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- Froude's History of England - 2/8 -


Meanwhile, this general tone of irreverence for our forefathers is no hopeful sign. It is unwise to 'inquire why the former times were better than these'; to hang lazily and weakly over some eclectic dream of a past golden age; for to do so is to deny that God is working in this age, as well as in past ages; that His light is as near us now as it was to the worthies of old time.

But it is more than unwise to boast and rejoice that the former times were worse than these; and to teach young people to say in their hearts, 'What clever fellows we are, compared with our stupid old fogies of fathers!' More than unwise; for possibly it may be false in fact. To look at the political and moral state of Europe at this moment, Christendom can hardly afford to look down on any preceding century, and seems to be in want of something which neither science nor constitutional government seems able to supply. Whether our forefathers also lacked that something we will not inquire just now; but if they did, their want of scientific and political knowledge was evidently not the cause of the defect; or why is not Spain now infinitely better, instead of being infinitely worse off, than she was three hundred years ago?

At home, too--But on the question whether we are so very much better off than our forefathers Mr. Froude, not we, must speak: for he has deliberately, in his new history, set himself to the solution of this question, and we will not anticipate what he has to say; what we would rather insist on now are the moral effects produced on our young people by books which teach them to look with contempt on all generations but their own, and with suspicion on all public characters save a few contemporaries of their own especial party.

There is an ancient Hebrew book, which contains a singular story concerning a grandson who was cursed because his father laughed at the frailty of the grandfather. Whether the reader shall regard that story (as we do) as a literal fact recorded by inspired wisdom, as an instance of one of the great root-laws of family life, and therefore of that national life which (as the Hebrew book so cunningly shows) is the organic development of the family life; or whether he shall treat it (as we do not) as a mere apologue or myth, he must confess that it is equally grand in its simplicity and singular in its unexpected result. The words of the story, taken literally and simply, no more justify the notion that Canaan's slavery was any magical consequence of the old patriarch's anger than they do the well-known theory that it was the cause of the Negro's blackness. Ham shows a low, foul, irreverent, unnatural temper towards his father. The old man's shame is not a cause of shame to his son, but only of laughter. Noah prophesies (in the fullest and deepest meaning of that word) that a curse will come upon that son's son; that he will be a slave of slaves; and reason and experience show that he spoke truth. Let the young but see that their fathers have no reverence for the generation before them, then will they in turn have no reverence for their fathers. Let them be taught that the sins of their ancestors involve their own honour so little that they need not take any trouble to clear the blot off the scutcheon, but may safely sit down and laugh over it, saying, 'Very likely it is true. If so, it is very amusing; and if not--what matter?'--Then those young people are being bred up in a habit of mind which contains in itself all the capabilities of degradation and slavery, in self-conceit, hasty assertion, disbelief in nobleness, and all the other 'credulities of scepticism': parted from that past from which they take their common origin, they are parted also from each other, and become selfish, self-seeking, divided, and therefore weak: disbelieving in the nobleness of those who have gone before them, they learn more and more to disbelieve in the nobleness of those around them; and, by denying God's works of old, come, by a just and dreadful Nemesis, to be unable to see his works in the men of their own day; to suspect and impugn valour, righteousness, disinterestedness in their contemporaries; to attribute low motives; to pride themselves on looking at men and things as 'men who know the world,' so the young puppies style it; to be less and less chivalrous to women, less and less respectful to old men, less and less ashamed of boasting about their sensual appetites; in a word, to show all those symptoms which, when fully developed, leave a generation without fixed principles, without strong faith, without self- restraint, without moral cohesion, the sensual and divided prey of any race, however inferior in scientific knowledge, which has a clear and fixed notion of its work and destiny. That many of these signs are themselves more and more ominously showing in our young men, from the fine gentleman who rides in Rotten Row to the boy-mechanic who listens enraptured to Mr. Holyoake's exposures of the absurdity of all human things save Mr. Holyoake's self, is a fact which presses itself most on those who have watched this age most carefully, and who (rightly or wrongly) attribute much of this miserable temper to the way in which history has been written among us for the last hundred years.

Whether or not Mr. Froude would agree with these notions, he is more or less responsible for them; for they have been suggested by his 'History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Death of Elizabeth.' It was impossible to read the book without feeling the contrast between its tone and that of every other account of the times which one had ever seen. Mr. Froude seems to have set to work upon the principle, too much ignored in judging of the past, that the historian's success must depend on his dramatic faculty; and not merely on that constructive element of the faculty in which Mr. Macaulay shows such astonishing power, but on that higher and deeper critical element which ought to precede the constructive process, and without which the constructive element will merely enable a writer, as was once bitterly but truly said, 'to produce the greatest possible misrepresentation with the least possible distortion of fact.' That deeper dramatic faculty, the critical, is not logical merely, but moral, and depends on the moral health, the wideness and heartiness of his moral sympathies, by which he can put himself--as Mr. Froude has attempted to do, and as we think successfully--into the place of each and every character, and not merely feel for them, but feel with them. He does not merely describe their actions from the outside, attributing them arbitrarily to motives which are pretty sure to be the lowest possible, because it is easier to conceive a low motive than a lofty one, and to call a man a villain than to unravel patiently the tangled web of good and evil of which his thoughts are composed. He has attempted to conceive of his characters as he would if they had been his own contemporaries and equals, acting, speaking in his company; and he has therefore thought himself bound to act toward them by those rules of charity and courtesy, common alike to Christian morals, English law, and decent society; namely, to hold every man innocent till he is proved guilty; where a doubt exists, to give the prisoner at the bar the benefit of it; not to excite the minds of the public against him by those insinuative or vituperative epithets, which are but adders and scorpions; and, on the whole, to believe that a man's death and burial is not the least reason for ceasing to behave to him like a gentleman and a Christian. We are not inclined to play with solemn things, or to copy Lucian and Quevedo in writing dialogues of the dead; but what dialogues might some bold pen dash off between the old sons of Anak, at whose coming Hades has long ago been moved, and to receive whom all the kings of the nation have risen up, and the little scribblers who have fancied themselves able to fathom and describe characters to whom they were but pigmies! Conceive a half- hour's interview between Queen Elizabeth and some popular lady- scribbler, who has been deluding herself into the fancy that gossiping inventories of millinery are history . . . 'You pretend to judge me, whose labours, whose cares, whose fiery trials were, beside yours, as the heaving volcano beside a boy's firework? You condemn my weaknesses? Know that they were stronger than your strength! You impute motives for my sins? Know that till you are as great as I have been, for evil and for good, you will be as little able to comprehend my sins as my righteousness! Poor marsh-croaker, who wishest not merely to swell up to the bulk of the ox, but to embrace it in thy little paws, know thine own size, and leave me to be judged by Him who made me!' . . . How the poor soul would shrink back into nothing before that lion eye which saw and guided the destinies of the world, and all the flunkey-nature (if such a vice exist beyond the grave) come out in utter abjectness, as if the ass in the fable, on making his kick at the dead lion, had discovered to his horror that the lion was alive and well--Spirit of Quevedo! finish for us the picture which we cannot finish for ourselves.

In a very different spirit from such has Mr. Froude approached these times. Great and good deeds were done in them; and it has therefore seemed probable to him that there were great and good men there to do them. Thoroughly awake to the fact that the Reformation was the new birth of the British nation, it has seemed to him a puzzling theory which attributes its success to the lust of a tyrant and the cupidity of his courtiers. It has evidently seemed to him paradoxical that a king who was reputed to have been a satyr, instead of keeping as many concubines as seemed good to him, should have chosen to gratify his passions by entering six times into the strict bonds of matrimony, religiously observing those bonds. It has seemed to him even more paradoxical that one reputed to have been the most sanguinary tyrant who ever disgraced the English throne should have been not only endured, but loved and regretted by a fierce and free-spoken people; and he, we suppose, could comprehend as little as we can the reasoning of such a passage as the following, especially when it proceeds from the pen of so wise and venerable a writer as Mr. Hallam.

'A government administered with so frequent violations, not only of the chartered privileges of Englishmen, but of those still more sacred rights which natural law has established, must have been regarded, one would imagine, with just abhorrence and earnest longings for a change. Yet contemporary authorities by no means answer this expectation. Some mention Henry after his death in language of eulogy;' (not only Elizabeth, be it remembered, but Cromwell also, always spoke of him with deepest respect; and their language always found an echo in the English heart;) 'and if we except those whom attachment to the ancient religion had inspired with hatred to his memory, few seem to have been aware that his name would descend to posterity among those of the many tyrants and oppressors of innocence whom the wrath of Heaven has raised up, and the servility of man endured.'

The names of even those few we should be glad to have; for it seems to us that, with the exception of a few ultra-Protestants, who could not forgive that persecution of the Reformers which he certainly permitted, if not encouraged, during one period of his reign, no one adopted the modern view of his character till more than a hundred years after his death, when belief in all nobleness and faith had died out among an ignoble and faithless generation, and the scandalous gossip of such a light rogue as Osborne was taken into the place of honest and respectful history.

To clear up such seeming paradoxes as these by carefully examining the facts of the sixteenth century has been Mr. Froude's work; and we have the results of his labour in two volumes, embracing only a period of eleven years; but giving promise that the mysteries of the succeeding time will be well cleared up for us in future volumes, and that we shall find our forefathers to have been, if no better, at least no worse men than ourselves. He has brought to the task known talents and learning, a mastery over English prose almost unequalled in this generation, a spirit of most patient and good-tempered research, and that intimate knowledge of human motives and passions


Froude's History of England - 2/8

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