (see, for instance, the entry on Hume)
* A footnote on Lewes (Mr George Eliot). Bel Mooney reviewed Haight's life of Lewes for The Spectator when AN was literary editor there. Summing up her subject, Mooney observed: "All the jibes at Lewes -- that he was pushy, conceited, vulgar, over-energetic, and with one eye for the main chance -- make him a welcome and refreshing relief from such dour Victorian valetudinarians as Carlyle and Herbert Spencer. Lively, a polymath, Lewes reads like an early incarnation of Clive James." For some reason AN had it in for Clive James, and in his hands the passage became "Pushy, conceited, vulgar, over-energetic, and with one eye for the main chance: Lewes seems like a Victorian Clive James." He lost his 'dream job' in consequence but manages to recycle the slur here, again by skilful editing. What a rogue!
** AN has himself written a life. I especially liked Tolstoy's articulation of the 'two Gods' or forms of belief