A microscopic look at the staid Victorian biographer and pupil of Thomas Carlyle, by novelist and 19th-century scholar Markus (Across an Untried Sea, 2000, etc.).
Drawing on reams of material regarding the long life of J.A. Froude (1818–94), the author fails to extract its essence for the general reader. As a young man, Froude was a Tractarian, a member of the Oxford Movement, founded by his brother Hurrell and John Henry Newman, which sought to purge Protestant elements from the Church of England. But he grew disillusioned as the movement’s leaders were subsumed into Roman Catholicism. In 1849 Froude wrote The Nemesis of Faith, a scandalous novel about a clergyman who doubts his calling; its publication cost him his Oxford fellowship. Excoriated ceaselessly by his father, a Devonshire archdeacon who believed he was profligate and professionally useless, Froude embarked on a literary career. He edited the influential review Fraser’s and forged a name as the distinguished biographer of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Benjamin Disraeli and, most importantly, Scottish historian, essayist and “seer” Thomas Carlyle. Falling under the spell of Carlyle and his fierce, intelligent, long-suffering wife, Jane, changed the course of Froude’s life. Carlyle convinced Froude that biography was “the only history”; he also, after Jane’s sudden death in 1866, confided to his friend that their 40-year marriage had been sexless. When Carlyle himself died in 1881, Froude honored a promise and published both Thomas’s frank Reminiscence of his wife and Jane’s unexpurgated letters. These blunt portraits of a difficult marriage brought Froude condemnation within the literary world. Undaunted, he went on to write several magisterial volumes on Carlyle’s life and to travel the globe as an unofficial diplomat; he was even reinstated at Oxford in the last years of his life. Markus’s depictions of the harsh treatment young Froude received from his sadistic family and of his sticky relationship with the Carlyles are most interesting, but her text grows cumbersome and disorganized under the weight of so much research material.
Fascinating and useful, but exceedingly recherché.