Bryce's Biographical Studies

IN one of his recently collected Studies in Contemporary Biography,1 the Right Honorable James Bryce remarks of that eminent scholar, the late Lord Acton, that " his mastery of the so-called human subjects was unequaled; ” and now that Lord Acton is no more, the same thing might fairly be said of Mr. Bryce himself.

If the human subjects be taken to mean the story of man and his doings in the world, —of man, that is, in his personal, social, and civic relations, leaving out of sight, on the one hand, his kinship with the dumb animals, and his purely religious instincts and aspirations on the other, there is, I think, no living English writer whose temper is finer or his equipment for such discussion more complete. Certainly there is none whose judgment upon the human subjects we Americans are more bound to respect than the author of the American Commonwealth. No transatlantic observer — not even De Tocqueville, who, for the rest, was more swayed by preconceived ideas and theories, and who wrote of us when we were, nationally speaking, far greener, and less formed than now—has made of our vaunted institutions a study so searching and at the same time so sympathetic; and that the last word upon our baffling case of this great expert should have been a hopeful one is a circumstance that steadies and consoles the simple patriot like the favorable verdict of a great physician at an alarming crisis. " A hundred times in writing this book,” says Mr. Bryce in his introductory chapter to the American Commonwealth, “ have I been disheartened by the facts I was stating ; a hundred times has the recollection of the abounding strength and vitality of the nation chased away these tremors.” Is not the whole of what the best of us feel, in our most worthy moments, here truly and temperately expressed ? —

“ . . . our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,”

as the academic poet of the young republic sang, in one of his own rare moments of strong emotion. Nor does Mr. Bryce appeal to the political theorist only, and to the serene élite of the study. Having had occasion at one time to consult the sole copy of the American Commonwealth in a provincial public library, I found, and was rejoiced to find, upon every page, up to the seven hundredth of the second volume, indisputable proof that the book had been held long and lovingly in the hands of the reading masses.

The twenty odd character-studies brought together in the new volume afford fresh evidence of Mr. Bryce’s breadth and acumen as well as of his unusually wide acquaintance among the leading minds of his day. The larger number are likenesses, drawn in strong outline, of men recently living, most of whom were known personally to the writer, and some very intimately known. They were all men of British birth and all but one of English careers. They include statesmen, historians, ecclesiastics, Anglican and Roman, great lights of insular law, like Sir George Jessel and Lord Chancellor Cairnes, one novelist, Anthony Trollope, one philosopher, — the " modern stoic ” Henry Sidgwick, one purely ethical teacher, Thomas Hill Green, one editor, E. L. Godkin of the New York Nation, one schoolmaster, — the singularly loved and lamented Edward Bowen.

Every one of these men might be described in general terms as a humanist.

There is no poet among them, no soldier, no man of science, and no mystic, unless Professor Sidgwick were one. The fact that most of the shorter studies were formal obituaries, first published in some literary weekly, may help, no doubt, to invest the entire volume with a slightly solemn and ceremonial air. Gravity, urbanity, detachment, and a kind of studied catholicity are its prevailing notes. It is as if Mr. Bryce were perpetually reminding himself of the nihil nisi bonum convention ; and his very wit, though it cannot be wholly suppressed, is subdued to that tone of suave and almost stealthy irony which befits the " third coach after the hearse.” It is thus, for example, that he characterizes Lord Sherbrooke’s (Robert Lowe’s) assumed gift of prophecy : " People who disliked his lugubrious forecasts used to call him a Cassandra ; perhaps forgetting that beside the distinctive feature of Cassandra’s prophecies, —that nobody believed them, — there was another distinctive feature, namely, that they came true.” He illustrates one of the capital qualifications for writing sound history of his own great favorite, John Richard Green, by an allusion to Froude which is unsurpassed for decorum : “ A master of style may be a worthless historian. We have instances.” And in the course of his exceedingly brilliant analysis of the character and career of Lord Beaconsfield he touches the question of the great Hebrew’s veracity with a tenderness which recalls the euphemistic definition evolved by Professor Royce in his work on the World and the Individual; of— “ one who deliberately misplaces his ontological predicates.”

There are no italics in any of these deprecatory passages, nor do they require any. And I cannot help thinking that there is, after all, a great deal to be said in favor of Mr. Bryce’s discreet, reserved, and comparatively ceremonious treatment of illustrious careers lately ended. He cares more for the essence of character than for the accidents of life ; and is it not matter of common and pathetic experience that, in the very first moments after the essence has been detached from its accidents, the proportions of the former are apt to be more clearly seen, than afterward for a long time ? So Tennyson, in his great elegy : —

“ . . . dearest, now thy brows are cold,
I see thee what thou art, and know
Thy likeness to the wise below,
Thy kindred with the great of old.”

Only too soon after the orb is down a mist inevitably arises which may be long in clearing away.

It is not that the author — I might say the artist — of these concise notices ever assumes to anticipate and even less to supersede the accredited biographer. Sometimes indeed, thanks to the astonishingly rapid and efficient working of our improved literary machinery, the regulation memoir in two ponderous volumes may already have come out; and if so, or if such a work is known to be in preparation, Mr. Bryce is punctilious about referring his readers to it in a footnote. But for once that the beauty of his outline sketch makes us impatient for the more elaborate portrait, we are many times made thankful for a dispensation from the duty of immediately attacking the bigger book. For the fashionable and formidable twelve-hundred-page memoir is in very many cases too soon issued, and in almost all it is twice too long. It is prolix precisely because it is premature ; for Time is a wonderful instructor in that art of knowing what to leave out, which Mr. Bryce himself somewhere characterizes as an indispensable requirement of the latter-day historian. Either the incontinent narrative will be delayed by strange episodes, and laden with irrelevant asides, or it will be crammed with trivial details which do but confuse the contours of the principal figure, while admitting the kind of reader who studies the personal items in a Sunday newspaper to a degree of familiarity which would never have been tolerated in the lifetime of the subject. No man needs a regiment of valets-de-chambre, or would be well served by such a retinue; and if Mr. Bryce’s method occasionally recalls the high Roman fashion of carrying, in the funeral train, a wax image of the deceased colored from life and arrayed in his robes of state, it is better, at all events, than filling a row of glass cases in a museum with his old coats, combs, and umbrellas, — as has been done for the repentant and munificent founder of one of our younger universities.

Four only of Mr. Bryce’s Biographical Studies attain even the proportions of the great quarterly article. They are those of Lord Beaconsfield and Mr. Gladstone, — appropriately placed at the beginning and end of the volume, — and those of Edward Freeman and John Richard Green, with whom the author’s intellectual sympathies were so strong, and his affiliations, when Regius Professor of History at Oxford, peculiarly close.

We are accustomed to think and speak of England’s two foremost statesmen in the latter half of the nineteenth centuiy as the great Liberal and Conservative leaders. Both, however, boxed the compass of English policy, the Tory beginning his public life as a Radical and the Radical as a Tory. No doubt this adds to the difficulty of making a complete, consistent, and wholly unprejudiced estimate of either career. But the difficulty is by no means equally great in these two cases; and the final effect upon the reader’s mind of Mr. Bryce’s valedictory and salutatory essays is to emphasize this fact. Mr. Gladstone was his own chosen and greatly revered leader; the man who embodied, or sought to embody in legislation, most of his own well-weighed and reasoned political creed. For many years, indeed, before the close of a preternaturally long public life, Mr. Gladstone’s name was the accepted symbol, on both sides of the Atlantic, for all that is commonly considered most enlightened and generous in the tuition and government of men. The very currency on two continents of the tiresome appellation “ grand old man ” shows how extensively that name stood for certain of the beliefs which a vast number of our race hold with extreme tenacity, without knowing exactly what they are. In the essay which concludes the present volume, Mr. Bryce does his able and impressive best, both to justify his own loyalty, and to furnish reasons and sanctions for the popular faith in Mr. Gladstone. Admiring the man, as a man, immensely, — his endless capacity and versatility, the stately scheme of iiis character, and the undoubted purity of his aims, having felt also, to an unwonted degree, the power of his personal spell, — he touches and retouches this portrait with an anxious assiduity quite foreign to his usual method, and which partially defeats its own purpose.

The beautiful end that Mr. Gladstone made, the matchless dignity and serenity with which — a là fin des fins — the aged statesman received his death-warrant, and laid aside his well-worn insignia, lift Mr. Biyce, in his peroration, to a higher pitch of figui’ative eloquence than is touched elsewhere throughout the book : —

“ Whoever follows the annals of England during the memorable years from 1843 to 1894 will meet his name on almost every page, will feel how great must have been the force of an intellect that could so interpenetrate the story of his time, and will seek to know something of the dauntless figure that rose always conspicuous above the struggling throng. . . . There is a passage in the Odyssey where the seer Theoclymenus says in describing a vision of death, ‘ The sun has perished out of heaven.’ To Englishmen Mr. Gladstone had been like a sun, which, sinking slowly, had grown larger as he sank, and filled the sky with radiance, even while he trembled on the verge of the horizon. There were men of ability and men of renown, but there was no one comparable to him in fame and power and honor. When he departed the light seemed to have died out of the sky.”

This is very fine ; but still, and for all, the figure which walks behind the great Liberal " transparency ” in Mr. Bryce’s procession is not quite clearly seen. No one has yet furnished a completely satisfactory reading of the Gladstonian riddle, and Mr. Bryce does not do so. Of Lord Beaconsfield, whose moral calibre and civic ideals he distrusts and disapproves, he has produced a speaking likeness, — a clear, consistent, conclusive, and, upon the whole, decidedly fascinating portrait. The man is there as well as the statesman ; and the life - long poseur, whose foible was inscrutability, seems open as the day beside his theoretically candid, obviously impulsive, magnificently incalculable rival. It is easy enough to understand why the name of Gordon should still have power to bring an angry flush to honest English brows. It is not yet quite clear, to the average American mind, why the words Home Rule should so often do the same. There must, after all, have been some deep and not wholly unworthy reason for the invincible suspicion which could affect equally a man of Dean Stanley’s large heart and ancient Whig traditions, and the genial seigneur — very much of the type of Lord Iddesleigh, as depicted by Mr. Bryce — whom I once heard apply the closure to a heated discussion of Mr. Gladstone’s Irish policy by the ring of a nervous fist upon the board and the naïf remark, “ I am not what you call a hot Tory, but I do not, as a rule, allow that scoundrel’s name mentioned at my table ! ”

Neither of these was a man to have obeyed that mere instinct of blind resistance, which is natural, as Mr. Bryce says, to the privileged, against whatever threatens, in the long run, to undermine their privileges. Were they not rather moved by the conviction — which later time may show to have been mistaken, but which was curiously obstinate among the moral and intellectual élite of England a dozen years ago — that England’s honor and prestige among the nations were actually dearer to the mocking Jew than to the Briton of pure blood, and by an ardent adherence to the most orthodox of Protestant Christian dogma ?

Somewhere in the course of the Beaconsfield essay, Mr. Bryce enumerates four qualifications which he finds indispensable to an English statesman of the highest order. " He must be a debater. He must be a parliamentary tactician. He must understand the country. He must understand Europe.” Of these four, he credits Lord Beaconsfield with the two first only. He will not allow either that he knew his England well, or that he had any large grasp of Continental affairs. But though Mr. Gladstone be his epitome of civic virtue, he has to admit that even he made some grave mistakes in foreign policy. And we of the States, despite our heedlessness of the past, our impatience for the future, and the almost fatuous facility with which we forget and forgive, can still remember, if we try, that in the harsh crisis of our civil war it was Mr. Gladstone who cheered on the Rebel, while Mr. Disraeli, as he then was, unswervingly supported the Union cause, and prophesied its triumph.

By comparing the four statesmanly qualities enumerated above with the four which Mr. Bryce names elsewhere as essential to a first-rate historian, namely, accuracy, keen observation, a sound and calm judgment, and a moderate allowance of creative imagination, we shall begin to get some notion of the assemblage of human characteristics which he most heartily admires. One more attribute there is, on which he sets an extraordinary value, — which he makes a kind of touchstone, and plainly regards as an essential complement of all the rest, — and that is intensity. He applauds it both in Gladstone and in Disraeli; he discovers it in beings as diverse in their genius, and as widely separated in their spheres of action, as Arthur Penrhyn Stanley and Charles Stewart Parnell, Edward Freeman, and the great Orientalist, William Robertson Smith, — and he does homage to it in all. Though a man speak with the tongue of angels and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and have not intensity it shall, according to Mr. Bryce, profit him nothing. Intensity is the quality which vitalizes and gives effect to all others. It is determination, concentration, pluck, and patience. Etymologically, and morally as well, it will be recognized as the exact reverse of what our New England grandfathers used to sum up under that term of all opprobrium, slackness, and which Robert Browning denounced in statelier phrase as the one irremediable failing of “the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin.” And where Mr. Bryce, Mr. Browning, and the Pilgrim Fathers agree there is hardly room for dissent.

But the most admirable feature of these twenty-one studies taken as a whole is their impartiality of appreciation. There is not a word in the whole book either of fulsome eulogy or of malignant criticism. The only one of his characters for whom Mr. Bryce betrays anything approaching a personal antipathy is Cardinal Manning, — and that is conceivable. It was a veritable saint who said that the heaviest recent misfortune of the Catholic Church in England had been the death of Mrs. Manning; and the best bonmot quoted in the present volume is Mr. Gladstone’s on Purcell’s life of the Cardinal Archbishop, — that it left nothing to be done upon the Day of Judgment!

If Mr. Bryce does Anthony Trollope one grain less than justice,— especially as regards the rare purity of his English style, he does the founder of the New York Nation a little more, — and the balance remains level in his hands. The whole effect of the Studies in Contemporary Biography is to exalt one’s conception of the dignity of human kind. That one nation in one generation should have produced so many and varied types of signal excellence is indeed wonderful. That all these great and mainly good men are of our own race and kindred is a rightful source to ourselves of essentially proper pride. It is a list of shining names, but those whom Mr. Bryce mentions in the preface to the American Commonwealth as having helped him in that great work — beginning with President Eliot’s, to whom it is dedicated, and including President Roosevelt’s — constitute a roll of honor also, not all unworthy, it may be hoped, of the traditions which we hold in common with our grand relations across the sea,

Harriet Waters Preston.

  1. Studies in Contemporary Biography. By JAMES BRYCE. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1903.